“All time is time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we all are, as I've said before, bugs in amber.” (Vonnegut 86). One of the most important themes (if not the most important) in Slaughterhouse Five is the nature of time. The Tralfamadorians believe that time is circular in the sense that we do not progress from past to present to future. For the Tralfamadorians, Billy Pilgrim, and Vonnegut all time exists simultaneously. In other words, every moment of your life has been predetermined and is always occurring independently but at the same time as every other instance in your life. Birth and death happen at the same time. As the Tralfamadorians proceed to explain, this negates any sense of free will or choice. But the ultimate comfort in adhering to this concept of time is that it also negates the power of death. Since all moments of life are happening at once, they believe we are constantly both alive and dead, rendering death as ordinary as any other moment in one’s life.
On some level, this definitely acts as comfort to Vonnegut because it negates the horrors he experienced in World War II and the firebombing of Dresden. He does not have to explain the reason for innocents suffering, he simply writes about it objectively. It comforts him to think that their suffering was not intentionally caused for any reason other than that is was predetermined to happen that way.
While adhering to this foreign concept of time may have the positive effect of negating suffering and death, I also believe it negates the power of justice and acts of good will. If people follow this concept of time they believe that any act of good was already determined to happen that way so in essence, it is not a just act at all. One of Loyola’s most ambitious goals is for the university to give back to its own community in Baltimore. This is accomplished through service learning, Campus Ministry, and other programs such as the York Road Initiative. As I was reading Slaughterhouse Five, I couldn't help but disagree with Vonnegut. I understand his philosophy and the appeal that it has but I believe it unjustly does away with our free will. If we do not have free will, are we really human? Our free will is what makes us different from other animals. We have the knowledge of right and wrong and the wherewithal to choose between the two.
The true nature of service to others is placing others before yourself. Whether it be working for Habitat for Humanity or volunteering at local schools, those who serve are making a concerted effort to better the lives of those around them. Performing tasks such as these are extraordinary acts in the very literal sense of the word. When you volunteer, you go off on a tangent from your everyday life. You break from the norms of what you usually do and do something new and useful. When I thought about moments like these I couldn’t help but disagree with Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim, and the Tralfamadorians. They believe that all of our actions have already been decided for us so there is no meaning behind any of our decisions. I think that the very nature of service disproves this philosophy. Every day people make the conscious decision to act for others instead of acting for themselves. These acts are innately good and just. While there is certainly evil and injustice in the world, I believe that service counteracts these injustices.
As a side note, I’m a fan of the HBO show True Detective and the timing of this series could not coincide more perfectly with our reading of Slaughterhouse Five. One of the main characters in the show, Rust Cohle, adheres to the same depressing concept of time as Billy Pilgrim. However, by the end of the series he has had a change of heart due to his own experience working the case and he ends by declaring that he believes justice is beating out evil. His final words are, “Once, there was only dark. Ask me, the light’s winning.” His experiences have caused him to reevaluate his own philosophy about time and he finds that this philosophy can no longer hold. Like Cohle, I believe that service, in its own way, disproves Vonnegut.