Yes, I realize this is my second blog post in just over a week dealing with deep lessons learned from a fictional character in a young-adult novel. Don’t say that like it’s a bad thing, OK?
The movie version of The Fault in Our Stars comes out today, and I sincerely hope it’s as good as people are saying it will be, good enough to do justice to the book that young people like my kids and adults like myself have fallen in love with. There’s so much to be said about this book, about Hazel and Gus and the whole idea of living and falling in love against the backdrop of certain death — which of course we’re all doing, all the time, except that teenagers with terminal cancer are actually forced to recognize that fact. But my need to write a TFiOS-related blog post has come down to one thing: I want to talk about the character of Patrick, who appears in only one scene in the novel.
Patrick, an adult cancer survivor, is the leader of the support group for young cancer patients at which Hazel Grace Lancaster, a reluctant attendee, meets Augustus Waters. Patrick’s ineffectual leadership of the group gives the reader a great glimpse of narrator Hazel’s sarcasm as she describes Patrick in her internal monologue.
“[We] listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story — how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life. AND YOU TOO MIGHT BE SO LUCKY!”
Patrick’s small role in the book looks like it’s going to be played beautifully by comedian Mike Birbiglia, as you can see in a short segment of the trailer below (the “support group” scene is about 25 seconds into the trailer).
While the support group is a plot device that allows Hazel and Gus to meet, it’s a lot more than that, despite the fact that neither the group nor its leader plays a major role in the book. To understand why I think Patrick is so key to understanding a major theme of this novel, it helps to know a little about the author.
I’m a moderately obsessive John Green fan, which means that I’ve read all his books, watched many of his YouTube videos, read a lot of interviews, and read a couple of unpublished short stories that he released to fans as part of a charity fundraiser last year, stories which were early attempts at what later became The Fault in Our Stars. As many readers know, John Green planned to go to divinity school with the goal of becoming an Episcopalian minister, but changed plans after working for six months as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. Certainly the experience of working with sick and dying children and teenagers had a huge impact on him, as it would on anyone; Green went onto write three successful young-adult novels but continued to tinker on and off with the idea of writing a book about children with cancer. In the early drafts, as in the two unpublished stories I read, the main character is the young chaplain who struggles to make sense of the suffering all around him.
In the wildly successful novel Green finally managed to write, it’s Hazel, the teenager with terminal cancer, who is the main character; the chaplain role has been reduced almost to nonexistence. He has shrunk to Patrick’s cameo walk-on: the caregiver who clearly cares, but is unable to offer any real hope and whose very powerlessness (Patrick lacks balls in more than just the literal sense) makes him an object of mockery.
Patrick is not a chaplain, but the support group meets in a church, where he constantly reminds the young people that because the room where the group meets is at the centre of the cross-shaped building, they are in the Literal Heart of Jesus: Hazel and Gus first bond over Patrick’s misuse of the word “literal.” Patrick also leads them in prayer at the end of the meeting. In the movie trailer below he also gets that great little song clip about how “Christ is our friend” — emphasizing even further that although he doesn’t wear a clerical collar, Patrick stands in for institutional religion and its inability to offer anything meaningful to a group of sick and possibly dying young people.
One review of the movie refers to Patrick and his support group as one of Green’s clunkier jokes, but I think that misses the point. Patrick is a joke to Hazel and Gus, but I think to the reader he’s meant to be a key to one of the novel’s themes, and perhaps (if you don’t mind reading biographically, which I don’t) a key to why John Green is a novelist and not an Episcopalian minister or a hospital chaplain.
The only other representatives of traditional religious thought in the book are Gus’s parents, who seem to be conventional church-going types and who decorate their house with “Encouragements” — helpful little reminders like “Without Pain, We Could Not Know Joy” and the like. There’s some subtle fun being poked here, too, not at Gus’s parents exactly but certainly at the Encouragements, which sound so much like the kind of platitudes we all too often hear in church when people are struggling to cope with life’s messy stuff.
Don’t get me wrong: the book makes it pretty clear that Gus’s parents like the Encouragements because they actually do find them encouraging, and lots of people respond well to that kind of “inspirational” thinking. I’ve watched people I love and respect go through terrible experiences — life-threatening illness, the loss of loved ones — and drawing real strength from what sound to me like the most hackneyed of cliches. (And since the advent of social media, I get to see them post those cliches superimposed on photos of sunrises and waterfalls!). You know, whatever gets you through the night. (Also, of course, there are support groups far more helpful and effective than Patrick’s, and hospital chaplains who are great at their jobs).
But it’s important to remember that there’s a huge segment of the population that’s a lot like Hazel and Gus — people who in the midst of grief and confusion and terminal illness are not going to comforted by a picture of a still mountain lake with the words “God hath not promised skies always blue” on it. And I suspect it was the impossibility of trying to balance that kind of “comfort” with the harsh realities of dying kids and their families that drove John Green away from chaplaincy and into writing novels.
In fact, John Green’s career (so far … who knows what he might do next) reminds me of another pastoral dropout, a man I get the impression Green admires. This man studied to be a Presbyterian minister but, intrigued by the possibilities offered by the cutting-edge mass media of his day, bypassed the pulpit for a platform that would bring him directly into the homes of innumerable young people with a message of hope, acceptance and positivity that wasn’t tied to any particular religious dogma. Yeah, I mean this guy:
The challenge for Christian parents and educators whose teens are reading The Fault in our Stars should not be the fact that at one point in the book a sixteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old have sex (I mean, for crying out loud, these kids are dying — should they have saved it for marriage?). The challenge is that the book gently, wisely, kindly exposes how impotent (like Patrick) our answers to the problems of suffering often are. And these include our best-intentioned Christian answers.
I don’t think the solution is to come up with better answers, more effective support groups, prettier Encouragements (though again, these have their place). You could put a team of the world’s best theological minds onto the question of theodicy for ten years. You can spout platitudes like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God needed another angel in heaven,” or you can expound complex theological answers like “We are players in a great controversy between good and evil,” or “Christ rose from the grave to proclaim victory over death.” I’m going to bet all those responses sound equally hollow to the parent standing by the bedside of their dying child.
Maybe the only response that helps when someone is in the midst of pain is sitting down next to people and confessing, “This is really hard, and I don’t know what to say.”
Not everyone will agree with me on this. Some Christians might look at both John Green and Mr. Rogers and think that by changing direction from the pulpit to the page and screen, they abandoned the message of the gospel for a watered-down humanistic spirituality that offers kindness and love without also issuing a call to repentance and a promise of salvation. And you know what? I think that’s OK. Sure, some people are called to preach the gospel from the pulpit. And those people might argue that the gospel is more than just being kind to people, listening to what they have to say, and accepting them no matter what.
They’re right of course. The gospel is more than that. But here’s the key point … it’s never, never going to be less than that.
Any religion that can’t lay down its doctrines and theories and platitudes long enough to simply walk beside people when they’re suffering, to share the messiness of life with teenagers and play on the floor with children, is never going to get any further with most of them. Because people don’t want our neutered, ball-less, smiley response to their pain. They want our honest presence, and that includes having the honesty to admit that sometimes life is hard and painful, and we have to face it without a single Encouragement or cheery song to get us through.