Five False Presumptions Christians Make About Non-believers by Christina Knowles

Snagged from google images.
Snagged from google images.

There are five presumptions that many Christians make regarding non-believers that are destructive and simply not true. As a person who has wavered back and forth between belief and unbelief, I have had to confront these myths frequently. They offend me, insult me, and hurt me every time I am exposed to them, and plainly put, they are a result of an ignorance of the lives of non-believers and experiences outside the Christian community.

1) YOU CAN’T REALLY BE HAPPY OR HAVE MEANING WITHOUT CHRIST AS THE CENTER OF YOUR LIFE. Nine years ago, when I was a single mom and not a believer in Christ or God at all, I was happy, extremely happy. I felt as if I was living out my purpose. I loved my job, I loved my kids, I loved my life. In fact, I have had far greater unhappiness and confusion about the meaning of life as a Christian than with any other belief system. And at times when I embraced no belief whatsoever, I was very much at peace, free from the confusion and ambivalence of believing some, but not all, of the bible. I don’t necessarily think happiness is the purpose of life, and it has nothing to do with my unbelief; however, I get really tired of hearing things about myself that I know are simply not true. For example, I heard a well-known pastor say on a Christian talk radio show the other day, this ridiculous statement: “Have you ever met someone who was not a Christian that was totally, enthusiastically happy? Of course not. Me neither.” Uh, yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve known numerous enthusiastically happy atheists and people who practice other religions as well.

2) YOU CAN’T HAVE A REALLY GOOD MARRIAGE UNLESS YOU PUT CHRIST FIRST IN YOUR MARRIAGE. I have an extremely happy marriage, and Christ is definitely not at the center of it and probably never has been. Although my husband is a man of strong faith and professes true belief and commitment to Christ, I have only been an actively believing Christian for about two and half of the years we’ve been married, and even during these periods, we always put each other first, and still do. We treat each other unselfishly, with kindness, we don’t ever name-call or even shout at each other in a disagreement because we respect each other, admire each other, esteem each other better than ourselves. There is no adherence to traditional roles, no mandate to submissiveness, no ridiculous idea that he, as a man, needs respect more than love, or I, as a woman, need love more than respect. We both need love and respect equally. I believe we would be just as happy with each other and treat each other as well if either one of us were atheists, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhists, or a number of other religions.

3)YOU CAN’T GENUINELY LOVE PEOPLE OR PUT OTHERS BEFORE YOURSELF WITHOUT THE SUPERNATURAL HELP OF GOD. I never had a problem having a soft heart towards a vast number of people. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I believe strongly in mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. I cannot hold a grudge even if I want to. I find it easy to love my students, my family, my friends, and even those I dislike at first, I can easily come to care about if I see the vulnerable side of them. When Christians say this, it makes me believe that they are the ones who have difficulty loving others if they truly believe it takes a supernatural effort to do it. I, personally, don’t find it that difficult.

This is the myth that actually inspired this blog. Because I am pretty open about my inability to believe the bible, I occasionally receive mail or comments from well-meaning people concerned for my soul. I can live with that. There are worse things than knowing that someone out there cares enough about me to pray for me and to worry about where I will spend eternity. So recently, I was open to having a conversation with a Christian woman who said she wished to discuss my unbelief and faith struggles. I should have seen the warning signs that were always there, but I didn’t. I try to assume the best about people, so I brushed them aside, and told myself that I was merely being defensive. I wasn’t.

This particular woman had previously made comments about how she was praying for me to be able to “deal” with my students (I’m a high school teacher). She mentioned a few times how I needed God’s strength to do this. At the time I thought it was strange. I don’t find it difficult to interact with my students. In fact, my students are the best part of my job. They are fun, entertaining, at times sweet, very lovable, intellectually fascinating, and I see them as my “other kids.” I love talking to them, teaching them, I hurt for them when they struggle, I laugh with them about all kinds of things, I listen to their problems, learn from their insights and experiences, and I cry and celebrate when I see them graduate. So, I brushed aside the feeling that she was somehow concerned that I was unable to show kindness to them or care about them merely because I was unable to have faith that God is good or believe the bible. After all, a lot of people who don’t work with teenagers seem to think that that would be the difficult part of the job. It’s not. Almost all high school teachers enjoy their students and consider their time with them the best thing about teaching.

