“Why the hell not?”

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Holden Caulfield doesn't get everything wrong.(Image courtesy of imgkid.com)
Holden Caulfield doesn’t get everything wrong. (Image courtesy of imgkid.com)

I’m reading The Catcher in the Rye for the first time.

Holden Caulfield is the protagonist, and while we don’t share a ton of similarities (largely because I’m 20 years his senior, and grew up in a small Ohio town), we share two ideas I think are really important.

1. We can be intelligent and well-educated even if it’s accomplished in unconventional ways and mired in self-doubt. 

Thomas Edison. Albert Einstein. John D. Rockefeller. Walt Disney. Bill Gates. Richard Branson. Charles Dickens.

Icons, all.

School dropouts, all.

All that means is, while I very much respect people with advanced degrees in higher education, and people who use traditional channels to educate themselves and advance their careers, the thing that really kills me is when people don’t play by the rules.

When people don’t ask for permission to do something with their lives they really want to do.

They say: Sorry. This isn’t for me. I’m not like everybody else. I’m going to go do this other thing. My way.

And they don’t just succeed. They soar.

I may never be anything like those people. After all, I am 36 and work in a cubicle.

But I sure do admire them.

2. It DOES NOT have to be this way.

Your love life. Your financial life and career. Your spiritual life. Your physical appearance. Your mental and emotional health. Your geographic location. Whatever.

Holden calls up his old friend Sally and gets her to agree to a date. And she shows up looking good. Really good. He’s a madman. He really is. And he just comes out and asks her to run off with him. He’s got some money.

Let’s go start a new life, he says.

And she says it sounds fun and all, but people can’t just do that.

You can’t just break the rules and go live whatever life you want.

Holden thinks that’s bullshit. And it’s exactly when I decided to love him.

“Why the hell not!?!?” he asks.

I’m not advocating irresponsibility. Two 16-year-olds shouldn’t run off together and live in some New England cabin with no means of taking care of themselves.

But that’s just old-guy, parent Matt talking.

I agree with Holden’s inclination to ask WHY NOT!?

People don’t think about this enough. People never think enough. I never think enough.

We never ask ourselves the right questions.

What are the right questions?

They are the ones that challenge our assumptions and beliefs and force us to consider an alternative. A better way.

Matthew E. May shared this classic story about the advent of Polaroid:

“Back in the 1940s, Edwin Land was on vacation with his 3-year-old daughter. He snapped a photograph of her, using a standard camera. But she wanted to see the results right away, not understanding that the film must be sent off for processing.

She asked, ‘Why do we have to wait for the picture?’ After hearing his daughter’s why question, Land wondered, what if you could develop film inside the camera? Then he spent a long time figuring out how—in effect, how to bring the darkroom into the camera.

That one why question inspired Land to develop the Polaroid instant camera. It’s a classic Why/What if/How story. But it all started with a child’s naive question—a great reminder of the power of fundamental questions.”

You do NOT have to stay in your soul-crushing job.

You do NOT have to go to that family event you’re stressed about because your mother will be disappointed if you don’t.

You do NOT have to say “yes.” Say NO. Say “no” a lot.

You do NOT have to go back to college to get a better job.

You do NOT have to have a “job.” You can make your own.

Because you CAN do whatever you want.

Sometimes I think about how fast time goes.

Holy shit, my son is almost 7.

Holy shit, she’s been gone two years.

Holy shit, I’ve been sitting at this desk for four years.

Holy shit, I’m 36.

The worst thing that’s ever happened to me already happened. I can’t figure out what I’m so afraid of, because you CAN’T KILL ME. And the day I’m finally wrong about that? I’m not going to be around to eat any crow.

And I don’t know when that day is going to come. But it might be tomorrow. Maybe even today.

We waste so much time doing things we don’t want to do because we lie to ourselves and believe them. We MUST do this! We have to!

No, we don’t.

You don’t really have to do anything.

Write down the 10 things that matter most. The 10 things you want most. Consider everyone you love.

And then maybe spend the rest of your life only pursuing those things.

The things that matter.

