Recently, I read two sad books.
I read The Fault in Our Stars on a plane, which you should NEVER EVER EVER DO. Because if you are anything like me, you will cry through the last 100 pages, which means that you will be sniffling constantly, which means that everyone on the plane will be throwing dirty looks your way because they will think that you are an incubus of viral plague. And you simply cannot explain to them that you are, in fact, crying over fiction.
For those of you who don’t know, The Fault in Our Stars is a book about two teenagers who have terminal cancer and who fall in love with each other. I read it because a few dozen of the teenage girls I teach told me I HAD to read it. I like to read the stuff they’re reading, even if it isn’t particularly good, because I like to know what ideas are influencing them. It helps me teach them better.
The book’s sadness didn’t just come from the story of the doomed lovers. It came from the tragically empty Nihilism of their belief systems that provided them with no other option in the face of death but cynical acceptance. Here’s how Hazel “comforts” Augustus at their cancer support group when he expresses fear of oblivion:
“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you…There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.” (By the way, the book of Ecclesiastes expresses this problem in wording very similar to Hazel’s, but it ultimately directs the reader to a conclusion that is radically different from willful ignorance.)
Later in the novel, Augustus echoes the same philosophy when he declares his love for Hazel:
“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.”
We live life on the edge of oblivion’s black hole, Green’s novel says. The best we can hope for is to live without getting too bummed out by Cosmic Meaninglessness. But we’re still going to love people and live life and make noise in the void as if things mattered. Which we know they don’t.
Don’t get me wrong–I enjoyed the book. I read it in about four hours’ time, and I found it fascinating and heartbreaking and some moments were quite beautiful. But it is a book that looks into the face of a harsh and bleak reality and falls back on wry cynicism.
The next depressing book on my list was the Czechoslovakian novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which addressed the whole problem of humankind’s temporal nature from a sorrowful, almost nostalgic perspective. The book’s plot is secondary to its philosophical musings (the story is like anecdotal evidence for the book’s philosophical claims).
The dark night of the narrator’s soul arises from the relentless forward march of time. Events lack meaning, not because of impending oblivion (as Green’s character’s might say) but because they are fleeting and ephemeral. Each event in all of human history happens only once, and is therefore, as the title suggests, “unbearably light.” Or, we might say, unbearably free from meaning. Kundera’s narrator observes:
“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.”
Basically, life a dress rehearsal for a play that will never happen:
“We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, ‘sketch’ is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.”
So there it is. Milan Kundera says, “Time marches inexorably forward, which makes life sad.” John Green adds, “And time is marching toward oblivion, which makes life meaningless.”
Today is Easter, a day which invites contemplation of the Resurrection. As I was listening to the sermon on 1 Corinthians this morning in church, I was also thinking about the two novels I’d just read. The sermon made me realize that Resurrection holds all of the answers to this unbearably temporal life we’re living. Yes, we’re mortal. But Jesus conquered death. Yes, we’re broken. But Jesus sealed his victory over sin by rising from the dead. Yes, time marches onward toward a definite end. But eternity, not oblivion, awaits us on the other side. Yes, life is fleeting. But death is not the end of the story. Death didn’t get the final word over Jesus, and he made sure that it’s not going to have the final word over me.
Faith in a God who lived, died, and rose for me has the power to crush my bitterness and sorrow and fill me with hope, even in the face of a short life and an inevitable death.
He is risen indeed.