So, I decided to see what she had to say, if she had any insight that I hadn’t considered, but when she contacted me, she made it very clear that she was not concerned about me at all, but for my influence on my students. She implied—no strike that—she told me directly that without God’s supernatural ability to love, I could not show love to my students, and she was concerned and praying for me so that I would have God’s help in order to show my poor students kindness and love. Naturally, I was very hurt and extremely insulted. Not only did she not care about me at all, she assumed I did not care for or treat my students with love and kindness. Newsflash:  All people are capable of love, at times unconditional love, at times self-sacrificing love. Christians are not any more capable of this than anyone else. In fact, those who hold dogmatic beliefs, often struggle with this concept more than others, but even they are capable.

4) YOU NEED FAITH IN GOD AND SUPERNATURAL STRENGTH TO BE A MORAL PERSON. Again, I don’t find this particularly difficult. I am not trying to say I am a perfect person, without sin, without a mean thought, or that I haven’t said something I regret that’s hurt someone. I have. But I am a moral person with high standards of ethics by which I actively try to live. I believe most people who have internalized a moral code, whether or not they are believers, tend to do good things and avoid evil things, and those who have low moral standards won’t be any different because they convert to a certain religion. There are a few exceptions to this, but this is my overall experience. In addition, some of the most kind, compassionate, and moral people I have ever met have been atheists. If you need supernatural strength to be moral, then you probably have not really internalized your moral beliefs.

5) IF AFTER BELIEVING IN THE TENETS OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH AND SINCERELY FOLLOWING CHRIST, YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND THROUGH RATIONAL THOUGHT AND INTENSE INVESTIGATION, YOU MUST NEVER HAVE REALLY BEEN SAVED. Well, the last one would only be true if there is no god or no salvation because if one sincerely believed and confessed with his mouth, then according to Christian belief, they were saved. Some Christians believe a person can lose salvation and others believe one can’t. Either way, it does not change the fact that according to Christian belief, they were, at one time, saved.

However, if there is no such thing, then it is true, they never were. Nevertheless, this does not diminish the fact that the belief and profession were once real. Christians should not presume that people are putting on a façade or that they did not truly believe and commit at one time. It is all too easy for Christians to explain away apostasy by assuming there was something wrong with the initial conversion of someone who reneges on a life of accepting what makes no sense without faith and acceptance in the “I’m not God, so I’ll never understand” mentality. It is the only way they can justify anyone abandoning Christianity.

But the truth is, numerous people who were sincere in their faith and commitment at the time of their conversions are leaving the faith daily. Still others are afraid to “come out” with their doubts and questions for fear of attacks from the Christian community as we recently saw in the case of Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay when he merely questioned mainstream religious views on gay marriage.

This is extremely common, but the fact is, people do have questions, and it’s okay to say that the bible does not make sense to them without being accused of being incapable of happiness, lacking purpose, or having a difficult marriage full of conflict. They should not be accused of being incapable of selfless love, powerless to act according to moral behavior, or be accused of “pretending” to be a Christian when they used to actually believe, but have later thoughtfully, carefully, and agonizingly come to the conclusion that they cannot maintain faith in these beliefs.

