Is life worth living even when we know death is around the corner? Does life need to have a transcendental meaning to be meaningful?
The wonderful motion picture “The Fault in our Stars” attempts to answer these timeless questions by focusing on the love story of two terminally ill teenagers.
Teenage love should be filled with the joy and exhilaration of knowing that the best days of your life are ahead of you: never-ending romantic evenings, marriage, parenthood and aging in the comfort and warmth of each other’s care. It should not come with a time bomb that says that all of a sudden either you or your lover will die at a few hours notice.
In the case of Hazel and Augustus, madly in love yet hopelessly ill with cancer, the question is: why should they invest in their relationship if they live on borrowed time? Heck, why should they really invest in anything at all? The more they attach to life, the harder it becomes to let go of it.
Augustus is obsessed with leaving a legacy, with being remembered through the annals of history. Hazel isn’t able to engage whole-heartedly in any activity and spends each day simply going through the motions. As she puts it at the beginning of the movie, “depression is not a side effect of cancer; it’s a side effect of dying”.
By finding each other, the two teens discover that love can bring meaning to both of their lives, no matter how short-lived. Augustus understands that he doesn’t have to be a Mozart or an Einstein to have a life worth living… that doesn’t need make his mark on all humanity to feel fulfilled: his legacy will be treasured by Hazel, by his friends and his family, that’s all that matters. On her part, Hazel discovers that love can fill even even the shortest life with meaning and can make every last minute worth living.
The movie is filled with memorable, amazingly touching scenes. Perhaps the one that resonated with me the most is the romantic, five-star dinner in Amsterdam, complete with bottles of champaign and the chef’s full selection of delicacies. Hazel and Augustus savored every last bite, every last drop of champagne and every last instant of each other’s company. For one night they forgot their existential plight; for one night they were able not to think about what awaits them around the corner, about never being able to fulfill their dreams of being a “normal” young couple. What is so touching is that their tragic circumstances forced them to grow up very quickly, to go through the various phases of their relationship in fast-forward mode. You usually don’t have a candlelight dinner at sixteen, in a dark suit/long gown, overflowing with champagne; but then again, you are not supposed to be terminally ill at sixteen either.
The message is inescapable, and I think the analogy with Ann Frank’s death – which the movie pointedly makes – is not far fetched: Ann was able to find love and beauty up until the moment she died; Hazel and Augustus had that same strength.
Hopefully, we too can abandon our own delusions of leaving a legacy of some consequence to humanity and focus instead on leaving a tiny – yet infinite – legacy to those that really matter in our life, however few; hopefully we too can learn to appreciate every minute of our life, however inconsequential and ephemeral.
Two quotes come to mind: “for the world you may be nothing, but for someone you are the world” (anonymous); “It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses” (Dag Hammarskjold).