The ecstatic joy of knowing you have a soul (and why I loved The Fault in Our Stars)

July 15, 2014 | 42 comments

A fun and surprisingly intense debate has broken out among my friends over the past few months, and it revolves around this question:

The Fault in Our Stars: depressing or uplifting?

One of my friends summarized her impression the book by saying, “It’s a sad story where everything is bad and then more bad stuff happens. Why did I need to read that?” She is on Team Depressing, and a lot of people I know are with her.


A note my babysitter found in her copy of the book, left by her friend.

I, however, am on the other team. I loved this book. I don’t mean “loved” like “I enjoyed it quite a lot”; I mean “loved” like “LOVED!!!!”

Like, I feel an eternal longing deep within my chest every time I see the cover.

Like, some people probably thought I was reading a book called The Fault I-I-Iii, because every time I tried to talk about it I’d get choked up after the second word.

It’s about kids with cancer so, yeah, the subject matter is extremely depressing. But I did not find the book itself to be depressing at all. In fact, I thought it was one of the most life-affirming stories I’ve ever read.

I have been baffled by the fact that so many of my friends found it to be such a dreary read, so I began an impassioned investigation into the issue. It mainly involved bringing it up at dinner parties and sending a bunch of texts that said U didn’t like TFIOS? WTH?, but by the end of this scientific investigation, I began to see some patterns in the responses. Most interestingly, I noticed that people’s takes on the book tended to fall along the same lines as their spiritual history.

Specifically: People who have always been believers don’t tend to like the book as much as those who have known atheism.

Whether or not the results of my rigorous study can be extrapolated to each of the ten gazillion people who have read The Fault in Our Stars, the realization made everything click for me. I finally got why certain of my friends thought it was a downer, and I can finally explain why I didn’t.

Here’s what I think it is:

The Fault in Our Stars proves the soul. Its characters are supremely human, and by “human” I mean “a creature greater than the sum of its molecules.” If you have always understood that humans are more than just advanced apes, that the spiritual world exists and we have a special connection to it, I can see how the book would seem to be not much more than a well-written story about suburbanite kids with cancer.

But if you have ever looked at your life through the lens of a strict atheist materialist worldview, everything changes.

As I described in my own book, the idea that humans are nothing more than randomly evolved collections of chemical reactions troubled me all my life. I saw humans as advanced apes. I believed that all animals — humans included — had no essence or value that transcended the molecules that composed their bodies.

Other atheists are able to find beauty and meaning within that worldview; I never could. I was with atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who looked at the inevitable extinction of the entire human experience and said that the only way to deal with it is to build your life on a “firm foundation of unyielding despair.”

I didn’t understand why I should attempt to amass wonderful memories and experiences, when all of those memories and experience would be multiplied by zero at the moment of my death. Every time I felt profoundly moved by a piece of music or wiped tears from my eyes upon witnessing a heroic deed, my happiness would be doused by the icy reality that what I was feeling was just neurons firing in my brain.

Though I didn’t understand this at the time, the reason those realizations were always so depressing is because they clashed so violently with what seemed to be true.

It seemed like experiences of love or anguish had an origin outside the physical matter of the brain. It seemed like a human life was more valuable than its technical status as a meaningless collection of organic material on one of the 40 billion planets in the galaxy would indicate. When I read a great epic or encountered a work of art that drew me deeper into the human experience, it really, really seemed like there was something going on there that was real and would last, even if the earth and all the life it contained blew up tomorrow.

In fact, I kept acting like a creature with a soul. I kept seeking meaning and transcendence. I yearned for purpose, even when I didn’t believe that a greater purpose to human life could exist.


For those of you who have read Something Other than God: This pic was taken during the trip to Ruidoso, NM I describe in Chapter 12. 

Eventually, after doing this for all 27 years of my life, I started to wonder if maybe the reason we humans always act like we have a connection to the transcendent is because we actually do. I started to think that the essence of a human life might stretch beyond the body’s years on earth.

When the thought first crossed my mind — the first time I’d ever seriously questioned atheism — it shook me to the core. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I suspected it was right. I couldn’t prove it in a laboratory, yet the idea of humans as having an essence, a soul, that has an origin outside the material world made so many things make sense. It explained human behavior and the human experience in a way that a purely atheist materialist worldview could not.

