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Vonnegut and the Case for Common Decency  

I recently finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick, not his most famous novel but his most autobiographical one.  In his preface he talked about how love is not important to him, how it hasn’t had much of a place in his novels and not much of a place in his life.  He says he has experienced love, or thinks he has, but that what he has liked the best he has described as “common decency,” or people who have treated him well and he has treated them well in turn.  I want to quote one of his paragraphs.

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please – a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

He goes on in his preface to tell stories about his family that give the impression that he cares deeply about them, is committed to them and willing to sacrifice for them, and enjoys their presence in his life.  He doesn’t express himself to them in mushy ways and there is an absence of physical affection (except with the dogs), but we might even be tempted to call what he is describing as love.

He is big on that common decency thing.  I can’t help but wonder if his seeming to devalue love came about from witnessing many people who “love” each other treat each other very poorly.  Read the paragraph above.  It certainly sounds like it. 

It is my observation too that many times those people treated the worst in someone’s life are those who are “loved” the most.  Love can generate intense emotions, not all of which feel good.  It also seems sometimes it is easy to take for granted the people who are loved.  For some, who could benefit from some emotional maturing, loved ones are even seen primarily for their role in making one feel good about themselves. 

Even though love can bring a lot of intensity and love relationships can be problematic, I think Vonnegut is onto something with his emphasis on common decency.  Love relationships overall would be better if they include a foundation of common decency.  That foundation should help a relationship make one feel more loved and move the joy to pain ratio in a positive direction.

I haven’t read a lot of Vonnegut in my life, but have picked up (actually downloaded to my kindle) several of his novels in the past couple of years.  He has a wacky view of the world that probably isn’t for everyone but I enjoy it.  I’m glad I picked this one up.  He is not with us anymore, but I hope he got a lot of satisfaction in his life out of relationships filled with common decency.  I wish the same for you.