The perpetuation of these myths that some Christians hold toward non-believers is shallow and destructive to others, which I do not believe is a stated Christian value. Furthermore, it shows a lack of observation and understanding of the real world and the people in it, and serves no purpose apart from inflating the hubris of the pious by believing they have access to special abilities that no one else supposedly does. It would be much more helpful to realize that we are all humans with the same types of thoughts, feelings, fears, and often times, motivations. Christians don’t have a monopoly on happiness and ethics, and we all are capable of goodness, we are all flawed, and we are all human, regardless of beliefs.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2014

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Free by Christina Knowles

Free (#2, Letting Go)

 

Letting go

I let myself be who I am

Wandering alone through a jungle

Of contradictory claims

The skeptic

Ye of little faith

Actually none

Bouncing from one fiction to another

Grasping at scrawny tree limbs

Too dry and brittle to hold the weight of inspection

Of critical scrutiny

I hung on too long

Even while twigs snapped at a touch

Letting go

I should have done it long ago

Free-falling, uninjured

Floating peacefully on the unknown

It’s never too soon to be free

At last, free to live

The reality, a genuine life

On undiscovered details

Letting go

Of the need to know

Content

Free from the fairy tale

The false hope

Hope that meant nothing

More than an interesting dream

An afternoon of storytelling

An evening of Shakespeare

Both tragic and comedic

An epic battle between good and evil

Only to realize there is no difference

According to this dramatist

Letting go

And realizing the freedom

The relief

The ability to breathe deeply

Of the infinite, if only for a moment

A blip on the radar of the universe

A breath so pure and clean

I’d never miss the toxic perfume of lies

So I exhale completely

Letting go—Christina Knowles

 

Photo via Pinterest, source unknown

All the Heaven and Hell by Christina Knowles

Lightly falling snowflakesFlowers in Hair

The loving eyes of my old dog

The smile of a baby

Red and gold leaves scattered on the ground

Glistening wet petals in the morning sun

This is all the heaven I will ever know

Holding the hand of my mother as she leaves me

Burning tears of loss, the indescribable pain in my chest

Holding my best friend as she takes her last breath

Angry words from a trusted mouth

Grave news from a doctor’s chart

This is all the hell I will ever know

The soft glow of a crackling fire

Holding hands with the best man I’ve ever known

The swell of love his gaze makes me feel

The time spent with my closest friends

Laughing until my stomach hurts

This is all the heaven I will ever know

The anxiety of deadlines

The crushing weight of responsibilities

Debts to pay and artificial worries

The helplessness of age

The loneliness of loss

This is all the hell I will ever know

Pain and depression

Joy and the sweetness of love

Anger and frustration

Comfort and peace

Gratitude for all of this life

This is all the heaven and hell I will ever know—Christina Knowles (2015)

Photo snagged from Pinterest

“Safe” by Christina Knowles

“Safe”

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When I stare point-blank

Into all that is not there

And realize this sham

For what it is, the mist

Dries up, the fog dissipates like on the lenses of glasses

Unexpectedly, everything is clear.

What, then, do I attribute

This unrelenting life?

How does one risk all

For one last roll of the dice

When the odds are always against?

Easy, easier still with nothing

Nothing left to grasp

Holding loosely, how can I not fall?

I see me slipping through cracks

I pretended not to see

Too dangerous, precarious at best

So, I am frozen to this unlikely spot

Reduced and fading as a dream

Uncharacteristically still

Furiously safe

Counting out my days like pennies in a jar

Abundant and worthless

Cruel irony that I know how to live

And yet

Refuse

—Christina Knowles (2015)

Photo snagged from odinist.org

How to Be Happy, Part 2 by Christina Knowles

HappyEveryone wants to be happy, right? Well, at least most of us do. A few months ago, I published a blog called, “How to Be Happy,” which has been something I’ve really been considering lately. When I first decided to write a blog about being happy, I just went with my own life experiences and gut feelings, but recently I’ve been reading books, articles, research studies, and watching lots of documentaries on the subject, and I’ve learned about some things that make a lot of sense.

In my last article, I mentioned things like being part of a community, being grateful, not getting angry over insignificant things, doing meaningful work, being humble, laughing, being honest and thoughtful, enjoying time alone, eating right, spending time in nature, enjoying the arts, giving to charity, loving animals, and cultivating relationships. After studying the subject in more depth, I found that many of these things I noticed that made me happy were found to be true in cultures around the world, but there were also some things I didn’t mention that I think are quite profound. For one thing, things like our job, income, and life situations have little to do with how happy we are. As long as we have enough to eat, a warm shelter in which to live, and have moderate security, external sources have little lasting effect on happiness. But there are some things that we can do, in addition to what I wrote in my last article, that can have a great impact on our happiness. Here is what I found:

Do something different—Studies show that people, even the ones who think they like routine (like me), benefit from changing things up and doing something completely outside what they normally do (Happy). Novelty and experiences make us happy, and are often the source of our best memories. I really do need to work on this one.

