Several weeks ago, the death of J.D. Salinger sent ripples, if not waves, through the literary world. Salinger had more fanfare in death than in life, for he spent most of his life as a recluse in the darkest nooks of New England. In fact, when I heard of his death, I immediately asked, “Oh, was he still alive?”
Despite his clandestine lifestyle, Salinger’s popularity gained worldwide recognition because of his cult classic, “The Catcher in the Rye.” I read it when I was pursuing my master’s degree, and I remember that it challenged how I saw the world and humanity.
“The Catcher in the Rye” is about a wayward teenager, Holden Caulfield, whose angst practically drove him insane. According to Caulfield, the world is full of phonies that lean on presumption and pomp to get ahead in the world. The phonies of the world, however, could not keep his brother from dying and his friend from committing suicide.
Though Caulfield’s angst left him with very little sense of direction, he did have one wish that he wanted to fulfill. The wish consisted of Caulfield standing sentinel in a large prairie of rye where little children ran aimlessly toward a cliff. Caulfield, knowing that the children would die if they kept running, wanted to catch each child, thus saving them from certain doom.
The story, with all of its mysterious nuance and subtexts, is one in which the main character is divided between compassion on the one hand and hopelessness on the other. Caulfield so desperately wants to be savior to these blinded children, but understands the futility in trying to keep them from their demise. Caulfield is rendered powerless in the face of aimless tragedy. This powerlessness is the ultimate source of Caulfield’s angst.
Salinger’s novel is a parabolic metaphor for the angst that really defines our era. From the rebellious 1960s to the anxious new millennium, angst has played a large part in setting the tone for our economic, political, and cultural agendas. Consider that the so-called “populist rage” related to our current political atmosphere is symptomatic of the deeper angst that we all feel.
Even in the midst of angst, however, we, like Caulfield, long to save the aimless among us from blindly running off a cliff they do not see. We long to spread our arms and be the catcher that saves others from the calamities they face. When people plummet from buildings, and buildings plummet into the Earth, and the Earth’s future plummets into the unknown, we quickly realize that the field is too big. We feel so very helpless.
So God comes to us and gives us a choice. Do we run away from the field and isolate ourselves from the world like Salinger chose to do so long ago? Or do we continue to do what we can with what we are given, hoping that our efforts to join God in redeeming the world is not full of pretense?
W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love.” The apostle Paul would agree. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, he wrote, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So, then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith” (6:9-10).
Join God in that which is holy, and don’t be, as Caulfield would say, a phony.