The human mind does not like truth. As a result, we as humans do not want truth. We say we do, but we don’t; you don’t, I don’t, none of us do. In fact, most of us despise it.
For truth is a lot like surgery: it hurts, it’s traumatic, and we typically employ just about every faculty we possess to avoid it — but in the end, we need it. We cannot heal without it. And so, eventually, with time, we accept it; we let it filter into our consciousness and invade our reality.
First it cuts, then it scars, then, at long last, it heals.
People often say that grief is a process. And indeed it is. But a process of what? What exactly are we progressing toward? What is the endgame? In the 41 days since Kailen passed, I have thought a great deal about these questions. What I’ve discovered is that grief is not a battle for freedom; it isn’t like the Revolutionary War or even the World Wars. Instead, it is a form of civil war.
The warring factions exist within us. It is a closed system. Much like cancer, it is a battle against self.
As I stated previously, the human mind does not like truth. The truth hurts too much; so like an infection, the mind, through a process of cognitive fibrosis, walls off the truth, hiding it from conscious thought — where all the damage would be done. This is warring faction #1.
Our souls, however, yearn for the truth. The human soul, composed of the Spirit given to us by God, was designed for eternity. This, of course, is in direct opposition to that of our brain. The brain is a tool, an essential instrument of rationalization, but it was meant only for the finite, for our time here on earth. Need proof? Take a moment and try to grasp Heaven — a glorious place that exists outside time; try to understand the concepts of the eternal; imagine a time before creation, when it was only God hovering over the waters. Even the most brilliant earthly mind will fail. But the soul is different. Whereas the brain struggles with the precepts of eternity, the soul struggles with the confines of earth. And as such, though truth hurts the brain, it sets the soul free. This is warring faction #2.
And now, the war.
The battlefield looks like this: We are a soul; we yearn for the truth. But though we seek it and feel it, we cannot understand it without our minds, our instruments of rationalization. So, with souls yearning for truth and minds that can grasp it, the comprehension and ultimate attainment of truth is a resolution that may only be reached by the mind and soul functioning in tandem: The soul seeking, the mind grasping. Yes, the mind and soul are opposing forces, warring factions within us, but one cannot win. It must not. A truce must be reached. Appomattox must happen.
This is the process we call grief — the post-traumautic synchronization of mind and soul.
The process is savage and painful, but without the synchrony, without the soul seeking and the mind grasping, the two warring factions will never reach a truce. And thus, we would never know truth. And by extension, we would never heal.
Cancer is — by all accounts — a vile, unexplainable evil. We cannot seem to cure it, so we try to drown it with cliches.
To be clear: Cliches do not help. They’re like slapping a band-aid or some gauze on a leg that’s just been amputated — it may make you feel better, like you’ve at least done something to help, but no number of bandages could ever bring the leg back. In fact, with the passage of time, the bandages become offensive. A piece of cloth where a live, functioning limb used to reside? It’s grossly inadequate, comedically impotent. The only cure to the powerlessness of cliche is the power of silence.
And that is why I did something I promised myself I would never do.
I’ve recently been on a John Green kick, which — I know, I know — I’m late to the party. But, as most of you have already discovered, his writing is fantastically entertaining. I read Paper Towns first, then Looking for Alaska, and more recently, An Abundance of Katherines. The one book I promised I would never read is his most famous; a title most anyone in America would recognize: A Fault in Our Stars.
Why did I promise not to read A Fault in Our Stars (or watch the movie)? Because I’m not a masochist, that’s why. Why, after watching my own wife suffer and die from cancer, would I read some book about two teenagers, both of whom are battling cancer, who meet at a cancer support group, fall in love, then experience an inexplicably tragic loss no different from my own? It’s emotional suicide. And frankly, it’s stupid. Only a complete moron would do such a completely moronic thing.
Heretofore, this past week I read A Fault in Our Stars.
In my defense, it wasn’t on purpose. My sole mistake was reading the excerpt in the back of An Abundance of Katherines. The first chapter of A Fault in Our Stars was tucked, very sneakily, just behind the epilogue. So, I read the first chapter.
And it blew me away.
It wasn’t the characters, or the setting, or the plot, or even the tug on my heartstrings. It was none of those things. In fact, they are all completely unrelated to why I purchased the book less than 12 hours after reading the first chapter.
John Green is profane, brash, and at times, downright atheistic. But the man is honest. He tells all the ugly truths and he does it boldly. That is why I read A Fault in Our Stars.
Many of my favorite quotes from the book are sizably profane and as such, are not appropriate for this blog, but I will share as many of them as I can.
For instance, on the very first page, Hazel (the female protagonist) gets immediately to the heart of the matter at hand, sans political or emotional correctness: “Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.”