Help people—In my last blog on this subject, I mentioned giving to charity, which does make you happy, but now I am talking about doing something more tangible. Instead of merely giving money, which is helpful, physically do something to help someone. I think it makes a person even more happy because giving money is too easy, but getting your hands dirty feels like you did something bigger, something personal. Helping people always makes you feel good, but only if you don’t expect anything in return. Expectations lead to disappointment and bitterness. But knowing how you made someone feel because you were willing to give up actual time to help him always leads to happiness.

Do things that create flow—Flow is that elated mental state caused by letting go of the mind and just experiencing an almost unconscious state of action that seems effortless (Happy). It’s that feeling of being in “the zone.” Runners experience this as “runner’s high” when they reach a point where they feel they can’t go on, and then endorphins kick in, and they feel like they could go on forever. I’ve experienced runner’s high and a similar feeling while figure skating. I also felt this while writing my novel. After hours of writing, it seemed like the book began writing itself. It was effortless. I’ve heard chefs on the line experience this flow. Anything that you enjoy and do for an extended period of uninterrupted time can become like a zero-point focus, totally absorbing, and all worries and conscious thoughts seem to let go, and you become completely at peace. Apparently, many people achieve this through meditation, but I’ve never been able to properly meditate. Maybe someday.

Exercise—Exercising releases endorphins, making us healthier and happier over all. Exercise often leads to experiencing flow. It makes us healthier, which also adds to contentment, and it can be fun—at least, I’m trying to convince myself.

Sleep—Everyone knows that lack of sleep makes you irritable and unhealthy, but getting enough rest makes you mentally healthier. Some psychologists believe that dreaming is necessary to sanity, but it is commonly known that a lack of sleep can cause depression, weight gain, emotional instability, and an inability to think clearly. Having enough sleep is important to maintain health and happiness. I could definitely use more sleep.

Don’t work too much–This is the hardest thing for most of us, I think. I know I work almost all the time–days, nights, weekends. There have been numerous studies that show countries whose people work 30 hours or less per week, have the most happy citizens, or Gross National Happiness. According to the latest studies, Japan is now the least happiest country due to overwork. They are literally working themselves to death (Happy). I’m sure Americans are not far behind. If you think about it, this one issue can affect all the rest. If we are busy working, trying to pay to keep up a lifestyle that will never make us happy, then we don’t have time for community, volunteering, exercise, sleep, relationships, etc. We won’t have time to do the things that will actually make us happy. But we have to work 40 hours just to survive. For many of us, our jobs require unpaid hours at home just to keep up. It’s a conundrum.

Realize that everything and everyone is connected—Whether we believe we are connected transcendentally, spiritually, or just through energy and commonality as Einstein realized, we affect each other and everything around us (I Am). When we war with each other, hate, steal, treat animals with cruelty, destroy our environment, we are doing this to ourselves. The same is true when we do good. If we realize this connection, we are less likely to harm each other. This makes everyone happier.

Don’t believe in artificial constructs—like the economy, success, and competition. I mean really, what is the “economy?” It’s something we created that seems to enslave most people and elevates a few. Money, the stock market–it only exists because we made it important for survival. It is completely artificial in itself. Success is defined by marketing companies, television and movies, corporations, and school boards. And competition? Isn’t it natural? Doesn’t it provide motivation? Make us feel happy when we win? Not really. Don’t buy into the idea that these constructs are natural and good, and that these are the things we should be most concerned with. People who do, often live with regret and waste most of their lives. Sure, we have to live in the world in which we were born, we have to survive in this system, but we don’t have to buy into the idea that these are the primary areas in which to strive. These things never lead to happiness.

