Surviving Habit

One of my favorite authors is Kurt Vonnegut. One of his books is titled “Timequake.” I’m going to spoil it for you, to make a quick point — if you want the point made better, read the book. It is worth it.


In Timequake, there has been a thing called a “timequake.” What’s this? Similar to an earthquake, but rather, in the fabric of time. What does this do? Well, it basically takes all of “space,” all physical matter, and dumps it back 20 years ago. But this isn’t like time travel, exactly — you don’t get to try again. See, everything in that 20 year span already happened, and so is going to happen again, exactly the same way.

And so people go into “auto-pilot.” Since it’s already happened, no one has to think or make any decisions or do anything, everything just occurs on its own — like floating down a lazy river. This lasts for 20 years, long enough for people to become accustomed to it. And when that 20 years is up, and space re-aligns with time, and it’s time for people to start making their own decisions again? What happens? The world falls into chaos. At the least, people just don’t know what to do with themselves. At the worst, planes fall from the sky, cars crash, etc. All the chaos you can imagine for a civilization that goes from full automation to suddenly having to think for itself again.

The first person to come out of this daze is Vonnegut’s poor, slightly crazed, fictional sci-fi writer, Kilgore Trout. He finds that the only way he can snap people out of it, get them to focus on thinking for themselves again and fixing the chaos to save as many lives as possible, is to shake them and say:

“You were sick. But now you’re well again. And there’s work to do.”

What’s all of that mean or have to do with anything? Well let me tell you.

Just because things have been a certain way doesn’t mean they have to continue to be. And we forget that. We forget that every moment is an opportunity to change habits, on an individual or social level, and to begin doing work to make things better. It’s easier to follow habit. It’s comfortable, it is known. We’re still animals, and following habit is predictable, and predictable seems (on a base animal instinct) more survivable than non-predictability. But as humans, we have “reason,” which can be a curse or a blessing in that we can apply it to manipulate and impact the world around us, for better or worse.

So, in short, Vonnegut attempts to gently shake us from our apathy, the acceptance of The Way Things Are, and realize that there is work to do, and to start doing it right now.

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