Life, death, and potato salad (A reflection on The Fault in Our Stars)

A few Easters ago, I heard a sermon by my wife’s uncle about life and death. It focused on what happens when we die. Specifically just after you’re six feet under and worm food.
“When you die,” he started the sermon, “We put you in a nice suit, bury you six feet in the ground, and go to one of your family member’s houses to eat potato salad.”
John Green’s book, The Fault in Our Stars, is an entire book about the attempt of young love just before the potato salad is served. It doesn’t glamorize death, as humans do because we’re all afraid of dying. Even those dying in Green’s book are afraid of “going,” as one of them put it.
Going where? Green doesn’t really shed light on that question. At times I wanted to fault him (no pun intended) for it, but I couldn’t. The writing is too good, for one thing. Characters do philosophize about death and the hereafter, at times irreverently, jokingly, but always in existentially ambiguous or nihilistic ways.
I don’t think that is the point. The questions of the hereafter are a side-effect of knowing you’re going to kick the proverbial bucket shortly. The answers are a placebo at best.
But I don’t think that is what Green is getting at in the story. Not really. I think the more important question asked than, “Where am I going to be when my relatives start the potluck?” is “Do I matter?”

I think it’s best illustrated by the friends like Kaitlin in the book. If I remember right, she only shows up 2-3 times. I remember her, though, because I am like her. Actually worse. I have been that horrible friend. At least I think myself horrible at the time. When I was a junior in high school, a friend of mine got a not-so-great biopsy result on his 16th birthday.

I saw him about three or four times during that period of his life. I called a few more times, but really I don’t look back on that time and that friendship in a positive light. I was a shitty friend, to put it mildly.

We do still talk. Mostly about writing. He’s been in remission ever since his last treatment. We don’t talk about high school or the cancer. Ever. I’m not sure I want to broach those subjects. When we first got back in touch, I remember asking myself, “Am I continuing this friendship because I feel bad for him having cancer?” No one wants a friend like that. As Hazel shows us, we all have friends like that. Maybe if we are all honest, we’ve all been that friend as well.

That’s a horrible confession to make, but Green’s characters make horribly honest confessions. Hazel, the narrator of the story, is constantly worrying about what will happen to her parents when she dies. “Who will take care of them? Will they get divorced in their grief over me?” These are questions a 15-year old shouldn’t be asking. Unless they’re dying. It’s never easy for us to let go of the people we love.

I thought of The Great Divorce a lot in reading Green’s book. Divorce deals with people who have died but are in a sort of self-made hell because they cannot let go of the one thing that would grant them paradise. Really, it’s less a book about Heaven and more about what it means to let go.

The Fault in Our Stars is all about people who are either trying to let go or are grasping at what is no longer there in front of them. This is why the question of “Do I matter?” is never really answered. There is that deep existential struggle between wanting to be remembered for more than our outward characteristics, like being a cancer kid, and wanting to leave the world inflicting the least amount of pain possible.

Hazel’s perspective reminds me of another Divorce quote: “Those that hate goodness are sometimes nearer than those that know nothing at all about it and think they have it.”

I’m not suggesting Hazel hates goodness. She is closer to the divine idea of goodness than those who put on a dead kid’s Facebook wall, “You are in our prayers” in an empty gesture to someone they barely talked to or knew. Just the other day, I wished someone a happy birthday like that. Something I will rectify today. Thank you, Hazel, for reminding me to paddle into deeper waters and not be a phony. If the people around us matter, we should tell them as often as possible why it is so.

I think it was a very thought-provoking, enjoyable and moving read, despite the fact that I disagree with Green’s premise. Cassius was right all along: “‘The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.'”


About Keith Osmun

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