The ecstatic joy of knowing you have a soul (and why I loved The Fault in Our Stars)
A fun and surprisingly intense debate has broken out among my friends over the past few months, and it revolves around this question:
The Fault in Our Stars: depressing or uplifting?
One of my friends summarized her impression the book by saying, “It’s a sad story where everything is bad and then more bad stuff happens. Why did I need to read that?” She is on Team Depressing, and a lot of people I know are with her.
A note my babysitter found in her copy of the book, left by her friend.
I, however, am on the other team. I loved this book. I don’t mean “loved” like “I enjoyed it quite a lot”; I mean “loved” like “LOVED!!!!”
Like, I feel an eternal longing deep within my chest every time I see the cover.
Like, some people probably thought I was reading a book called The Fault I-I-Iii, because every time I tried to talk about it I’d get choked up after the second word.
It’s about kids with cancer so, yeah, the subject matter is extremely depressing. But I did not find the book itself to be depressing at all. In fact, I thought it was one of the most life-affirming stories I’ve ever read.
I have been baffled by the fact that so many of my friends found it to be such a dreary read, so I began an impassioned investigation into the issue. It mainly involved bringing it up at dinner parties and sending a bunch of texts that said U didn’t like TFIOS? WTH?, but by the end of this scientific investigation, I began to see some patterns in the responses. Most interestingly, I noticed that people’s takes on the book tended to fall along the same lines as their spiritual history.
Specifically: People who have always been believers don’t tend to like the book as much as those who have known atheism.
Whether or not the results of my rigorous study can be extrapolated to each of the ten gazillion people who have read The Fault in Our Stars, the realization made everything click for me. I finally got why certain of my friends thought it was a downer, and I can finally explain why I didn’t.
Here’s what I think it is:
The Fault in Our Stars proves the soul. Its characters are supremely human, and by “human” I mean “a creature greater than the sum of its molecules.” If you have always understood that humans are more than just advanced apes, that the spiritual world exists and we have a special connection to it, I can see how the book would seem to be not much more than a well-written story about suburbanite kids with cancer.
But if you have ever looked at your life through the lens of a strict atheist materialist worldview, everything changes.
As I described in my own book, the idea that humans are nothing more than randomly evolved collections of chemical reactions troubled me all my life. I saw humans as advanced apes. I believed that all animals — humans included — had no essence or value that transcended the molecules that composed their bodies.
Other atheists are able to find beauty and meaning within that worldview; I never could. I was with atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who looked at the inevitable extinction of the entire human experience and said that the only way to deal with it is to build your life on a “firm foundation of unyielding despair.”
I didn’t understand why I should attempt to amass wonderful memories and experiences, when all of those memories and experience would be multiplied by zero at the moment of my death. Every time I felt profoundly moved by a piece of music or wiped tears from my eyes upon witnessing a heroic deed, my happiness would be doused by the icy reality that what I was feeling was just neurons firing in my brain.
Though I didn’t understand this at the time, the reason those realizations were always so depressing is because they clashed so violently with what seemed to be true.
It seemed like experiences of love or anguish had an origin outside the physical matter of the brain. It seemed like a human life was more valuable than its technical status as a meaningless collection of organic material on one of the 40 billion planets in the galaxy would indicate. When I read a great epic or encountered a work of art that drew me deeper into the human experience, it really, really seemed like there was something going on there that was real and would last, even if the earth and all the life it contained blew up tomorrow.
In fact, I kept acting like a creature with a soul. I kept seeking meaning and transcendence. I yearned for purpose, even when I didn’t believe that a greater purpose to human life could exist.
For those of you who have read Something Other than God: This pic was taken during the trip to Ruidoso, NM I describe in Chapter 12.
Eventually, after doing this for all 27 years of my life, I started to wonder if maybe the reason we humans always act like we have a connection to the transcendent is because we actually do. I started to think that the essence of a human life might stretch beyond the body’s years on earth.
When the thought first crossed my mind — the first time I’d ever seriously questioned atheism — it shook me to the core. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I suspected it was right. I couldn’t prove it in a laboratory, yet the idea of humans as having an essence, a soul, that has an origin outside the material world made so many things make sense. It explained human behavior and the human experience in a way that a purely atheist materialist worldview could not.
When that realization clicked, I experienced a flood of joy and relief that is hard to describe. All my life I’d lived with the wearying friction of trying to jam the square peg of atheism into the round hole of reality, and now it was suddenly gone. In its place, I felt a sense of hope I’d never known. I felt like I had gotten closer to the truth about the real meaning of life. I was eager to explore further – and, as dispassionate as I tried to be, I couldn’t escape the feeling that whatever I discovered next was going to be good.
This was the moment that came to mind when I was finally able to articulate why I loved The Fault in Our Stars.
The characters in that story are deeply, fully alive, in the way that only soul-having creatures can be. They give selflessly. They become impassioned over great works of art. They reflect on their circumstances, and experience rage and sorrow and joy and hope. They laugh, despite their bodies being ravaged by disease. They prize love over all, even in the face of death.
They don’t go into detail about their spiritual beliefs; there are no theological treatises about the likelihood of an eternal afterlife. Yet they are so obviously players in a divine drama, so clearly connected to the universal human experience in a way that prisoners of their own neurons could not be, that I have to think that this story would have made me question atheism if I had read it when I was a nonbeliever.
I believe that John Green’s greatest accomplishment with this story is that he describes people who operate fully in that realm of consciousness that no other animal on earth can access — and in doing so, he reminds us all what it is to be human.
When I finished the last page of The Fault in Our Stars, I experienced a unique sensation that I hadn’t felt in a long time. (Actually, I sobbed mindlessly for about five minutes. But then I experienced the sensation.) I was never able to articulate it at the time, but now I know what it was:
The warm glow that swelled within me when I put down that book was the same feeling that surged through my heart the moment I first questioned atheism.
It was the satisfaction of having the truth about the human experience click into place, and the hope of knowing that all of those yearnings for transcendence were based on something real. It was a silent voice that whispered, Yes, yes, of course we have souls!…and the feeling that that was only the beginning of the most wonderful truth of all.
. . .