Don’t tell me you can’t be happy unless you follow the rules.

Don’t tell me people can’t just do that.

Because I’m with Holden.

Why the hell not?

34 thoughts on ““Why the hell not?””

  1. “Write down the 10 things that matter most. The 10 things you want most. And then maybe spend the rest of your life only pursuing those things.” Wow, well that’s inspiring! 🙂

    I love this book. I loved reading it in high school. Love the quotes from it that pop up every now and then online. It’s one of those stories that stick with you. Why the hell not is a great question and when I remember to I try to ask it of myself every chance I get. It’s empowering and pushes you to consider new challenges. I guess I need it printed up and posted on my wall or something.

    1. I’m embarrassed it’s taken me so long. I’ve somehow managed to go through most of life not reading the classics. (I blame high school rebellion.) I want to be smarter. A better writer. A better storyteller. Reading the greats seems like one way to help with that.

      Thank you so much for reading. I’m glad you like the book. I’m glad you like this post and appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      1. I totally understand! I’ve missed out on a lot of classics, too. I still haven’t read How to Kill a Mockingbird…which is the most typical high school assigned reading ever.

    1. That seems excessively nice. But thank you so much. I’m guilty of liking compliments. And it means a lot to me that it meant something to you.

      1. Nah, I’m never excessively nice; your post just really resonated with me. 😉

        I read them all, but I’m mostly a lurker. I liked this one a lot because I find myself sitting around thinking the same question often: why the hell not? I’ve been trying to actually use that idea a bit more in my day-to-day and say no more often. I like it.

        One thing you said especially stuck with me: what’s the worst that can happen, you can’t kill me…well I’ve used that exact phrase when taking risks in my own life. I’ve seen some truly low points, and as much as they’re shit, and as much as you kind of wish you might be dead when you’re in them…you come out on the other side and you keep going and you move on and you realize just how resilient human beings are and can be.

        I read Catcher in the Rye when I was in my early 20’s and I loved it…it definitely stayed with me.

  2. I love that you couldn’t wait until you finished the book to write about it.

    “All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring…”

    Keep trying. You’ll get it:)

  3. Post – phenomenal.
    I had to write an essay for this novel – we studied it last term. I’m yet to finish the story (other coursework got in the way) and though I’ve written on it and all and we’re technically finished, I’m glad in a sense because now I can truly enjoy it at my own pace. But after reading this….where’s my copy?! 😀

    1. Thank you so much. Definitely a worthwhile read. I’ll finish in the next day or two.

      I do hope you find it!

  4. Hey Matt,

    I think an important point you make is, ask yourself “what are the right questions”. The 10 things that matter most and the 10 things that you want the most aren’t always the same things.

    There will be some overlap (at least I hope so), but one of the things I love about your writing is that you understand that sometimes the things we want “in the moment” aren’t exactly the things that matter most.

    In the moment, people can be damn selfish. And often what “we want” is what we think will make us happy, and it can lead to a fairly self absorbed lifestyle. All the while we are ignoring the things that really matter the most.

    You’ve written about how often people say they love their partners, and they do. To them their partners are the most important things in their life. But if you look at their actions, they often aren’t in line with what their priorities are.

    In one of the first posts of yours that I read you talked about wanting to watch a golf tournament while your wife wanted a family day at the park. It seemed like a little thing at the time, and I’m sure it was. But countless little moments add up to a sense that we aren’t valued, and lead to a breakdown of the bonds that keep us together.

    People have a right to be happy, and do things that they think will make them happy. But as you said, I think people often ask the wrong questions. And often the things that we “think” will make us happy are really just short term pleasure seeking, and are things we will regret in the long run.

    Just my 2 cents…

    1. You make great points. I couldn’t agree more.

      I’ve had this conversation on here a lot because I’ve written a lot about “happiness.”

      As you point out, what some people think of as “being happy” is really just short-sighted pleasure-seeking.

      I do not mean it that way. When I say “happy,” I mean CONTENT. At peace.

      Totally fulfilled in a way that’s lasting.

      We feel “happy” when we get a brand new car, or when we get a crush on someone, or when we eat some cake.