Don’t compete—Human beings are always better off sharing, cooperating, and quite often, compromising. It makes us happier, so why are we so competitive? Our personal selfishness is always reinforced in our culture, as is standing out, being number one, and crushing the competition. But competition leads to stress and disappointment most of the time. It always leaves someone feeling bad.

But standing out—or better put, feeling special, is usually pleasant. Well, the best way to feel special is to be loved, and competition is not good for loving relationships. According to Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, in Aboriginal and indigenous cultures, cooperation is given a much higher value than competition and “competition beyond certain boundaries is considered mental illness” (I Am). He studies cultures and animals to determine what is natural to us and what is a societal construct. He asks if democracies or hierarchies are more natural. He found that not only do animals rely on cooperation to survive, nature never takes more than it needs, or it dies off, as Darwin also realized. I think there is certainly a lesson for us in this. Even Darwin talked more about love and cooperation among mammals than “survival of the fittest.” Often the fittest is the one who will cooperate. Darwin also said that sympathy is one of the strongest impulses of humans (I Am).

Be empathetic and compassionate—We all share the ability for empathy. When we witness heroism, something touching, or empathize with someone going through something particularly emotional, we experience “elation” (I Am). We recognize this feeling of innate compassion for fellow beings as love and as good. This feeling makes us happy even while at the same time, we may be sad. This altruistic impulse is natural and inborn in every human, and the evidence overwhelmingly shows this tendency in other mammals as well within their own social groups, and sometimes even outside it. I prefer this “human nature” to that of the ruthless competitive “nature” that began as a flaw in childhood and was reinforced by our society. Compassion even makes us healthier, while competitiveness makes us sicker in the form of stress-related illness.

Think and be positive, and act positively—I’ve always scoffed at “positive thinkers.” I’ve never believed that we could change physical matter merely by thinking it into existence; however, more and more scientists are exploring this as a potentiality. I’ll wait for the evidence, but even if positive thinking cannot alter a physical situation, it certainly has an effect on how we perceive it—whether we take it as good or bad, and of course, our emotions in dealing with it. Acting positively will affect how others act toward us, which can positively alter our circumstances as well.

Finally, live in a way that causes the least harm to anyone or anything—If, every day, in every interaction, we consider what harm we may cause and choose the least harmful, the whole world would be a better place. We cannot avoid harm—just by existing, we cause harm to our environment. We eat plants and some of us eat animals, we live in houses, we drive cars, and produce waste. We get careless, and we say hurtful things or treat others with unkindness. However, we can choose the least harmful in every interaction with our world. We can plant gardens and use natural ways to keep pests away, we can refuse to consume meat that was raised inhumanely, we can use environmentally friendly materials and not take more than we need, we can conserve, and not waste. We can be responsible and kind. If we lived like this, how could we not be happy?Purpose

I’ve heard that our purpose, if we have one, on this planet is not to “be happy” and maybe it’s not, but it seems that we are driven to pursue it. What if being responsible, kind, and loving human beings was our purpose, and precisely because it is our purpose, it also makes us happy? Not the fleeting excitement of a new toy-kind of happiness, but joy, the deep, soul-contentment of being who we should be, who we are capable of becoming. —Christina Knowles

Sources

  • Happy. Wadi Rum Films, 2012. Film.
  • Happy Photo. yhponline.com. Web.15 May 2015.
  • Purpose Photo. Hippie Peace Freaks. Facebook. Web.15 May 2015.
  • I Am. Tom Shadyac. Flying Eye Productions, Homemade Canvas Production, and Shady Acres Films, 2010. Film.

Existdentalism: I Think; Therefore, I Am Confused by Christina Knowles

Rodin, The Thinker Snagged from Google Images
Rodin, The Thinker Snagged from Google Images

In seeking to define my worldview, I have found myself consistently drawn to seemingly oppositional philosophical viewpoints: Existentialism and Transcendentalism. At least they seem juxtaposed in most ways. My definition of Existentialism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning; we create the meaning in our own lives. There is no divine. Transcendentalism, on the other hand, is believing the divine is all around us and in us. We are in nature and nature is in us, and through communion with nature, we connect with the divine soul and are one with everything. This connection is the meaning of life.

