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The Fault in Our Stories Print E-mail
By Daniel McInerny   
Friday, 27 June 2014

As we came out of the theater into the lobby, the mother turned to her teenage daughter and asked, “Is that what you wanted?” I found it an odd question. Not, “Did you like the movie?” or “Did you think it was as good as the book?” But: “Is that what you wanted?” As if to say, “Did it satisfy your need? Did you get your fix?”

The movie we had just seen was The Fault in Our Stars, an adaptation of John Green’s best-selling young adult, or “new adult,” novel of the same name. And indeed, since the book’s publication in early 2012, The Fault in Our Stars has served as a kind of heroin for teenage and not-so-teenage girls.

The book has sold more than 10 million copies (and so far in 2014, it’s still the bestselling book in the United Kingdom). On its opening weekend in the United States, the movie shoved aside Tom Cruise’s sci-fi thriller, Edge of Tomorrow, for number 1, and has already grossed over $164 million worldwide.  

The Fault in Our Stars is a 21st-century story of star-crossed young lovers, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, who meet in a cancer support group for teenagers. She is battling thyroid cancer; he, though currently cancer free, lost a leg to osteosarcoma. It’s a seductive tale, not least because it glorifies illicit teenage sex, but more importantly, because it glorifies the particular kind of authenticity young audiences crave.

Hazel Grace’s first-person narration in the book, in fact, is a kind of homage to Holden Caulfield’s sweetly disaffected irony in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Like Holden, both Hazel Grace and Augustus are desperately seeking authenticity in a world of phoniness. Their parents, doctors, friends, cancer support group – in one way or another, all fail to deliver what they need to make sense of their looming and untimely deaths.

So what they turn to for authenticity is, first, their romance, a romance given a certain mawkish poignancy by their illnesses. Hazel Grace and Augustus fall in love as teenagers do, but they bond in part over the fact that they know, in a way not even their parents and doctors can ever know, what it really means to have to deal with a fatal disease.

Parents play a somewhat bigger role in The Fault in Our Stars than they do in The Catcher in the Rye, but they nonetheless do little more than hover in the background with cheerfully supportive smiles and greeting card advice. In the movie, after Hazel Grace and Augustus enjoy an afternoon of bliss, it is clear that Hazel Grace’s mother suspects them but chooses to remain silent. Teenage sex seems to be regarded by her as play in the Garden of Innocence, and the fact that the young lovers both have cancer makes their interlude that much more agonizingly piquant.

But what makes The Fault in Our Stars more interesting than your garden-variety young adult novel is the second way in which Hazel Grace and Augustus find authenticity, and that is through a philosophical questioning of their predicament as young people with terminal illnesses. They each want to know whether life and suffering have any point.


    Whose fault?

In the cancer support session where they first meet, Hazel Grace makes her stand on these issues plain:

There will come a time. . .when all of us are dead. . . .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. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this. . .will have been for naught. . . .And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.

This speech occurs in the first chapter of the novel. You expect the narrative to deliver an arc in which Hazel Grace undergoes a transformation in her thinking. But it doesn’t. Much later, in a conversation with the author of her favorite novel, a favorite because of its authentic portrayal of dealing with cancer, the author, now a cynical alcoholic, suddenly asks Hazel Grace if she’s ever heard of Antonietta Meo, a six-year-old Italian girl from the 1930s who died of osteosarcoma (and has since been declared Venerable by the Church).

Hazel Grace says no. The author continues:

They removed her right leg. The pain was excruciating. As Antonietta Meo lay dying at the ripened age of six from this agonizing cancer, she told her father, “Pain is like fabric: The stronger it is, the more it’s worth.” Is that true, Hazel?
Hazel Grace answers, “That’s bullshit.” To which the author cries back: “But don’t you wish it were true?”

