(SPOILER ALERTS) America used to be an upbeat society. Perhaps it still is. But after two failed wars, one huge financial crisis and the concomitant rise of unemployment, decreasing growth, rising inequality, and surging debt, some Americans are now less sanguine in their outlook. Its confidence shaken, its ego badly bruised, the country has seen the publication of books like ‘Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America’ and ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,’ among others.
Many Americans understandably have fewer things to be positive about these days, and this rather sudden experience of negativity is arguably reflected in, or at least paralleled by, the rising popularity of what is now called sick lit. Sick lit a genre of young adult literature that features its protagonists dealing with illness and disease. America is sick, and sick lit is one of the symptoms.
Positive Thinking in the United States
Like the aforementioned books, John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (TFIOS) is essentially an assault on the absurdities of positive thinking, the kind at least that does not see any truck with negativity, pain, suffering, and death. It pretends that everything is or will be A-OK, and sees problems not as problems, but as challenges, as opportunities to learn, grow, and be a better person.
The first chapter of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided describes the pervasiveness of positive thinking among women with or who used to have breast cancer. So prevalent has it become that she has called it an ‘ideological force’ in American society. Reviewing blogs and write-ups about the disease, Ehrenreich notes that ’no one…..seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments.’ The word ‘victim’ does not appear; it denotes ‘self-pity and passivity’ and as such is politically incorrect. Instead, patients undergoing treatments are ‘battling’ or ‘fighting.’ And upon conclusion of the treatments, they achieve ‘survivor’ status. In some cases, the ‘cheerfulness of breast cancer culture’ has amounted to a ‘positive embrace of the disease.’ One patient writes that ‘the source of happiness was cancer, that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were.’ Another reflects that ‘cancer will lead you to God.’ There is clearly no sense of outrage or tragedy here.
Ehrenreich then proceeds to dismantle some of the foundations of positive thinking and its use in the breast-cancer care business. She cites studies contradicting the notion that support groups can help overcome cancer, and argues that ‘sugarcoating..cancer can exact a dreadful cost.’ She shows that some in the ‘cancer care business’ have already pointed out ‘the tyranny of positive thinking’ and that women who show more ‘benefits from their cancer ‘tend to face a poorer quality of life.
Assaulting the Absurdities of Positive Thinking
Like Bright-Sided, TFIOS mocks the conventional, positive-thinking-based ways that cancer, death, pain, and suffering are handled. In the first major scene of the novel, Hazel Grace, our protagonist, is forced to keep going to Support Group that is ‘depressing as hell.’ Talking about a cancer survivor, Patrick, who leads the Support Group, she writes that ‘cancer took both of his nuts, but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.’ A few weeks later, Hazel tells her mom she refuses to go, and is told that she ‘deserves a life.’ To which she thinks that she’ didn’t see ‘how attendance at Support Group met the definition of life.’
Later in the novel, Augustus Waters, Hazel’s boyfriend, writes that ‘cancer kids are not statistically more likely to be awesome or compassionate or perseverant or whatever…’ The comment flies in the face of how people with cancer are often idealized, if not romanticized. We see more of this romanticization in another scene, in which the novel takes another dig at the absurd tendencies of positive thinking. Hazel is described during Support Group thus: ‘Hazel is such an inspiration to me…she just keeps fighting the battle, waking up every morning and going to war without complaint. She’s so strong. She’s so much stronger…I just wish I had her strength.’ To which Hazel responds, ‘I’ll give you my strength if I can have your remission.’ Another saying sent up by the novel, “Pain is like fabric: the stronger it is, the more it’s worth.’ It’s bullshit, says Hazel. Clearly, suffering is not to be sought out.
The novel also takes much issue with conventional ways of handling death. During Gus’ actual funeral, the minister said that Gus is now ‘healed and whole in heaven,’ implying, as Hazel angrily thought, that Gus was ‘less whole’ when he was alive. Later, Hazel looks at several messages of condolences and critiques a few of them. She was galled by ‘You’ll live in our hearts, big man’ because ‘it implied the immortality of those left behind: You will live forever in my memory, because I will live forever! I AM YOUR GOD NOW, DEAD BOY! I OWN YOU. Thinking you won’t die is yet another side effect of dying). And in a comment saying that Gus was now playing basketball in heaven, Hazel imagines him saying the absurdity of a heaven that manufactures balls. Given that such comments are all off, at least for Hazel, the novel tells us that “You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Writing does not resurrect. It buries.’ and ‘Funerals are for the living.’
Living with Pain, Accepting Suffering, Affirming Life
Despite its assault on the excesses of positive thinking, TFIOS does not deny the courage or strength of cancer survivors, or the need to be positive and be an optimist. The novel is one big life-affirming (love) story. However, contrary to the wackier species of positive thinking, it accepts and acknowledges the reality of pain, suffering, and death. ‘Pain demands to be felt,’ as Gus puts it. Hazel is said to know more about how to live with pain. Also, augustus attends his own pre-funeral, an act symbolic of living with and accepting death, and Hazel writes that he ‘did not die after a lengthy battle with cancer. He died after a lengthy battle with human consciousness, a victim-as you will be- of the universe’s need to make and unmake all that is possible.’ There is no sugarcoating death here.