When that realization clicked, I experienced a flood of joy and relief that is hard to describe. All my life I’d lived with the wearying friction of trying to jam the square peg of atheism into the round hole of reality, and now it was suddenly gone. In its place, I felt a sense of hope I’d never known. I felt like I had gotten closer to the truth about the real meaning of life. I was eager to explore further — and, as dispassionate as I tried to be, I couldn’t escape the feeling that whatever I discovered next was going to be good.

This was the moment that came to mind when I was finally able to articulate why I loved The Fault in Our Stars.


image source

The characters in that story are deeply, fully alive, in the way that only soul-having creatures can be. They give selflessly. They become impassioned over great works of art. They reflect on their circumstances, and experience rage and sorrow and joy and hope. They laugh, despite their bodies being ravaged by disease. They prize love over all, even in the face of death.

They don’t go into detail about their spiritual beliefs; there are no theological treatises about the likelihood of an eternal afterlife. Yet they are so obviously players in a divine drama, so clearly connected to the universal human experience in a way that prisoners of their own neurons could not be, that I have to think that this story would have made me question atheism if I had read it when I was a nonbeliever.

I believe that John Green’s greatest accomplishment with this story is that he describes people who operate fully in that realm of consciousness that no other animal on earth can access — and in doing so, he reminds us all what it is to be human.

When I finished the last page of The Fault in Our Stars, I experienced a unique sensation that I hadn’t felt in a long time. (Actually, I sobbed mindlessly for about five minutes. But then I experienced the sensation.) I was never able to articulate it at the time, but now I know what it was:

The warm glow that swelled within me when I put down that book was the same feeling that surged through my heart the moment I first questioned atheism.

It was the satisfaction of having the truth about the human experience click into place, and the hope of knowing that all of those yearnings for transcendence were based on something real. It was a silent voice that whispered, Yes, yes, of course we have souls!…and the feeling that that was only the beginning of the most wonderful truth of all.

. . .


  1. Rebecca

    I completely loved the book for the same reasons you did. Then I saw the movie and was overwhelmingly disappointed, it was faithful to the book plot but missed the book’s spirit.

  2. Becky

    I have often had the experience that a book I really liked, even loved, was the basis of an insipid movie, as you say, faithful to the plot, but missing the point. For instance, Twilight.

  3. Amy

    I have been debating whether or not to read this book, and now I think I will. As a former atheist, I want to test your theory. Plus, you make it sound wonderful!

  4. Christine

    Your comment makes me nervous, if only because my 15 year old LOVES this book, has read it half a dozen times, and also loved the movie. I’m sort of hoping that your theory is about *adults* who love/hate the book.

    Maybe I should borrow her Kindle and read it.

  5. Julia

    Based on your theory, I’ll end up on Team Depressing if I read the book, but your review of it is so compelling that I might have to take that risk… (If nothing else, I could lend it to the atheists in my life thereafter…)

  6. Claudia

    Hi Jen! I haven’t read the book, but I went with five friends to see the movie — and we all loved it, with the same reaction as you — life affirming vs just too sad. Two of the women had read the book, and said that while the book told more of the story, the movie was still really good. So you’ve inspired me to read the book, and I’ll encourage you to view the film!

  7. Bridget N

    I was on the third team, Team Meh. I read the book because I had heard and read so many good things about it. The title kept popping up on Facebook, Pinterest, in conversations. I almost wish it hadn’t because I went into it with everyone else’s high expectations and rave reviews in the back of my mind, only to finish it feeling “meh.” I could take it or leave it. I didn’t really like either main character, so it was hard to empathize with them. I felt more emotional reading about Augustus’ parents and what they went through at the end than for anyone else, but maybe that’s because I relate more to a grieving parent than an angsty teen. Sorry for being a wet blanket! I did enjoy reading your post about it. It gives me better insight into why so many people enjoyed TFIOS.

  8. Rachel

    I teach high school so I wanted to read TFIOS this summer because many of my students were talking about it this spring. I really enjoyed it and went by myself to see the movie once school was out for the summer, and it made a really good movie too IMO. I’ve read most of John Green’s other books this summer and found them all enjoyable, but An Abundance of Katherine’s has been my favorite.

    • Christine Johnson

      My daughter really wants to read An Abundance of Katherines! Maybe I’ll see about getting her a copy. The plot to that one seems really interesting. She’s read several John Greene books now, and a few of them in snippets in bookstores.

