"The Sirens of Titan" by Kurt Vonnegut
“The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut

Every day we are confronted by obstacles or opportunities that we never even knew existed. Some of us still hold memories of near-death experiences, while others have all but forgotten the small difficulties in our daily lives that held our attention for just an instant. Moments range in intensity and impact, yet our reactions always seem to prescribe the same language to these events.

“Thank God,” we say, when one of us survives a gruesome car crash unscathed. “Thank God,” we say, when one of us passes the final exam that had loomed over our heads the entire semester. “Thank God,” we say, when our secret crush at last decides not to get back together with that terrible, scheming ex. When you finally stop and think about all of the situations the expression “Thank God” applies to, you can only help but wonder whether maybe we’ve all gotten a little bit carried away with our usage.

In “The Sirens of Titan,” Kurt Vonnegut takes overused phrases such as this and places them in a world where their true implications are put to the test. A man named William Niles Rumfoord has created a religion under the “Church of God the Utterly Indifferent,” where great miracles are credited simply to chance and coincidence. At first, the protagonist Malachi Constant sticks to the outdated, limited vocabulary. “Thank God!” he says, relieved when he arrives on earth after a long and troublesome journey through space. However, in this religious environment, his statement is immediately rejected.

Instead, Reverend Redwine, a leader of the revolutionary religion, advises Malachi to rethink his words. Malachi’s first inclination has always been to use the terms he is familiar with, but his crime is that he’s never really meant it. To him, his words are just an instinct, a ritual that has always been accepted by the people around him up until now. Suddenly, Malachi must change his response, and he tells the waiting devout crowd exactly how he feels and exactly what they want to hear: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

In a single sentence, Malachi Constant openly reinterprets the events in his life. Rather than jumping to a trite expression that doesn’t really get across the randomness that he believes plays a part in his unpredictable adventure, he carefully thinks over his choice of words. Whether God is actually behind this series of accidents or not is irrelevant; the point is that by redefining how he feels, Constant reminds us of the stark awareness of the factor of chance and how free will still exists in a world beyond our control.

In using this example, I am by no means rejecting the phrase “Thank God” and the meaning that religion carries for many of us. Instead, I am arguing against its superfluous use in our everyday language. It shouldn’t just be thrown out with a sigh to fit any moment of relief. Instead, we should examine how we use it and consider whether the gratitude we feel comes from a source within our immediate control, or whether we believe that it’s something greater than ourselves.

“Thank those tedious hours of study,” we should say, so that we are reminded of how our own hard work and willpower helped us ace that final exam. “Thank his or her common sense,” we should say, when that crush of ours finally understands what it takes to judge someone’s character and to stay away from a bad influence. “Thank God,” we should say, but only when one truly feels that the moment carries a lesson extending far beyond the material surface.

The characters in “The Sirens of Titan” struggle to make sense of the endless layers of forces beyond their control. Winston Niles Rumfoord, who is obliviously controlled by a remote alien race known as the Tralfamadorians, influences Malachi Constant, along with much of humanity. Whether it be God or the Tralfamadorians, there is no force large enough that can be conceived of and then blindly thanked for everything that ever was and will be.

We have to reshape and expand our vocabulary to accommodate the small, yet dynamic forces that influence us every day. We shouldn’t fear losing the importance of a statement like “Thank God.” By appropriating it only to those situations where the words fit the meaning, we are actually giving it more power than it currently has. Take heed to the fitting expression, “say what you mean and mean what you say,” and you’ll suddenly find that thought and language are a whole lot clearer.

Hannah Kaufman is a rising sophomore in the College. This is the final appearance of Back to Futures Past. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*