Vonnegut and The Epizootic

The ancient world was no stranger to great civilizations. Each one had its ideals; each one had its goals. And each one reached the point at which it became, as we say back home, too big for its britches. These civilizations sought to conquer all, to be the end-all be-all of world powers. And they met their demise, in large part, because of these ambitions. That’s ancient history (if you’ll pardon the pun).

What happens when we shrink these ambitions down to the microcosm? What happens when we apply them to, say, humans? One human? And what happens when we bring them forward into the twenty-first century?

Today’s ultimate goal doesn’t appear to be one of world conquest, although I could be wrong (stranger things have happened). We seem today to be caught up in a desire for more. Not a specific more, but a general overwhelming sense of ownership of, well, anything. We like stuff because stuff is an outward expression of who we think we’re supposed to want to be. We like our cars and our clothes and our access to technology, even our kids’ educations, to wreak of success, usually of the monetary sort.

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story entitled “The Epizootic” envelopes the concept of “committing suicide to create wealth.” Although I’m not sure when this story was written, it does seem to be hauntingly applicable to what’s happening today. The story talks about “one-way men.” These are the people who are born only to move up in the world. For them, there is only one direction in which to move. When that mobility becomes tenuous, they begin to panic and seek desperate measures to insure that their children will only move up. Their suicides allow their families to collect life insurance policies that will sustain them for the duration.

Vonnegut ends the story by suggesting that “the principal industry in this country is now dying for a living.” While I think that’s hyperbolic, I do see that at times we seem like a “one-way” society. We allow ourselves to be blinded to the possibility that there are many directions in life, and not all of them are up. We make progress without enjoying what it took to get us where we are. The end goal becomes a stepping stone, a brief interlude in our quest for whatever becomes our idea of the next best thing. So what happens when we get too big for our britches? What happens when we no longer see that it is what we do that helps make us who we are, not what we drive or what we wear? I’m not suggesting that Vonnegut’s Epizootic will ever become a real thing. But his story does seem to expose a certain weakness in our nature that we should no longer ignore.

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