      But then the car gets old and we can’t wait to replace it. We get divorced. We get stomachaches from the cake.

      We can never be satisfied–truly content–until we balance our lives like a table. Mental health. Physical health. Spiritual health. Emotional health.

      You get all four of those balanced? And I’m pretty sure you’re unstoppable.

      In the meantime, I’m still chasing that balance.

      What you said here is super-important for people to think about. I hope they will.

  5. I read Catcher for the first time when I was 16 and have read it almost every year since (I’m about to turn 23), and what I love about it is that it strikes me somewhere new every time I read it. I enjoyed reading your analysis!

    1. Not unlike Holden’s visits to the museum.

      The exhibits never change. But you change.

      So it’s still an entirely new experience.

      Fantastic observation of the human condition. That’s just about where I closed the book last night.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Dylan. Really appreciate it.

  6. Awesome, awesome, awesome. I LOVE this! I’m very good at saying “no.” But I’m older than you : ) And you’re right, you can have any circumstance you want, mostly.

  7. Matt, Holy shit, Iam 58! Why the hell can’t I teach yoga to spiritually starved middle aged tech. workers who want to get out of their heads and drop into their hearts, even its for only 90 minutes!
    Amazing post. I too am a lurker of your blog…. but today was truly amazing and inspiring. I refuse to give in to the “retirement ” mindset. I am more alive today at 58 than I was at 28…. smarter too! Thankyou so much for your insightful and inspiring writings…
    Trying to keep it real in California!

    1. It means so much to me that you don’t think me an immature moron. Thank you, Lisa. I appreciate you saying hi. 🙂

      1. Whaaat….. Are you kidding me! From your posts you’re one of the most ” mature” guys I know… that may or may not be a good thing, but believe me you’re on a good and right track!! Keep writing from your heart.

  8. Reblogged this on mjmsprt40, sez me. and commented:
    OK. I have to share this one. Anybody that can’t figure out why is beyond hope– stuck forever in Egypt because of not being willing to risk the trip to the promised land. Or something like that.

  9. With all the self help books out there, all the motivational speakers, all the empowerment speeches recorded for long commutes to work… I love love love that it is the fictional characters of Salinger that have impacted my life the most, and inspired this post.

    I’m glad you made the time to read him.

  10. One of the biggest swerves in my life was my boyfriend at the time asking me to write down the things I would love to do. Then he asked me to change all the “I’d love to…”s to “I could”. A huge adventure began after that. I read catcher in the rye eons ago, but the feeling remains.

    1. Most people don’t appreciate how powerful the write combination of words can really be.

      Not even me, and I spend every day combining them.

      I’m so grateful you read this and took time to comment. Thank you so much.

  11. completelyinthedark

    I read this yesterday and couldn’t respond because I was on a bus, with tears in my eyes, because I’d been rejected by a public assistance tax clinic due to an overly complicated tax situation. With the clock running out before having to file taxes, I was feeling like an utter failure at so many things, and people in the clinic were being sympathetic but also judgmental.

    It somewhat lifted me up to read this, but “going one’s own way,” isn’t exactly smiled upon by many of the people I know. And not having any local or immediate support has sapped the energy out of all my will.

    I began to realize why some people commit suicide over money.

    Stupid, but understandable.

    I’m not about to do that, but the negativity of yesterday drained me. I guess I’m thankful for this reminder and at some point I will get back on that horse and keep riding on that path largely untaken.

    cheers Mike

  12. Can you imagine a world where more people said “why the hell not?” The possibilities are endless….I’ve spent my whole life with people telling me why I couldn’t do, or be something.
    Then I decided not to follow the rules.
    I still struggle with those old voices that tell me I can’t (or shouldn’t) do what I want. Every day there is something that pushes me one way or the other.
    This post was a push in the right direction Matt. Hopefully it will be a push for other poeple too.
    Thank you for this!

    1. Thank you so much. We should be braver. Bolder. Take more chances. Chase more dreams.

      It would eliminate so much sadness and life dissatisfaction.

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Matt Fray

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