When her boyfriend, Augustus dies, Hazel speaks of the conventions of the cancer genre, according to which ‘Augustus Waters kept his sense of humor till the end, did not for a moment waiver in his courage, and his spirit soared like an indomitable eagle until the world itself could not contain his joyous soul.’ This wasn’t true, for what Hazel shares is of ‘a pitiful boy who desperately wanted not to be pitiful, screaming and crying, poisoned by an infected G-tube that kept him alive, but not alive in enough.’ Death by cancer is neither pretty nor to be sugarcoated. Nor should it be. There is no denial of the ugly realities of pain, suffering, and death.
TFIOS asks us to acknowledge such things without ever succumbing to it. This much is already pretty evident in the first sentence of the novel, ‘Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided that I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.’
The opening sentence sums up the lesson of TFIOS: accept pain and suffering but do rise above it. The sentence begins with ‘late in the winter of my seventeenth year,’ a phrase that connotes darkness and death. And in the next clause, we learn that Hazel is depressed. Indeed, she lists down her symptoms and behaviors, all classic signs. However, Hazel writes about it in a sure, commanding, authoritative manner, as though she wasn’t depressed. She even squeezes in ‘presumably’ as though to put some distance between her and her mother’s perceptions. So by the time we finish the sentence, we already know what kind of a girl Hazel is and what the novel wants us to think about her, depression, and death.
The novel highlights this way of handling pain, death, and suffering in various scenes. Of note is Augustus habit of putting a cigar in his mouth but not lighting it, an act that shows how you ‘put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.’ The novel may accept the reality of death, but it doesn’t ask us to be mere passive victims. Instead, like positive thinking, it urges us to take control. Also, in another scene, Hazel speaks of being a grenade after she reflects on messages of condolence to a cancer victim who had passed away. She felt that upon her death, Hazel would explode and hurt her family and Augustus, who tells her that people cannot choose not to be hurt, but that they have some say over who gets to hurt them. Once again, the novel acknowledges pain, but shows that we have some degree of control over how we experience it. A last example is the quotation ‘Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.’ Hazel and August spent a relatively short amount of time together, but they describe this as an infinity. This is a simultaneous acceptance and denial of limitations, even death. It is a paradox, just as life-in-death or living-with-death is.
How To Live Life: Walk Lightly
For all its talk of death and suffering, TFIOS is not just about how to live with cancer or any fatal disease for that matter. One could argue that Hazel’s or Augustus’ condition – dependent, frail, vulnerable – is our typical condition, one that we, like our protagonists, have to acknowledge. This people haven’t really done on the whole. In his Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, Alasdair Macintyre writes that much of the Western tradition of (moral) philosophy has neglected or marginalized the reality, and full implications of our dependence and vulnerability. Macintyre asserts the ‘moral importance of acknowledging not only such vulnerabilities and afflictions…and dependences.’ And he cites a study asserting that the ‘mother-child relationship’ – a relationship of dependence – is a ‘paradigm for moral relationships.’ Macintyre also argues that the ‘human flourishing’ and ‘virtues of independent rational agency need…to be accompanied’ by such acknowledgment.
In asking us to accept death, suffering, and pain, to acknowledge our dependence on and vulnerability to others, TFIOS runs parallel to the ethical thought of Alasdair Macintyre, who is one of the most prominent moral philosophers of our time. It is perhaps not surprising that the novel encourages the acceptance of limits. The swing set ad tells us this; the swing will introduce the children of the buyers ‘to the ups and downs of human life gently and safely, and may also learn the most important lesson of all: no matter how how hard you kick, no matter how high you get, you can’t go all the way around.’ This is a smack at Americans’ can-do-anything, sky’s-the-limit, voluntarist mode of thinking. We are stuck with up and down. There is no pushing the limit here.
Unfortunately, people do not recognize such limits. Hazel writes, ‘…it occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again.’ She also takes issue with the notion of people ‘wanting to leave a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death.’ In one scene, she berates Gus for his ‘obsession with, like, dying for something or leaving behind some great sign of your heroism or whatever’ and for his desire to live an extraordinary life. ‘It’s really mean of you to say that the only lives that matter are the ones that are lived for something or die for something. That’s a really mean thing to say to me.’ Later, Gus has learned his lesson, writing that ‘the marks humans leave are too often scars’ and that ‘we are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths.’ Here, the novel manages to squeeze in its condemnation for the damage we do to our planet, and the relentless drive for power, acquisition and private property. The world would probably be a better place if cared less about our legacies.
So how should we live life? Recognize and respect limitations. Be sensitive to pain, death, and suffering. Do that and you can walk lightly as Hazel does. Hazel is different. She walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: we’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either. People will say it’s sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was deeply but not widely loved. But it’s not sad….It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that real heroism? Like the doctors say: first, do no harm.’