    • Laurie

      Curious what is the youngest age you would allow to read this book? Thinking as a mother, please! I worry about the relationship aspect and the want to have sex before they die (before they are married–haven’t read the book, but I hear they do!). Not sure if it’s appropriate for an 11 year old. Of course, I plan to read the book first but just checking someone else’s opinion…

      • Jenn

        I completely missed the fact that they slept together when reading the book. I didn’t know about it until I saw that scene in the movie — it’s more subtle in the book, so it may be okay…

  9. Tammy

    You just did a great job of describing why I do my work…

    The worst insult someone can give me when they learn that I care for dying newborns for a living (Perinatal Bereavement and Hospice) is “I couldn’t do your job because I love babies”. That infers that I am capable of caring for them because i DONT like them when the opposite is the truth. I love them so much that I want to help them express their transcendent importance on the world that is most often not prepared to receive their message.

    The parents and families of these babies are so often weighed down heavily by profound grief that there are parts of the whole experience that they could miss but by elevating some parts of it up for them to see, they can have a deeper and more healing life changing experience that can leave them fuller of love rather than bereft in death.

    • Jennifer

      What a beautiful gift you must give to the families of these babies!

    • Jessica

      Tammy, you are doing the work of a living saint. May God bless you.

  10. Caroline Starr Rose

    All good fiction should do this — show us our humanity, point us to hope.

    I found TFIOS incredibly brave and loved the light touch John Green was able to use when discussing cancer. Have to say, though, my favorite John Green read is AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES.

  11. Allison H.

    Having children with health issues (in our case, cystic fibrosis) does indeed force you to live “deeply, fully alive.” It’s a gift; it’s how we can say that such an awful thing made us better. Along with that existential peace, though, I’d give anything for a cure!

  12. Ashley

    I wouldn’t say I LOVED this book in the same intense way you do but I did enjoy it quite a bit. I loved the way Hazel is portrayed because she honestly reminds me of parts of myself as a teenager. While I faced nothing even in the same realm of her cancer, I did have repeated painful eye surgeries as a teenager. I remember very specifically the Non-Denominational Church I attended with my family at the time felt so alienating. It was as if my pain was insignificant “because of Jesus”. The reality is that even as an adult I struggle with the concept of God allowing suffering and because of the way my mind works, my faith will always be messy and complicated and not fit into some tidy little box. I think without mentioning faith specifically the book captures that life can be full of pain and joy and confusion and lots and lots and lots of grey. I think that is hard for people who are more black and white thinkers.

    Another aspect of the book I enjoyed was how it touched on our children as more than an extension of ourselves. That’s hard to remember as a parent. Hazel’s despair that her parents will suffer because of her is so touching, especially to parents like me who have lost a child. I think that the way John Green portrayed that relationship and its delicate balance was really beautiful.

    The relationship between Hazel and Gus is so sweet. The author was able to incorporate the starry-eyed whirlwind romance of teenagers while also seasoning that with the idea that Hazel and Gus, due partly to their illnesses, were wise beyond their years. Overall I thought this was a lovely book, and a great story. I wasn’t overwhelmed by it like some but I couldn’t put it down.

  13. Sandra R

    My 13 yr old wanted to read this, but I wanted to check it out first. She saw me bawling my eyes out every time I picked it up. I gave permission, but she didn’t want to read it after seeing how sad it is. I loved it, but I’ll skip the movie.

  14. Amanda

    I loved this book and I will read it with new eyes now.

  15. Tracy

    I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was well written and not too depressing. I did think the characters assorted “philosophies” on life where pretty flimsy but I think that is pretty true to how teenagers think. The biggest issue I had with the book was the sex. I do appreciate that it wasn’t graphic but I find it disturbing in a book meant for teenagers. Sex has certainly been a theme in most of the big teen novels that last several years and its a shame because it is not at all necessary to the story. But unfortunately I wouldn’t let my children (when they are teenagers) read this book any more than I would let them watch a PG-13 movie with sex scenes in it.

    • Mary Therese

      Thank you Tracy, I was beginning to think I was alone in this regard! I read it when my 17 yr old son went to see the movie with his girlfriend. Based on reviews I had read, I did not want him to see it, but knew he was going to without my approval, so I at least wanted to read the book so I could discuss it with him. I was also disappointed because some of our local Catholic schools had it on their “Summer Reading” lists. The sex is in so many books now that it appears to have become acceptable, even to the point of Catholic schools recommending books such as this to teens with no discussion of the moral content whatsoever.

