I’ve been rereading Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I’m not quite sure if it’s the best or worst time in history to be doing so, but it’s definitely been interesting.
For one thing, I’d forgotten quite how dense the writing can be. There’s a lot of double-talk/nonsense talk that may require the reader to go back over a few sentences multiple times. (I put an example at the end of the post.)
But it’s a classic for a reason. The writing is truly singular and riddled with a fair number of words that I, who consider myself to have quite a rich vocabulary, had to ask Siri about.*
Heller has a way of putting things — even in words we all know — that can just twang the mental tuning fork in my head. To wit, a character is referred to as being “his own sarcophagus.”
That one has been rattling around in my brain for a while.
* God, remember when you had to find an actual dictionary when you didn’t know a word? Eesh.
A little exposition
Some context is needed to better understand the phrase.
The character description is multiple pages long, which I won’t put you through. So I’ve taken just the more poignant parts of what Heller said about him.
“Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty six… He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined…
“[He] was impervious to absolutes. He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others…
“The fact that there were thousands of men his age and older who had not even attained the rank of major enlivened him with foppish delight in his own remarkable worth; on the other hand, the fact that there were men his age and younger who were already generals contaminated him with an agonizing sense of failure.”
In fact, the character exists in a constant duality of not just pride and despair, but also certainty and misgiving:
“He had no doubt at all that someone as debonair and intellectual as General Peckem approved of his smoking with a cigarette holder, even though the two were in each other’s presence very seldom, which in a way was lucky, Colonel Cathcart recognized with relief, since General Peckem might not have approved of his cigarette holder at all…“
So hopefully, you’re starting to get an idea of the character. So here’s where Heller uses the epic phrase:
“He was his own sarcophagus, a bold and infallible diplomat who was always berating himself disgustedly for all the chances he had missed and kicking himself regretfully for all the errors he had made… He was a valorous opportunist who pounced hoggishly on every opportunity… then trembled in damp despair immediately afterward at the consequences he might suffer…”
“He was on the alert constantly for every signal, shrewdly sensitive to relationships and situations that did not exist… He was a blustering, intrepid bully who brooded inconsolably over the terrible ineradicable impressions he knew he kept making on people of prominence who were scarcely aware that he was even alive… He oscillated hourly between anguish and exhilaration, multiplying fantastically the grandeur of his victories and exaggerating tragically the seriousness of his defeats…“
What does it mean?
The author never refers to the sarcophagus description again, let alone elaborates. So it’s left to the reader to determine his meaning.
For me, the phrase evokes an image of a man entombed, sealed away from life. Of a person boxed in by his own mental calculus — unable to move until he finishes the equation that tots up his real and potential wins and losses, which just happen to have ever-shifting values.
Cathcart is, for all intents and purposes, a bastardized incarnate of Newton’s first law: For every opportunity for success, there is an equal but opposite chance of failure; and for every action he might regret, there’s an inaction he might also rue.
By giving equal credence (and incredulity) to all possible outcomes and interpretations of events and interactions, Cathcart is pinned into a sort of stasis.
He can watch the world go by; he can calculate potential outcomes. But his preoccupation means he’s not truly in the world; he’s not living life in any real sense of the word.
Ring a bell?
Of course, Heller is big on hyperbole and absurdism. So few of us will have such stark versions of this issue in our own life.
Still, I suspect something about Cathcart’s description sounded a little too familiar to a lot of us.
There are far too many options to list; so since this is (ostensibly) a money blog, let’s stick to personal finance ones.
Bag Lady Syndrome
This is the one that came to my mind immediately.
For those who haven’t heard the term before, it refers to people (usually women) who have extreme anxiety around their financial security. They tend to routinely have at least low-level worry that something will happen that will leave them barely getting by — or not getting by at all. Hence the image of a bag lady.
People who grapple with this fear worry about lost jobs that they can’t replace (a very common crisis during the Great Recession) and/or being hit with expenses they can’t cover/that completely drain savings and/or the market tanking, causing their retirement accounts to dip too low. I’m sure there are others, but those are the big three.
So how does this become a sarcophagus situation?
Well, in an effort to feel like they’re safeguarding their futures, they run the risk of going too far on the frugality spectrum. They scrimp and save to the point of depriving themselves of all but the most minimal enjoyment in the present.
And of course, even if they can avoid that pitfall, let’s just remember how much a semi-constant, thrumming undercurrent of anxiety takes out of you. Even if you can self-soothe to relax, the frequency with which you have to do it can be draining.
So people with this issue can find themselves living in so much fear of a potential future that they fail to enjoy their lives now. Which I think we can all agree is rather Cathcart-esque.
Living for the future
Somewhat similarly, a lot of personal finance-minded folks get caught in the trap of living for their future selves. (Cough cough, FIRE, cough cough.)
Obviously, it’s important to save for the future — regardless of whether you plan to retire early. But you shouldn’t sacrifice all (or even most) of your enjoyment in the present to safeguard your future.