Why do I bother defining my worldview? Why do I feel the need to label it? I’ve asked myself this question a thousand times. I believe it is because in order to live consciously, deliberately, and according to a personal value standard, which I desire to do, I need to make choices all the time that fall within certain parameters, and to be vigilant in that, they must be defined. Life is short, and to live it fully aware, one cannot blindly stumble through it.

I read extensively and eclectically, and in my reading, I come across wisdom that speaks to me what I recognize as truth. But is that which seems true, truth? Ah, the age old question asked by every ancient philosopher, and Pilate asked this to Jesus, and at some point, every thinking person must ask themselves, “What is truth?” In forming our worldviews, I find that we latch on to bits of wisdom that seem true because we recognize their wisdom according to our already established values, in which we have internalized throughout our lives from various experiences, both internally and externally. I believe we are even born with some of these values.

I have found many things that seem true in Existentialism. I love Existentialism. People say it is pessimistic and depressing. I don’t see it that way at all. I think it is liberating and comforting. Here are some of my favorite Existential aphorisms:

“I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.”—Jack Kerouac

“All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world.” –Albert Camus

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”—Jean-Paul Sarte

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” —Jean-Paul Sarte

“It’s only after you’ve lost everything, that you’re free to do anything.”—Tyler Durden

“Every true faith is infallible. It performs what the believing person hopes to find in it. But it does not offer the least support for the establishing of an objective truth. Here the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, have faith. If you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.”—Friedrich Nietzsche

“Memento mori—remember death! These are important words. If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different. If a person knows that he will die in a half hour, he certainly will not bother doing trivial, stupid, or, especially, bad things during this half hour. Perhaps you have half a century before you die—what makes this any different from a half hour?”—Leo Tolstoy

“We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something last longer than we do.”—Hermann Hesse

“As if the blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”—Albert Camus

When I read Existentialist philosophy, I want it to be true. I think it is beautiful and carefree. Unfortunately, I don’t quite buy it.

So I turn to Transcendentalism. After all, I have practiced yoga all my life. Some of my favorite works of literature are Transcendentalist works, and although I see them as contradicting Existentialist views, I see them also as containing profound truths, and one cannot help but be inspired by the idealism. Here are some of my favorite Transcendental pearls:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he had imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”—Henry David Thoreau

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”—Henry David Thoreau

“So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Wherever a man goes, men will pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate oddfellow society.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Simplicity is the glory of expression.”–Walt Whitman

“Be curious, not judgmental.”—Walt Whitman

“Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.”—Walt Whitman

“I cannot be awake for nothing looks to me as it did before, Or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been a mean sleep.”—Walt Whitman

“To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.”–Walt Whitman

“Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun . . . . there are millions of suns left. 
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand . . . . nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . . nor feed on the spectres in books.
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me.
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”

There was never any more inception than there is now,
nor any more youth or age than there is now;
and will never be any more perfection than there is now,
nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”–“Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

“An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”–Walden, Henry David Thoreau

“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” ―Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Obviously, the commonality in these two modes of thinking is the idea that we are the masters of our own destinies; we are the captains of our ships. The only thing holding us back is ourselves. This is the fundamental appeal of these beliefs for me. I love these beautiful ideas; I revel in the wisdom of these two philosophies. The practical advice they give for surviving in a savage world that seems hopeless, gives me hope–Yet, I don’t really believe any of it for a minute. Something deep inside of me says I am not completely in control, I am not the center of my universe, I am not in charge of today, let alone tomorrow. So, I turn to Modernism, Deism, maybe even some Buddhism. The effort to define life’s truths continues. Perhaps I’ll start my own philosophical movement to incorporate bits and pieces of all these things, but that sounds a lot like something an Existential-Transcendentalist would do.—Christina Knowles

Sources

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

11870085Superb! I absolutely love this book, but before extolling its literary excellence, a brief synopsis: Three teenagers with cancer, Hazel Grace, Augustus, and Isaac, meet in a cancer support group. Hazel Grace is terminal, Augustus is in remission (but had one leg amputated), and Isaac must have his second eye removed due to his cancer returning, leaving him blind. It sounds depressing, but it is filled with humor, beautiful dialogue, numerous allusions to my favorite authors, and more importantly, profound truths.

