Some critics did not like the Hollywood-ness of this film. Some even said it was insolent to people who really had to experience cancer and go through its treatment. I am a clinical pharmacist and have had some dealings in oncology, bone marrow transplant, hospice and talking about pain management to near a dozen groups in the community. Also, I have lost my mother, father, and step-father to cancer. So, I see where they are coming from but I also saw more … the potential for conversation, education, sharing and maybe even some enlightenment. Caution: Spoiler Alert!
This is not my typical film, and I went just because it was going to involve end-of life issues. The film was, “The Fault of Our Stars.” In some ways it was a sentimental teenage love story, but what made it more interesting and effective was that the two main characters, Gus and Hazel, both have a possibly life threatening illness, cancer. This post does not attempt to review the film, and frankly, I’m not sure I would do an acceptable job. And yes, it was very Hollywood compared seeing and working with most people who really have cancer. Nevertheless, anything that brings about dialogue on death and dying, especially for young people, may be useful for our cultural heart, or should I say our cultural denial.
Boy meets girl in cancer support group. She is seen dragging, literally, an oxygen tank for an unclear lung problem, into the meeting. They fall in love, and at one point Gus delivers this beautiful truth to Hazel, ” You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are.” A magnificent truth recognizing and honoring the complete uniqueness of her. And just like everyone else we share this beautiful planet with. How do you show appreciation for the uniqueness of the ones you love? And, at another point in their conversations they discuss, “How many infinities are there between 0 and 1?” I was really good at math in high school but that abruptly changed when I got to college, but I think there is still an infinity at every possible point of separation between 0 and 1, and in space/time. She says to him (or vice versa?), “You gave me forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.” A glimpse of living in gratitude and in the eternal now! Great lessons!
At our deepest level I believe we do share infinity, but we still need to make peace with our limited time with each other, and with ourselves. To deny this is to deny how special every moment is. To deny this is to grasp at things that do not serve the needs of our deepest self or the possibility of our living in joy. Letting go of the ones we love is hard no matter how much you know its coming, and you understand that it has to be that way. Gus says to the Hazel, “ Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.” Being curious about our own passing is never time misspent, just don’t get stuck there. Such thought exercises can create discomfort, fear, denial, anger, and more, but when you arrive at acceptance you are free, and you will never want or be able to go back to denial.
I tend to be forgiving when someone tries to tackle the big issues of our life, and death maybe the biggest. No matter how well they do it will touch some people, and some conversations will ensue. What does this have to do with a book about happiness? In my experience, freedom, or free will, which is above intellect, but still below the ego, holds hands with the possibility of joy. Freedom to choose “to be or not to be” in every moment, while we have time. To not react to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but cultivate and respond from the quiet place within all of us.
Gus asks his two friends, Hazel and Isaac, to write and read him his eulogy, and they do. As you can imagine there was much sniffling and sobbing in the theater. We grieve the passing of those we know and love, not just for who they were, but also because a part of us is recognizing the fate of its own physical instrument. Gus writes his girlfriend a eulogy that is delivered to her after he dies. In it he says that he hopes she is happy with the choices she has made. What might he have meant for her, and how does it feel coming from someone who has passed?
Writing a eulogy was one of the most difficult and beautiful things I have ever had to do. In the process I learned more about myself than almost any other single thing I’ve done. Not trying to sound morbid here, but I would recommend that you write a eulogy for someone you love, and another for someone you have not forgiven yet. You don’t have to tell them or read it to them, but you can do whatever feels right for you.