by Pat Nogoy SJ
“Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it.”― Confucius
Life is not exactly beautiful.
Being born into this world means wrestling with life’s givens. What we received from life is often measured according to our own expectations. Talents in its kinds and levels, physical appearances, family pedigrees, and cultural identities are some of life’s givens that are either accepted or rejected for various reasons. Patterns of meanings emanate from these givens, revealing the reality about our present identities and possible destinies. One cruel simplistic conclusion sums up these meanings: we are either lucky or cursed, fancied or damned, favoured or forsaken. Suffering grows heavier (or lighter) because of an almost reflexive reaction of comparing and contrasting our “fates” to that of others.
One of the toughest givens in life is the imminence of death. Though no one escapes death, the certainty of its nearness is a measure of a person’s luck. Receiving a specific death date can be a tough pill to swallow. Not only does it single out the person as being “damned,”“unlucky,”or “forsaken,” death’s close proximity rocks the meaning of existence. What does it really mean for me to live? Do sacrifices count for anything? If I make it to the afterlife (assuming there is one), will I have a more merciful or fairer fate? Is death life’s ultimate dead-end? As Martin Heidegger reflected, these questions stoke the feeling of anxiety, leading us to contemplate the quality of our lives. It is in nearness of death, ironically, where we come face to face with our existence.
One of those “unlucky” teens shoved to bear a situation of impending death is Hazel Grace. Greeted on her thirteenth birthday with a stage 4 thyroid cancer diagnosis, she has survived three years and counting by taking an experimental drug. Reaching the age of sixteen, her parents pressed her to attend a support group for children living with cancer. It is in this support group meeting that Hazel Grace met Augustus Waters, a former basketball player who lost his right leg to osteosarcoma and is in remission. The support group meeting does not end without Augustus and Hazel talking; and, later, watching a movie in the basement of Augustus’ home. The chanced encounter evolves into a regular exchange of phone calls, text messages, and extended meet-ups. Soon, they fell in love. Cruel or not, favoured or forsaken, lucky or cursed, who knows?
Suspending the Quest for Meaning
In encountering Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, one can judge that the game is over before it ever began. Entering into a relationship with certain death dates is a rather stupid and punishing act to do. This compounds Hazel Grace’s existential angst. The demand for reason intensifies with her compounded suffering. Indeed, the fault is in their stars; the guilty party is life, of having condemned her and Augustus Waters to a definite number of years. This life sentence begets a reaction of either renunciation or resistance. Though not yet, death is experienced in choosing to give up. It is closing one’s doors in smug isolation. It is wallowing in self-pity and depression in calculating what one has, does not have, and the could-have-been. It can be as cruel as cutting support from family, loved ones, friends, and even life itself. It hastens the arrival of death. On the other hand, one resists the life sentence by optimistic freedom. The person is carefree, choosing to do whatever he pleases, living life to the fullest according to his own terms. It is to take chances in going to desired places, eating favourite and exotic foods, and daring to embark on numerous adventures. It is sucking the marrow of life as one awaits the final blow. It is achieving happiness in one’s own terms even if only temporary.
Examining both reactions brings out a common existential tragedy: absence of meaning. In the first reaction, there is a surrender to life’s absurdity, while, on the second, there is the attempt to grasp and define life with self-determined meaning-making. Whatever choice Hazel Grace makes is understandable and justifiable given the brick walls of death slowly suffocating her. Her situation puts a question mark on the need and value of meaning. Can meaning, once achieved or discovered, grant her a reprieve of life’s damning sentence? No. Finding meaning does not change life’s sentence. In the face of death, meaning dissolves into darkness. Reason fails to comfort Hazel Grace as she is left with her solitary suffering in what life has bestowed on her.
From another lens, meaning can be seen as a progressive experience of conferral. Meaning as lived experience is a gift to be received. In contrast to Hazel Grace’s existential hunger for answers and relief, Augustus takes each moment as its own, giving himself entirely to it. From their initial meeting to their conversations to his profession of love to his availing of his only wish for Hazel Grace and finally, to their unexpected Amsterdam adventure, Augustus baffles Hazel Grace with his propensity to live in the moment. He also has a habit of falling in love with terminally ill patients; his recent relationship was with Caroline Mathers whom he lost to cancer. Knowing Augustus fragile history, Hazel Grace is cautious in entering into a relationship with him, not wanting to break his heart. Yet, Augustus is courageous enough to initiate and sustain contact, bold enough to profess his love, and generous enough to use his only wish from a foundation for Hazel Grace to meet the author Van Houten. His bravery shines in his profession of love to Hazel Grace: “I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
Is Augustus merely being chivalric? Isn’t he choosing to escape imminent death by creating an illusion of hope in his romantic adventures? Isn’t love in the face of death a mere farce of last gasps for happiness that simply dissolves in the void?
I am in love with you. Does this even carry real meaning?
PART II here
Last Part here.