Catch-22 is a novel that I remember a number of classmates reading, back in high school in the 1970s. I did not read it at the time and did not watch the movie version either. This summer, I saw it in a book store and decided that it was a novel that I should read.

The expression catch-22 entered the English language through this novel. I have always paraphrased the expression as “a situation where one is damned if one acts and damned if one does not”, but I was interested to finally discover the origins of the expression.

This excerpt from the novel captures the essence of the expression “catch-22”:


Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him? Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
(Heller, Joseph.  Catch-22 . Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: 2004, p. 45-46.)

The protagonist of the novel is Yossarian, a bombardier during WWII, operating from an island in the Mediterranean. Yossarian is not a dashing or romantic hero, but he is a hero nonetheless.

As I read the novel, I began to wonder if at Camp Nominingue, we ever put a camper or counsellor in a catch-22 situation. For example, at Nominingue we canoe trip using cedar and canvas canoes. These canoes can get rather heavy on a 7-10 canoe trip, as water seeps into the wood. Our counsellors are expected to portage these 16 ft. canoes on portages from 200 m. to 2000 m., and sometimes over longer distances. Counsellors who have been at Nominingue for a number of years take pride in being able to complete these portages without putting the canoe down as well as ensuring that all packs and canoes are transported over the portage in a single hike. Does this expectation put undue pressure on our staff to live up to these standards? If a counsellor was injured, would he say anything, or would he risk further injury by completing the portage without complaining?

Campers who return to Nominingue every year are impressed by the exploits of the counsellors who carry such canoes over long portages. As they become bigger and stronger, campers will often ask to portage a canoe or will test themselves to see if they are able to carry a canoe. Should they be allowed to even try? Is the culture of the camp teaching them to push themselves beyond their limits?

Challenging campers to go beyond where they have been before is an essential contributor to the personal growth that campers experience at Nominingue. However, this must be balanced out with a concern for the health and safety of both campers and staff. The example we set for the staff and campers goes a long way towards the culture that stands for Camp Nominingue.