Hazel has stage IV cancer. She is dying. She knows it. She says it. On page one.
In chapter two, Hazel addresses what she refers to as her ‘Cancer Miracle’: “Admittedly, my Cancer Miracle had only resulted in a bit of purchased time (I did not yet know the size of the bit).” Please understand I am not discounting the existence of miracles — I believe with all my heart that God still facilitates miracles, including unexplained healing. BUT, in the case of cancer, especially advanced cancer, miracle is a word intimately associated with false hope and disappointment. Kailen went through several periods of miraculous remissions, as did C.S. Lewis’s wife, but in both cases, those remissions were merely superficial transactions — they were purchased chunks of finite, ever-fading time.
Nothing hurts like false hope. Nothing. Hazel understands that.
Possibly my favorite passage in the entire book comes later in chapter two. Hazel and Augustus (the male protagonist) are at his house and his parents have a drawing in their home, displaying the words, “Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy?”
Hazel’s thought-response: (This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate)
It’s very easy for pastors, academics, and the Enlightened philosophes to make such a statement. So true, they say, so very very true. The pain we experience makes the joy we experience all the more wonderful. Oh yes, yes, sure, sure, how wonderful. There’s only one small problem: it is complete, for lack of a better term, horse crap. Unless said pastors, or academics, or Enlightened philosophes are actively fighting a losing battle with cancer, then I have no use for their opinion. This is certainly not to say that pain is useless; Scripture is clear that pain has a very distinct purpose. But when it comes to how we experience joy, I’m with Hazel.
Much later in the book, Hazel is meeting with her team of oncology physicians. One of the physicians made this statement: “Your cancer is not going away, Hazel. But we’ve seen people with your level of tumor penetration live for a long time.” Kailen and I heard this statement ad nauseam.
The. Cancer. Is. Not. Going. Away.
Once it’s spread, it ain’t leaving. Accepting this reality — while still praying for a miracle — was very difficult, especially when you consider the fact that 90+ percent of people do not understand this reality.
“How’s Kailen?” they ask.
“She’s doing very well,” I say.
“Wonderful! She’s healed!” they reply.
“Well, not–” I begin.
“Isn’t God good?!?” they interrupt.
“Yes,” I answer, after a brief pause, “He is.”
And therein lies the Great Paradox. Kailen was never healed, not even a little bit. The cancer consumed her body slowly, but it consumer her nonetheless. And yet, those people were (and are) right:
God is good.
Later, after a long diatribe about the meaninglessness of suffering and of life in general, Hazel says, simply: “Ignorance is bliss.” On this point, I disagree with her. Life is not always blissful; Christ gave us no such guarantee. In fact, He promised the opposite. So in all reality, to be blissful is rare and to be ignorant is, simply, to be ignorant.
But that isn’t why I disagree with Hazel. Not completely. The ignorance she speaks of is an ignorance to the inevitable and incorrigible reality of our futility and mortality. I think she’s wrong. She and Augustus understood that reality quite well, as did Kailen. As do I. But Hazel and Augustus missed the only reality that really matters, one Kailen and I understood better than our own mortality — we understood the undergirding meaning of it all: Jesus Christ, and the glorification of His name. Without a comprehension of that reality, ignorance really is bliss.
Near the end of the story, after some horrible things happen, Hazel has some thoughts that come so very close to the truth. There is merely a thin intellectual veil separating her thoughts from those of Christ: “Gus told us that he feared oblivion, and I told him that he was fearing something universal and inevitable, and how really, the problem is not suffering itself or oblivion itself but the depraved meaninglessness of these things, the absolutely inhuman nihilism of suffering. I thought of my dad telling me that the universe wants to be noticed. But what we want is to be noticed by the universe, to have the universe give a *expletive* what happens to us — not the collective idea of sentient life but each of us, as individuals.”
This entire paragraph can be reduced to five words: WE WANT GOD TO CARE.
We plead against the nihilism of suffering, we positively beg for purpose, for meaning, to be noticed. NOT by the universe or some abstract deity, but by God Himself.
And for those of you experiencing suffering even as you read this, I have wonderful news for you. God doesn’t just notice; He doesn’t just look down from the Throne Room, chewing delicious manna, and gaze knowingly upon our sufferings. No, He shares in our sufferings.
I encourage you: Look to the cross, and see that Christ bleeds with you.
In closing, I will share one final quote from John Green’s greatest work to date. It comes from a juncture in the story when Hazel is concerned about getting close to Augustus, for fear of eventually hurting him. Gus’s words still echo in my mind: “Oh, I wouldn’t mind, Hazel Grace. It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”
It was a privilege, K. And given the opportunity, I’d do it all over again.