Thursday, March 18, 2010

"A Retroactive Regret"

This is, like, a lesson. A lesson I never learned. But kind of wish that I had.

There’s this character in Catch-22, who keeps asking Yosarian to fly with him, but Yosarian refuses, because the guy keeps crashing his plane and getting hurt.

For those of you who don’t know Catch-22, it’s my Number One book of all time. Funny and true. My favorite kind of writing.

In Catch-22, the main character, Yosarian, is always trying to get out of the war, because he’s certain he’s going to get killed. When Yosarian asks the doctors to discharge him on the grounds that he’s crazy, it’s explained to him that, if a person wants to get out of the war because they believe they’re going to get killed, they’re not crazy, they’re sane, and being sane, they can not get out of the war. That is what’s called “Catch-22.” To which Yosarian replies,

“That’s some catch, that ‘Catch-22.’”

A guy wants to be let out of the war because he’s certain he’s going to die, but being certain he’s going to die disqualifies him from being let out of the war.

That is some catch, that Catch-22.

And as if Yosarian doesn’t have enough problems, there’s this guy who wants him to fly with him, but Yosarian refuses, because he keeps crashing his plane and getting hurt.

Near the end of Catch-22, the guy who keeps crashing his plane and getting hurt crashes his plane again, but doesn’t get hurt. Instead, he climbs into a rubber dinghy, and paddles to Scandinavia. And out of the war.

It turns out that, all those times the guy was crashing, what he was really doing was practicing crashing. Having perfected the maneuver, he had engineered his escape, guaranteeing his safety. Retrospectively aware of what he’d been up to, Yosarian, whose single objective was to get out of the war, realizes too late that he should have flown with the guy.

Many times in my career, I turned down opportunities, because they looked like trouble. Too hard. Too stressful. Too much responsibility. Too many demands on the weakest elements of my personality. There wasn’t a moment’s thought about it. I heard what they wanted, and I immediately said, “No.”

It was short-term thinking. “Why do I need the aggravation? I don’t. Thank you, but, not for me.”

Looking back, that approach appears to have been a mistake.

If I’d said, “Yes” instead of “No”, I could have discovered that it wasn’t too hard. I could have learned to manage the stress. I could have grown into the responsibility. I could have worked on the weakest elements of my personality.

I didn’t do that. The “long view” perspective never entered my mind. And though things turned out fine, a part of me wonders what might have happened

If I’d flown with the guy.

4 comments:

Max Clarke said...

From the famous Power Of Myth tv series with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, on PBS. Joe Campbell has this to say:

People ask me, "Do you have optimism about the world, about how terrible it is?"

And I say, "Yes, it's great the way is it"

... I had the wonderful privilege of sitting face to face with [a Hindu guru] and the first thing he said to me was "Do you have a question?", cause the teacher always answers questions... I said, "Yes, I have a question."

I said, " Since in Hindu thinking all the universe is divine, a manifestation of divinity itself, how can we say no to anything in the world? How can we say no to brutality to stupidity to vulgarity to thoughtlessness?"

And he said, "For you and me, you must say yes." Well, I learned from my friends who were students of his that that happened to be the first question he asked his guru, and we had a wonderful conversation for an hour there.

Max Clarke said...

What counts for me, Earl, isn't the number of times you said no, but the number of times you said yes.

You said yes a lot of times to reach the level of professional work where I first noticed you. Lots of people never get in the game because their first and final answers are no, if only on the subconscious level.

You wrote episodes for my favorite tv comedy series, Cheers, such as "How Do I Love Thee?" You had to say yes a lot just to reach that point.

The writer Stuart Wilde once observed that when we leave our bodies at death, more than anything else, we leave as a feeling. The emotional power of that feeling is important. If we leave with regret, that's saying no to our future. If we have cultivated a feeling of gratitude and self-respect for what we did, that's saying yes to our existence beyond this one.

Thanks for explaining Yosarian in Catch 22, just brilliant. I saw the movie in the 70s, and the only thing I recall is the gruesome airplane accident with Paula Prentiss. Never had an idea that Yosarian was planning his escape from the war with his crashes.

growingupartists said...

And this has what to do with God's curse on Adam and all of his decendents?

Yannick said...

Earl, you might just (as in "I just read your post") have helped me say yes to something I might otherwise probably have said no to. Thank you.