Here's What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach You About Life

"There’s only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you’ve got to be kind."

A version of this post originally appeared on the site in 2013. We have reposted it here in honor of Kurt Vonnegut's birthday.

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Kurt Vonnegut, the beloved novelist we have to thank for Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle would have turned 91 today. [Note: This year he would have been 93.] Aside from his terrific and inventive page-turners, Vonnegut is often remembered for his outspokenness about both political and moral issues, as well as the importance of art. He advocated humanism both in interviews and in his books. It makes sense, then, that many of his novels contain quotable advice on how to live well.

Here's some of the best advice gleaned from his novels, essays, and interviews:


1. It's important to stand up for what you believe in.

After hearing that his book was not only banned, but burned in a school's furnace, Vonnegut wrote a personalized letter to the head of the school board, stating, "If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life."

This sort of assertiveness was characteristic of Vonnegut.

2. Laughter can cure just about anything.

Vonnegut has some adamant opinions about laughter; he believes it's a means of coping with discomfort or sadness, but that doesn't make it a bad thing. He says, in "Hypocrites You Always Have With You" (1980), "Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward -- and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner."

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3. Kindness matters.

In the aforementioned letter to the head of the board at Drake High School, Vonnegut defended himself and his books, stating, "They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are." This simple mantra is echoed in a number of his more formal writings, including God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a 1965 novel about a philanthropic organization gone wrong. In it, Vonnegut famously writes:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

4. Unplugging is essential.

Vonnegut's fiction is peppered with his opinions on modern technology and forms of communication. The consensus? It can, of course, be useful, but also has the potential to create feelings of isolation. In an interview with PBS, he offers an anecdote to illustrate his thoughts on the allure and instant gratification of things like email and online shopping. In response to his wife asking why he doesn't order envelopes in bulk online, he responds:

I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up ... The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around.

Marty Reichenthal/AP

5. Reading enriches your life.

Of course, this is a popular opinion for a writer of novels to have. But Vonnegut, more so than many other writers, was outspoken about the importance of reading. Although he never got around to reading much of classic literature until he was in his 40s, he was always a voracious reader of less academic titles. Perhaps it was his role as a writing instructor, or as a father of six, but he frequently championed the written word. In Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, he wrote, "I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle."

6. Art can be therapeutic.

In addition to writing and teaching, Vonnegut was passionate about visual art. He created felt tip pen illustrations for both Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, and even created the art for a Phish album. His novel Bluebeard chronicles the life of an aging abstract expressionist painter, and hints at the importance of meaningful art. In his bestselling essay collection, A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut writes:

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

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7. Patience is a virtue.

Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, was published when he was just 30, after he'd already published a handful of short stories. He'd turned to writing after attending the University of Chicago's graduate program in anthropology, but failing to pen an acceptable dissertation. Penniless, he took a job at a Saab dealership. Decades later, he was awarded his honorary Master's Degree, with his novel Cat's Cradle serving as his dissertation. He preaches such patience in his writing, too, stating:

Novelists have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.

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