As someone who has spent most of her life either stuck living in/out her past or has focused almost exclusively on her future, I can assure you it’s not a good option. And definitely not a healthy one.
It’s like an old Elayne Boosler joke about the people who brag about how little sleep they can survive on. “Yeah, you can survive with two teeth, too, but you look a helluva lot better with more.”
You can sock away all of your money for the future. But that doesn’t mean you should — or that it’s healthy.
And I get it: Mustachians and people in similar camps may find happiness in relearning simplicity — or just in winnowing away their expenses. But at some point the mindset starts to do more harm than good.
If for no other reasons than that nothing is certain.
I’m not even talking about lifespan here. People forget that their health is far from guaranteed.
If you spend meagerly for decades so you can really live it up in retirement, it may all pay off. Or you may find yourself with health conditions that limit your ability to fulfill all your plans.
It’s one of the few good points Die With Zero made.
So we have to make sure that we don’t box ourselves in financially to the point that most enjoyment is put off for some undetermined point in the future.
Watching the markets
Most people have a bad habit of watching the markets/their portfolios like a hawk. Even if they’re invested in index funds rather than individual stock.
I truly don’t get it because I personally avoid checking my balances or how the market is doing.
See, I paid too much attention in American History class — and The Great Recession too — so I am genuinely terrified by the stock market.
I know that there are absolutely people doing legitimate, careful research and studying trends. But most of the market seems to be fueled by a heady mix of optimism, ignorance, hubris and lemming-like panic.
So, to keep what little sanity I’ve collected over the years, I only check my portfolio monthly. Honestly, I might not even do it then, but since I have to set up the contributions once a month, I can’t avoid seeing the balances.
Meanwhile, there are so many people out there who eagle-eye their balances/the market. And it seems to be the basis for a good chunk of their mood/anxiety levels.
In fact, the only reason (outside of contribution days) that I know the market is up or down is because of the many, many, many people in the personal finance social media sphere posting about it. They’re ebullient or freaked/pissed off.
Just watching the mood swings from the outside is exhausting. The idea of routinely living with the rollercoaster of emotion sounds exhausting.
I understand that people with individual stock investments need to watch the market more. But those of us who are just relying on index funds? What good is this doing?
The whole reason we put our money in the stock market is because we’re told that, in the long run, we will see notable gains. So if your approach is buy and hold, why on earth are you checking your balances so frequently?
All it does is leave you preoccupied about forces you can’t control and may quickly change.
In fact, I feel the need to remind you that if you’re decades away from retirement, your portfolio balances are ephemera. That figure is only one potential outcome — because a gain or loss isn’t real until you sell.
And having a large part of your brain consumed by worry about something that currently only exists in theory — not ot mention one that has decades of ups and downs ahead of it… That has Cathcart written all over it.
Many of us fall into the trap of comparison. While we’re not as bad as Cathcart, many of us have trouble seeing our value in absolute terms.
We may be incredibly pleased with our financial progress and feel great about our financial situation — right up until we see a blogger or a social media post crowing about their leaps and bounds on the financial front.
The fact that the other person may make more than we do and/or have lower expenses rarely stops us from suddenly being at least a little less proud about our own situation.
It’s really not much better than Cathcart’s pride in his rank souring simply because there were people younger than him who had even higher ranks.
There’s a reason they say that comparison is the thief of joy. Because when we rate our finances only in relation to others, we’re definitely living life at a remove.
So disinter yourself
If any of this sounded a little too familiar, well… The good news is that it’s totally human. The bad news is that undoing it is hard. And not always pleasant.
If you feel your tendencies are affecting a lot of your life, therapy is always a good, if tough, option.
If you can’t handle (or afford) therapy, a lot of people find insight by journaling.
Just start writing (or typing) about the subject. You can start with discussing actual instances the problem came up or focus on when it tends to happen. You may start to notice there are certain triggers. Or you may just be able to start digging into your reactions and worries to discover the feelings at the core of it all.
Not a writer? Find a friend who will let you talk their ear off. (Just remember to ask ahead of time if they have the bandwidth to hear about everything.)
Of course, you can also look into self-help books — though I imagine that will be more helpful once you figure out the core problems driving your behavior.
Just do whatever you can to get away from any Cathcart-esque traits. Because no one — well, very few people — deserve to be entombed in the misery of indecision and relativism.
Did the description of Cathcart hit a little too close to home? What is your sarcophagus?
* As promised: A stunning example of Heller’s weirdness/absurdism is when the author tells us that the main character decides to visit the officers’ club “he didn’t help build.”
“Actually there were many officers’ clubs that Yossarian had not helped build, but he was proudest of [this one]. It was a sturdy and complex monument to his powers of determination. Yossarian never went there to help until it was finished; then he went there often, so pleased was he with [it]. It was truly a splendid building, and Yossarian throbbed with a sense of mighty accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.”