  16. Veronica

    I haven’t read this book, and I don’t think I’ll ever do. I’m just not interested, however much people rave about it. Meh. I’ll rather read something that makes me smile instead.

  17. Laura

    I read the book but didn’t see the movie. I liked the book but, and maybe I’m the only one, I got so hung up on his obvious (and even stated by the author) lack of medical research. As someone who has had thyroid cancer I just couldn’t get past that. Also, my husband used a CPAP and I’d never had to hook him up to it. It sounded more like she was in an iron lung. I figured, why put so much into the book and then not bother to do some minimal medical research to make it believable? Again, maybe I’m the only one out there who couldn’t get past it.

    PS I did still cry at the end 🙂

  18. Ali

    I just read TFIOS last week (in two long, tearful sessions) and it didn’t really occur to me that it could be classified as depressing. Sad, yes, but not depressing. I didn’t get the ‘soul’ aspect you describe (maybe because I’m a lifelong Christian, and should have fallen on the ‘depressing’ side of the fence) but I did find it life affirming. Even while Hazel and Gus knew they were dying, they were also still living. I also thought it was trying to teach us as readers how to treat (and how not to treat) people with terminal illnesses.

  19. Anne

    And now I will bump it further up on my to-read list! I love your impassioned essay, Jen! When I have doubts, it is so wonderful to have moments like what you describe: of course we have souls!! Of course!

    Nancy at Reading Catholic posted a link to a great profile of John Green you might like:

    I’ve only read Looking for Alaska, which I liked but did not love. Looking forward to Fault. (Some theology/philosophy in Alaska, Jen.)

  20. Michelle

    I’m deviating here. First of all, I thank God for your continuing story. It has really influenced my journey as a cradle catholic.

    And I can’t help but thank God for whoever baptized you. (Grandparent? Couldn’t remember who.)It proves to me that it really is the Holy Spirit, through the indelible mark of the sacrament, that breathes the very life of God into our souls and not just a formality or because we as parents spoke for the child. It’s probably pretty hard to fully extinguish. That is why I am always so grieved when parents choose to wait until the child is old enough to know what they are doing.

    PS. Have you read The Glass Castle?

  21. Tabitha

    Yes yes yes! I loved this book so much, I wrote a long essay for my daughters about how Catholic it really is (I’d love to share it with the world!), but my dear, faithful, holy book club moms hated it: “it’s so dark, and no one in the book is Catholic and knows the fullness of truth…”

    Time and again, I’ve realized that as someone who lost her faith, only to find it again after many long, hard years, I see the Truth from a very different perspective–I like to say I see the light from the darkness. For me, it was love that led me to God: the love of my (agnostic Hindu) husband, who loved me madly despite my anger and my self-loathing. The love the characters have for one another in the book–parents to child, young man to young woman–showed the TRUTH of eternity, through pain, through loss, through suffering.

    This book led to awesome discussions with my teenage daughters (with certain words and scenes redacted, of course). Count me in the fan club of “light from the darkness,” along with Flannery O’Connor, Sigrid Undset, Graham Greene, and even C. S. Lewis (Til we Have Faces)!

  22. Mary

    I am a cradle Catholic and I never danced with unbelief. I have been reluctant to recommend TFIOS to anyone because it seemed to me that people might focus on the profane parts of the book and not get the central message. I loved the book, and felt that it was supremely uplifting. These kids met in a place that Hazel called “The Heart of Jesus” if my memory is correct. The met in the heart of Jesus. To me it was a story about loved lived and felt. We are all destined to die. I don’t find that sad at all because I am sure that I will also live forever with Christ. And the sacred people I meet and love with the heart of Jesus are part of the holiness in me and in the characters in that book. And that probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else. Reading my comment over, I don’t think it says what I mean in my heart. But, thanks for writing the post about this book and your take on it.