Perhaps she does – but it is only a wish. Hazel Grace and Augustus see themselves as set apart from others by the “good faith” of their authentic questioning. But their questions do not receive anything like adequate answers; for them, authenticity means realizing that the universe does not really care about us, that suffering does not have a point. Both book and novel openly mock the Christian response to suffering. All that endures is the memory of romance – and this only until oblivion comes.

The Fault in Our Stars is quite possibly exerting a greater philosophical influence upon young people in our culture than all the intros to philosophy combined. We have to find better stories to meet the needs of those who, like the girl at the screening I went to, come to this story as part of their own search for authenticity. The fault will be grave if we do not.

 
Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.

 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (23)Add Comment
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written by Randall, June 27, 2014
This piece and yesterday's by Professor Esolen make a good pair. The culture we swim in is toxic.

So, my question to subsequent commenters is this: Where are the modern Catholic novels and short stories? I know Ignatius Press offers some titles, but I'd like to read some suggestions from other readers. Thank you in advance to anyone who answers my question.
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written by Manfred, June 27, 2014
@Randall: You may want to try the lives of Padre Pio and St. Francis of Assisi. Both of these Saints prayed for, and received, the stigmata, the actual wounds that Christ suffered on the cross. They bore them for years, suffering continuously. They understood by Divine grace, just as Antoinetta Meo above, that suffering pleases God as it atones in part for the sins of all in the world. That is why Christ, the Divine Son of the Father, was required to suffer such a horrific death as an atonement. (BTW,the word excruciating comes from the word crucifixion)
You should also look up Frank Sheed's "Theology and Sanity" and "The Map of Life" which were originally published by Sheed and Ward ((Frank Sheed and his wife Maisie Ward were friends of my parents).
Fr. Robert Barron teaches that very few, if any, souls are in Hell. If we are going to be saved in any event, why would not Hazel Grace and Augustus above merely take their own lives? Suffering makes no sense when you leave the fonts of Catholic teaching.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, June 27, 2014
“All religion, “Rosenzweig argued, “responds to man's anxiety in the face of death (against which philosophy is like a child stuffing his fingers in his ears and shouting, "I can't hear you!")”

Hence, Pascal’s unblinking realism: “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, of whom some are butchered each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.”
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written by Mike horn, June 27, 2014
The problem the article dances around is an old one, the Problem of Evil. If the Church teaches that pain and suffering are good, so good that people pray to receive stigmata, then you have lost many people, myself included. Pain is not good. A 6 year old child who lost a leg and now dies in horrible pain is not good. People actively requesting pain is perverse.
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Then the additional claim that teens finding some physical pleasure inside their companionship is somehow evil? How?
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Any religion with priorities this backwards deserves declining membership. I was raised and confirmed Catholic, but this kind of perverse "advice" and notion of goodness is actually quite evil. It does nothing to help the sick, feed the hungry, lift the poor from desperation. All it does is tell them their pain is good in god's eyes, then gives up on doing anything constructive to help. Perverse. Evil.
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written by Augustine Thomas, June 27, 2014
I'll pray for you Mike!
Suffering is good. There's a reason the young saint handles her pain more gracefully at the age of six than an angry secularist at any age.
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written by Bruno, June 27, 2014
Mike, the Catholic view is not that 'pain is inherently good' and indeed I don't think any one should pray for receiving stigmata; where did you get that from? Quit being prejudiced and go read St. John of the Cross.

How does one explain the goodness of God in the face of pain and evil, specially when it afflicts children?

Perhaps one cannot, or at least I don't know how to. Faith, however, enables that seeming contradiction to sublimate, that irresolvable logical contradiction to find its meaning in a higher dimension, and thus we behold the innocent God who suffered Himself. In other words, it is not that suffering is good, but that absent this higher plane, we will never make sense of it. And that includes you too, Mike; even though you're better than all saints and prophets and faithful, you still don't know what to do about suffering. What would your utilitarian logic prompt you to do: anesthetize as many as possible, induce coma in others? Even then there would still be suffering and all your feeding of of the hungry would not help you even to begin making sense of it. Drop the pride.

