The Vonneguts and the Gomeses
I was in the middle of reading the novel Cat’s Cradle when I heard the news that its author Kurt Vonnegut had just passed away. Sitting in my Greenough bedroom, I’d looked up from my book and refreshed the home page of the New York Times: Vonnegut dead at 84, April 11, 2007. In Cat's Cradle, characters form communities around a fictional religion called Bokononism. Followers of the religion, one after another, commit suicide after declaring, "I will now destroy the whole world." As I finished the book, I thought of Vonnegut's mother who had committed suicide.
The next day, the obituary quoted one of the most meaningful things Vonnegut ever said, spoken in the voice of a character in his book God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
That was his only advice: you've got to be kind. Vonnegut understood the inextricable link between suffering individuals and their communities. He knew that kindness to an individual affects the whole world just as a suicide does.
For me, Vonnegut was a voice of reasonable hope in some of my darkest times. At the moment I learned of his death, I was as lonely as I’d ever been. Reading his words, though, I knew Vonnegut understood the deep pain and depression I was experiencing. I also knew that he had managed to live 23 years after surviving a suicide attempt. Even after he died, Vonnegut’s evocative words gave me hope, as I’m sure they did for millions of others.
When five days later on April 16, 2007, a student opened fire on his classmates at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people and sending shockwaves across our country, I wished Vonnegut were still with us. I wished we could hear his reassuring voice, as hopeful as it was pessimistic, pointed toward this tragedy. I wished he could react to the sensational images I saw of the shooter when I refreshed the home page of CNN.
Fortunately, for those of us at Harvard at the time, we still had Reverend Peter J. Gomes, then the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and longtime minister of Memorial Church. Reverend Gomes, in his beautiful manner of speaking, offered words of hope during a candlelit service at Memorial Church held soon after the shootings. The church was full that somber night, just days after the tragedy, and I remember the parallel movements of falling tears and melting candles. Six hundred miles away from the campus of Virginia Tech, the Harvard community gathered to remember the victims and to draw strength from the words of Reverend Gomes and one another.
But now, Reverend Gomes and Kurt Vonnegut are no longer here. What do we do when we are left without our sources of strength? Who will now lead us into the future with a realistic hope?
The answer is, and will be for many years, you and me.
Now, that might send some eyes rolling, but it is a simple truth. At this time in our lives, we must realize that very soon, we may be called upon to be the Vonneguts and the Gomeses of the world. The hard times will inevitably come, our generation must prepare now to take up the mantle of previous generations. It is now time for us to be the hope of the world.
And I have absolutely no doubt that we will be. But, we have to get started right here, right now, in the Harvard community. Before we can be the hope of the world, we must strive to be the hope of Harvard University. We must create a community in which saying the word “suicide” does not stop the conversation, but rather, begins it. We must create a community in which we are not afraid to care for one another with kindness, even though we may go separate ways soon. We must create a community in which we can tell our friends what’s really going on without considering it a burden too heavy.
I believe the first step is for us to come together, out in the open, and to stand up and speak up about the impact of suicide on the Harvard community. Vonnegut spoke up, and he made it. I hope we can, too. Please join the Harvard community tonight at 8 p.m. in Harvard Hall 202 for a discussion and panel on the subject of suicide. I will be one of the panelists.
Seth Riddley ’12 is a History and Science concentrator in Mather House.