  23. Lisa-Jo

    OK this is so interesting. Maybe I need to read the book in addition to watching the movie – which is where I started. And I found the movie to be totally depressing but not because it was about two teenagers dying of cancer. That part had been so hyped and talked about and written about that I felt pretty numb to that element. What depressed me was how in the movie it didn’t seem like they were connected to anything outside of their physical bodies or realm. They were so one-dimensional as spiritual creatures. There was no more. There was only the finality of oblivion. It was so sad, so much wasted when we don’t view it in terms of the eternal story. It was depressing to me because they were the end of their stories and that is never enough for someone who believes in a lavish existence that grows only more powerful through the eyes of Christ’s redeemed ending. And the two actors in the movie – well for me, they didn’t realize any special state of being or love for life or depth of character. They were sick and Augustus particularly was a turn off to me with his obsession with his own legacy. So yea, maybe the book will give me a glimpse of more, eh?

  24. ~ Nona

    I haven’t read the book but now it’s going on my To Read SOON! list.

    I’ve given a great deal of thought to the concept of the soul in the past few days. The reason? The blog article that I just wrote for The Human Life Review may explains it best:

  25. Karen Edmisten

    Oh, I loved this book, too. Sobbed as well. 🙂
    The book does what good writing should do — makes us think about what it means to be human.

  26. John

    I read TFIOS two years ago, (that time I went through all of John Green’s novels in the course of two weeks)and I had mixed feelings about the book. I admired it for its very accurate portrayal of the human condition. I enjoyed the wit and the banter and the conversations.

    The sadness I felt for Gus and Hazel was because they were not able to encounter “The Transcendental” (as you beautifully describe it) that they were unknowingly searching for. They don’t get a chance to meet HIM, when all along HE was surely eager to make HIMSELF known to them and let them experience how much HE loves them.

    For every Jennifer Fulwiler who has been graced to call The Transcendental by name, how many Gus and Hazel are there who do not even realize that they are longing for the transcendent. Will they even come to honestly acknowledge that they have an eternal soul after all?

    “The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.” Augustus Waters

  27. Christine

    I am on team MEH, as noted above. It was a good story, as far as it goes. I didn’t find it depressing at all just…meh. And, while it points in the general direction of humanity, I feel it falls short of actually giving any hope. I found the book to be excellent at bringing up all the right questions, throwing them in the air, dissecting them, staring at them, gaping at them. Then walking away. Meh.

  28. Irrelevant

    I was and athiest but I loath drama. So, at least one exemption from your theory.

  29. REM

    I liked the book a lot, but I actually thought it was a little too safe, the cancer experience a little too sanitized. My daughter went through a bout of cancer (spine/brain tumor) as a baby and is currently undergoing testing now at 9 years old and… so many of the “heartstrings moments” of TFIOS hit me as too self-aware and too cleanly expressed for the book to hit the realm of art. That being said, I read it in a day (on my iphone!) and cried like a baby at the end!

    I wonder if more than your faith experience, it’s your experience of suffering that informs how you react to books/movies like this. I love gritty books – it helps me process my own sorrows to “experience” how universal they are. I know people who can’t bear them, though – it’s not cathartic for them, instead it adds to feeling burdened. I read your book, Jen, and I’d say the existential angst you felt before converting was a real source of suffering, and your reaction to TFIOS more related to that – how you experience relief from the memory of pain – than anything.

  30. Martha

    I did not like this book at all – because I found the main characters to be such total tossers. Self-obsessed, melodramatic, and scornful of the best in their parents, they showcase the side of teens that I find least appealing (and I work with them).

    I will give him this – his characters are human. But whether they are likable is up for debate.

  31. Kara

    I have had a 6 month hangover from this book. A real painful love affair! It bums me out a bit that there are graphic sex scenes in a YA book. I suggest it to all the adults I know, but I’m still considering the best approach for teens.

  32. Jessica

    I haven’t read TFIOS (I’m not sure if I will) but I just have to note that Tess of the D’Urbervilles could also be described as, “It’s a sad story where everything is bad and then more bad stuff happens. Why did I need to read that?” . . . and despite this, I would highly recommend Tess. Good literature should move us deeply!

  33. Michelle

    Nice photo you got there.

    like i commented earlier, too many awesome stuffs to check out on here.

  34. Monica

    I have not read the book but I read the New Yorker profile of John Greene. I thought it was interesting that he was enrolled in seminary to become an Episcopal priest but dropped out and became a writer.

  35. Mary

    I picked up the book at the library after reading your post, Jen. I loved it! Very moving, very complex at times. Well written. Thanks for taking the time to write about it.

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