Hazel and Augustus share the same sense of humor, ask the same questions of the universe, love the same book, and rival each other’s incredible vocabulary and IQ level. Isaac becomes a sort of lovable third wheel when his girlfriend leaves him because he is now blind after promising him “always.”

Hazel fears being a “grenade” in the lives of her friends and family. She knows it is inevitable that her parents will be inconsolable when she dies, but she hesitates to get involved with Augustus because she is afraid of breaking his heart, which she sees as avoidable. Augustus fears dying and fading into oblivion. He just wants to be remembered, and he wants his death to have a purpose. He longs to be a hero, but of course, dying of cancer is pretty purposeless.

Augustus spends his cancer-perk-wish on Hazel’s dream of meeting her favorite author, Van Houten, and finding out the unwritten ending to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, about a girl dying of cancer, which stops abruptly without any resolution. Hazel and Augustus have a romantic Dutch holiday even though Van Houten is a jerk. That’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers.

Although most people I know love this book, I’ve run across a few who have various complaints, and some who downright hate the book, so I’d like to address these criticisms and get them out of the way.

The Fault in Our Stars is beautifully written, some say too beautifully. Yes, it may seem corny to certain readers that Augustus speaks in long romantic monologues, and waxes philosophical, and that Hazel and Augustus are far too mature, and it is incredibly unlikely that too super-geniuses with terminal cancer would meet and fall in love, but so what? All these things actually make the book more interesting, in my opinion. Who wants to read a book with boring, ordinary, emotionally immature, and illiterate cancer patients? It is unlikely that people in Shakespeare’s day spoke in rhyming iambic pentameter, but we appreciate the art and beauty of it, and the truths that matter are there, as they are in The Fault in Our Stars. These truths are even more abundant because they are so eloquently delivered via metaphor, symbolism, and allusion. However, I will admit that I do agree with some readers that Augustus and Hazel are too similar, almost the same character. Hazel is more serious and more selfless, but it is strangely narcissistic that they fall in love.

Another grievance among the disparagers of this novel is that it is not comforting to cancer patients or their families. Well, it is my belief that this book is not primarily written for either cancer patients, or those they leave behind. I believe it is written mainly for the obliviously healthy, those living their lives appreciating little, caring for less, and noticing naught around them, to see life through the eyes of a terminal cancer patient and wake up. Reading TFiOS is contemplating the universe vicariously through the eyes of those that have the luxury of knowing this is all the time they have, the here and now, and it is short, way too short. I don’t mean to be disrespectful by calling it luxury–cancer is horrible, senseless, cruel, but in some ways Green is saying that it is a gift, a gift to know how much time you have left and how valuable that time is. The book’s existential message is that we give life whatever meaning we want to give it, and it is beautiful and worth living to the fullest, every minute of it. Hazel and Augustus are lucky in that they know they don’t have much time left. They realize the tragedy of their impending death; therefore; they live abundantly, “sucking the marrow out of life” as Thoreau put it. We don’t do that because we don’t know we are dying; we don’t know tomorrow could be our last day.

However, the most amazing thing about this novel is all the allusion to wonderful pieces of literature. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he quotes Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” names the hamster in Van Houten’s novel, Sisyphus, refers to Walt Whitman’s philosophical ideas, and he quotes my all-time, absolute personal favorite, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, among many others. Being a book nerd, these allusions transported me to literary heaven. But Green does not quote and namedrop for no reason.

