A coworker in the Navy warned me shortly after I got back that it would take about three months for me to settle down from my deployment mindset and get back into “normal” life. I think that’s more or less true, although to be honest I think I’ve simply discovered a new sense of normality rather than returned to my old one. What I know now about the Navy and life in general simply can’t be un-known.
I’m going to talk about the Jonestown Massacre, but before I do I’d like you all to remember the book that most of us read during junior or senior year lit class in high school, Catcher in the Rye. For those who don’t remember, it’s a book about a kid who gets expelled from his upscale preparatory school and then wanders aimlessly in New York City for a few weeks until his parents come to collect him for the New Year holiday. He spends a great deal of time ranting about how everyone is a phony, and it’s all just a big, fake charade.
Holden used the phrase “catcher in the rye” to describe to his little sister what his ideal life would look like when she asked him what he most wanted to do. Holden misinterprets the original 18th century Scottish folk song to be about a man who stands on the edge of a cliff, catching children as they come trouncing and playing through the rye fields to prevent them from tumbling off the unseen precipice to their deaths. Most scholars interpret his desire as a longing to protect the innocence of those children, as he himself has become irrevocably disillusioned with life.
How does this relate to the awful events that took place at Jonestown, you ask? Well I’ll tell you…
One thing that I’ve learned is that when people come face to face with an ugly truth, they are faced with a choice: they are forced to either wrestle with the unpleasant idea and reconcile it to their previously-held beliefs, or else to simply hide from it and lie to themselves that it either doesn’t exist or else has no bearing on their life. This, unfortunately, is not really a viable option for people with any measure of intelligence.
I’m reaching the point in my life when I realize that the world is nowhere near as shiny or nice as it was presented to me in my youth. Whether we’re talking about my actual childhood, or my earlier years in the military when the world was all ordered and well-regulated, the simple truth is that most of the illusions I clung to as a younger person have been destroyed by the notion that life is essentially a game, and only by playing along quietly can we actually hope to live a nice, comfortable 80ish years enjoying all the amenities that civilized society has to offer. On the other hand, if you try to call any attention to the arbitrary rule systems and foolish game-masters who control your reality, you will be branded as a malcontent and cast out from those who have chosen to simply lie to themselves that the game is real, and we must all simply “go along to get along.”
The problem I see with life in general is that we’re all too willing to accept what any given authority figure says as true. While in the case of scripture this behavior is the only correct course of action, I think we’ve fallen into the trap of over-generalizing that ALL authorities are as unassailable in their soundness of logic as the Word of God itself. This notion is sometimes reinforced by those who point to passages like Romans 13:1-7 and Titus 3 as examples of why we should be good, obedient workers and citizens. While I don’t question the soundness of these passages and their advice, I think it bears pointing out that there is also a valid time and place to shout that the Emperor wears no clothes.
My purpose in life, as I now understand it, is to be the catcher in the rye. Not necessarily to protect the innocence of those who still haven’t run across ugly situations in life (although I will try to do that to the best of my abilities, especially if Lord willing I become a parent someday), but more to hold people back from tumbling over the cliff of blind and unquestioning cooperation with a system which I believe is fundamentally flawed.
Finally, as I said earlier, I bring you Jonestown.
Is this an extreme example of the dangers of compliance to authority? Yes. Although not so extreme when you consider that these people started out by saying yes to many small things. For those who have ever attended SERE school (a military survival school which teaches, among other things, how to resist interrogators in a POW-type situation), you learn that one of the most basic tricks a captor can use is to get you to agree to some small concession, or comply with some trivial demand. As time goes on, and the prisoner begins to weaken in their resolve, the demands become more costly. A good interrogator never starts by asking for unquestioning compliance.
In the end, my message for all of you about the dangers of submitting to any illegitimate authority is the same message that a good friend gave to me a few years ago. As I was embarking on a dangerous quest to become more Navy-like, when she had already made the decision to get out, she warned me at a Navy-mandated training evolution: “Don’t drink the kool-aid.”