I recently read A Fault in Our Stars by John Green and one line has attached itself to me like the scabies parasite that burrowed into my abdomen after one summer camp canoe trip at age 12. I was itchy and red and uncomfortable because these little mites had taken refuge in my body. Gross. It took days to get them out of my system, and even though I couldn’t physically see them, my thoughts were consumed by them simply knowing they were there, gnawing at me physically and mentally.
OK, so the line from Green’s novel that stuck with me isn’t gross nor uncomfortable like scabies, but it has been equally consuming mentally. Like the parasite in my abdomen, this line has penetrated and settled itself into my psyche and each day it gets itchy in thought, until now I’m compelled to write about it.
In the book, the main character, Hazel, is trying to figure out what she believes happens after we die. With all the suffering she has seen, she can’t imagine there is a magical place like heaven with harps etc, but she also isn’t comfortable with death just being the end. Her father thoughtfully responds to her saying “I don’t know if heaven exists, but I had a math teacher in college once say, ‘Sometimes it seems the universe wants to be noticed.’ That’s what I believe. I believe the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.”
I read those lines and I was instantly hit Batman style: “BAM!” “SMACK!” “WHOMP!” I had to re-read it a few times to really absorb the impact of the punch. “Sometimes it seems the universe wants to be noticed.” Yes.
Through A Fault in our Stars, Green deeply notices not only the harrowing experience of cancer, but the angst of teenage years, the complexity of family and friendships, and the intricacies of love. He elegantly describes both the destruction and beauty each leave in their wake.
When I asked my two teenage nieces about their reactions to the book, they said things like:
- “It was practical and normal…and still I never got bored.”
- “There was a truth to it…about what it’s like to be a teenager.”
- “He didn’t trivialize the experience.”
- “He didn’t avoid the pain. Pain happens, but there can still be beautiful things within it and in spite of it.”
Green noticed. He observed. And then, through the elegance of his words, the elegance of the universe came to life for his readers to take in and take pause. That’s the gift of great writing.
Whether it’s through the meticulous description of radiation treatment, a forest, or a heart breaking, we take the time to notice when others do not. We respond through our prose to the universe’s desire. And our words have the power to bring depth to a world where most scurry like rats foraging the surface for survival each day. Our calling is to remind others to stop and pay attention. You’re moving too quickly.
Many of us struggle to know if the sweat and tears we shed to find the right words really matters to anyone but ourselves, but I beg you to remember the last time you got Batman smacked by a line from a good book. Finding the right words means noticing. Really noticing. It is needed. It is essential. It is our gift to the world.