The title of the novel comes from Julius Caesar, wherein Cassius tells Brutus that it is not fate that is responsible for our misery, but our own failings are responsible for the tragedy in our lives. But when Van Houten writes in his letter to Augustus, “Never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves.’ Easy enough to say when you are a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars” (Green, p. 111-112). By titling the book, The Fault in Our Stars, Green emphasizes his point that cancer is a purposeless disease that chooses its victims with no rhyme or reason. I LOVE the title.

I also love the allusion to Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” for a similar reason:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day

Nothing gold can stay. –Robert Frost

 

Again Green highlights the fact that everything is temporary, especially what is most beautiful, but that only makes us appreciate it more. Because this line is also associated with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which would be familiar to most teens, I think Green means to bring in the totality of meaning that S.E. Hinton intended in her novel. Hazel Grace and Augustus, like Pony Boy in The Outsiders, need to “Stay gold” even though they are losing their innocence while facing a cruel world.

The hamster in Hazel Grace and Augustus’s favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction (the meaning of this title is self-explanatory), is named Sisyphus. Sisyphus is an obvious allusion to the mythological Sisyphus who was required to roll a boulder up a hill over and over, just to watch it roll down again. Albert Camus’s essay, Myth of Sisyphus, uses Sisyphus as an example to put forth his philosophy of the Absurd. Camus tells of Sisyphus’s meaningless task to show how humans search for meaning where there is none. According to Camus, Sisyphus was happy because, to him, this meaningless activity had meaning. In other words, humans create our own meaning (Existentialism) and this quest to find meaning in meaningless things gives people meaning. Hazel Grace and Augustus realize this; they see the absurdity of the world. They don’t try to explain their illnesses or find meaning in it. It just sucks. They are not comforted by platitudes, even though Augustus commonly creates his own in his lengthy monologues; however, they do grudgingly accept the value in them to those who will be left behind.

Finally, I think it was pure brilliance to include the allusions to Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This most beautifully rhythmic and meaningful poem is a Modernist work, which by definition is cynical, self-reflective, and anti-traditional. Augustus is afraid to become Prufrock. Prufrock is fading into oblivion, not from disease, but from age. Nevertheless there are many similarities between Augustus and Prufrock. Prufrock has desires, but sees himself and his life as unremarkable, too unremarkable to reach out for the love for which he longs and has let slip away throughout his life. He is too careful, too reserved, a minor character–“no Prince Hamlet.” He asks the big questions, but is afraid to find the answer to his “overwhelming question.” At one point he asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” (This blog is named for this poem, in case you didn’t know.) Augustus wants to disturb the universe, needs to disturb the universe before he goes. His biggest fear is being like Prufrock, letting love slip away, life slip away, unnoticed, unremarkable, and for no heroic reason. One of the first lines Hazel quotes shows the bleak reality of life and the emptiness of searching for significance where there is none: “Let us go through certain half-deserted streets,/ The muttering retreats/ Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:/ Streets that follow like a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question . . ./ Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’/ Let us go and make our visit” (Eliot, quoted from Green, p. 153). It is relevant that Augustus’s response to her delivering this quote is: “I’m in love with you” (p. 153). Augustus sees in Hazel a soul-mate, who recognizes the futility of asking that question. This book made it in to my top ten favorite books right then and there.

I love this book because it is the kind of book that makes me reconsider, makes me contemplate the big questions, and then encourages me to put all that aside and just live fully. It encourages me, but like Prufrock, I am constantly led to ask that question. Nevertheless, this is the kind of book that stays with me, but if it fades, I will read it again and again. It occurred to me that this book is saying the opposite of the providential message of The Goldfinch, which I also found extremely profound. Truthfully, I’ll never stop looking for answers, but it is important to be reminded to live in the spaces between questions.

So, I really don’t care if it isn’t probable that two brilliant cancer patients like Hazel Grace and Augustus would have their stars cross in real life because there are truths more important than how large the vocabulary of the average teenager is likely to be. Truths like cancer sucks, bad things happen for no reason, and life is a gift to be lived and cherished every minute without fear because no one is promised tomorrow, and we don’t have to figure it all out; we just get to live it. 5 out of 5 stars.–Christina Knowles

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