“The knowledge that I have got enough” Kurt Vonnegut, Joe Heller, and a Thanksgiving Message
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I was thinking of everything in my life that I am grateful for, just as many of you are thinking about this week. I thought it would be nice to reprint a story and poem I first posted on my work matters blog nearly 10 years ago, on the day my book that my book The No Asshole Rule was published. I updated shortly after Vonnegut died in April, 2007. I’ve revised it a bit, but the main message persists.
The centerpiece is Vonnegut’s Joe Heller poem, one of the last things he published before he died. His message that reminding ourselves how much we have (rather than how much we want), that so many of us “have enough,” is timeless and especially fitting for the day. Enjoy and have a happy Thanksgiving.
I loved Kurt Vonnnegut’s books and was touched by his sweet contribution to The No Asshole Rule Rule. Vonnegut’s death made me sad but his life brought me and so many others great joy. All of us die in the end, it is the living that counts — and Vonnegut touched so many people. This is my little story.
The process of writing The No Asshole Rule entailed many fun twists and turns. But the very best thing happened when I wrote for permission to reprint a Kurt Vonnegut poem called “Joe Heller,” which was published in The New Yorker. I was hoping that Vonnegut would give me permission to print it in the book, both because I love the poem (more on that later), and Vonnegut is one my heroes. His books including Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions had a huge effect on me when I was a teenager — both the ideas and the writing style.
I wrote some anonymous New Yorker address to ask permission to reprint the poem, and to my amazement, I received this personal reply from Vonnegut about two weeks later. Take a look at the two sides of the postcard, it not only is in Vonnegut’s handwriting and gives me permission to use it “however you please without compensation or further notice to me,” the entire thing is designed by Vonnegut (and I suspect his wife helped, as she is a designer). “Life is No Way to Treat an Animal” is one of the famous sayings from his character Kilgore Trout — even the stamp is custom. It is one of my favorite things. Here is a somewhat grainy picture of both sides of the postcard:
The poem fits well in my chapter in The No Asshole Rule on how to avoid catching asshole poisoning. Here is how I set it up in the book:
If you read or watch TV programs about business or sports, you often see the world framed as place where everyone wants “more more more” for “me me me,” every minute in every way. The old bumper sticker sums it up: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” The potent but usually unstated message is that we are all trapped in a life-long contest where people can never get enough money, prestige, victories, cool stuff, beauty, or sex — and that we do want and should want more goodies than everyone else.
This attitude fuels a quest for constant improvement that has a big upside, leading to everything from more beautiful athletic and artistic performances, to more elegant and functional products, to better surgical procedures and medicines, to more effective and humane organizations. Yet when taken too far, this blend of constant dissatisfaction, unquenchable desires, and overbearing competitiveness can damage your mental health. It can lead you to treat those “below” you as inferior creatures who are worthy of your disdain and people “above” you who have more stuff and status as objects of envy and jealousy.
Again, a bit of framing can help. Tell yourself, “I have enough.” Certainly, some people need more than they have, as many people on earth still need a safe place to live, enough good food to eat, and other necessities. But too many of us are never satisfied and feel constantly slighted, even though — by objective standards — we have all we need to live a good life. I got this idea from a lovely little poem that Kurt Vonnegut published in The New Yorker called “Joe Heller,” which was about the author of the renowned World War II novel Catch 22. As you can see, the poem describes a party that Heller and Vonnegut attended at a billionaire’s house. Heller remarks to Vonnegut that he has something that the billionaire can never have, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.” These wise words provide a frame that can help you be at peace with yourself and to treat those around you with affection and respect:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”
— Kurt Vonnegut
The New Yorker, May 16th, 2005
(Reprinted with Kurt Vonnegut’s permission — see the above postcard!)
Once again, happy Thanksgiving!
P.S. I posted this piece on LinkedIn today too and thought I would put it on Medium as well, as it seems to hit different audiences.
P. P.S. I later wrote another post about Vonnegut, which talked about my favorite quote.