“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
-Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
There are certain moments make us realize how close we are to going over that cliff. When they do arrive, they come as a shock, even for those of us who think we know better. It’s now possible to go a very long time in life without knowing anyone who has died, or suffered some other serious calamity. Only on rare occasions do we—and by ‘we,’ I suppose I mean Westerners who live relatively comfortable daily lives—get these terrifying windows into the fragility of everything we’ve built.
It is a noble desire, that wish to be the catcher in the rye. Holden fancies himself the protector of the innocent from the horrors of the world. He’s aware of the danger, and wants to make sure no one goes over the edge. He takes on the burden for the good of all, and he can keep the children from ever knowing that fear.
It won’t work forever, though, as Salinger well knew, and his protagonist slowly came to learn. No one can possibly keep the horde of naïve kids from running toward the cliff, and no one person can hold them back. Humans are not born into perfect innocence, and will inevitably wander toward various edges. The precipice always looms, and learning more of it is both the way over the edge and the way to learn not to go near it.
Perhaps, then, it is best to let the kids wander toward the edge. Be there to offer a hand if they get too close, maybe, but let them see it for what it is. There’s a compelling case here, one that says it is on the edge where we push limits and find meaning, daring to do great things. The world is a plaything, meant to be explored with curiosity and delight—even its darkest parts. All those dull measures of life’s worth like money and years lived mean nothing when stacked up against those moments of enlightenment. Or so you’d wish to believe.
There is danger here; danger in the hubris in believing that you know where the edge lies for each and every person. It’s never in quite the same place, and the edge will bring out extremes in people, whether fragile or resilient. There’s also the question of choosing when to go for it; seeking the edge for itself alone is recklessly aggressive, before long lapsing into ennui. Toying with the edge will tempt fate before long. We must choose our battles wisely.
Is there a way out? Perhaps. It involves a careful, even brutal, self-examination, one that rises above the field of rye and lets one see beyond, at the same time aware of what we cannot see. To the well-ordered mind, this is a healthy process, not cause for inward obsession. Reflect, learn, move on, forever gauging where the edge is. Venture to the brink, and try to prepare those kids running about for what lies beyond—but always head home afterward. A brief glimpse is all we need, and our minds can do the rest.
Life cannot be found in the suppression of passions, but it is as much of a mistake to let passions rule it all. They must be channeled, carefully tended, and watched with vigilance, with immediate action when things do go awry, as they most likely will. We do not fear the edge, but we respect it, understand its power, and carry on with our quests, wherever they may lead. The true task of the catcher in the rye is not to save blindly, but to teach, to demand an honest reflection, and then to turn the children loose again, this time more prepared to cope with what lies beyond.