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written by Tony, June 27, 2014
To Mike above: It is notable that those people who endure suffering most patiently are also those whose hearts are most open to the poor; and those people who flee from suffering also flee from the stench and the noise of the poor, keeping the perfume of their humanitarianism between themselves and their unhappy brothers.

The Church does NOT teach that pain and suffering are good. She teaches that they are bad; but she looks to the example of Jesus, who suffered for mankind. A soldier cannot defend his country in war without suffering; a parent cannot raise a decent child without much sacrifice; there is nothing good that comes to us in this fallen world without cost. We want the good, but we do not want to move out of our selves to accept it.

What the teenagers in the movie did can perhaps be forgiven because of their ignorance and their suffering. But look at the evil example given: it is nothing other than a celebration of fornication, and the results of that are everywhere around us, in broken families and families that never were genuine to begin with. They were thinking only of themselves, and only of themselves in a narrow and blinkered way. The Titanic is sinking -- let's fornicate!

The poor teenagers in this evil movie could have enjoyed something far more beautiful and profound if they had been faithful Catholics -- they could have moved the lives of many of their fellow sufferers in this world; they might even have brought people to Christ. But by their fornication they proclaim, "All life is meaningless!" And we are to thank the movie's producers for this comfort?
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written by Myshkin, June 27, 2014
@Randall

There's lots out there. Try searching for Catholic Fiction. TCT discourages links (rightly so), but I will mention the journals "Dappled Things" (print/online), "Pilgrim: a journal of Catholic experience" (online), and (to a smaller extent) "St. Austin Review" (print). There are also many Catholic small presses which strive to provide a variety of authors both old and new. I'll mention three: Tuscany Press, Sophia Institute and Arx Publishing. This is certainly not an exhaustive list; it's only the ones that I know of and have shopped at. I'm sure you can find many, many more!
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written by Mike horn, June 27, 2014
Prayer of Saint Francis:
"Lord, I ask you for two graces before I die: to experience in myself, as much as possible, the sufferings of your cruel Passion, and to feel for you the same love that drove you to sacrifice yourself for us.

My Lord Jesus Christ, I beg thee to grant me two graces before my death: first, that for the rest of my life I may experience in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, the same pain that you suffered, O sweet Jesus, during the time of thy most cruel Passion; and second, that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, the same love which inflamed thee, the Son of God, and led thee to suffer thy passion gladly for us sinners."
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Perverse. This guy is a revered saint.
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written by Benedict Augustine, June 27, 2014
Where are you coming from Mike? No true Catholic would look upon a suffering child and commend them for it while doing nothing to relieve their suffering. That would be evil. Catholics since the time of Jesus have come to the aid of those who suffer, providing medical care and spiritual care--you seem to doubt the efficacy of the latter, but the extreme fortitude of the saints should prove to skeptics the real power behind spiritual strength and nourishment.

Still, suffering has meaning and value. It allows us to have some perspective. The pleasures and joys of the world will fall short since sin and death have entered the world through Adam. Our everlasting joy rests in heaven with the Holy Trinity, and we hope to reach it while we live our lives on earth. This hope inspires us to live virtuously and compassionately so that we can handle the suffering that will inevitably come our way. Suffering is good insofar as it prompts us to depend on God, remember what we're striving for, grow wiser, and better love our fellow men who suffer as do. As Benedict XVI says, atheists and skeptics follow the example of Epicurus, abhorring suffering and exalting pleasure, while Christians follow the example of Christ, who made suffering meaningful.

The example of this movie, and many more such films and books, demonstrates that modern men and women think that merely questioning these things will suffice. Accepting oblivion proves one's wisdom; though for anyone with any common sense, accepting the conclusion of nothingness directly leads to the end of wisdom, since life and death and everything in between have no meaning. Those who suffer this way, who only see their pain as a justification of their sin and nihilism, have the least reason to help others. Why bother? Hence, they help themselves and feel smug about it. No saint ever felt that way, and thank God they didn't. They knew the value of suffering, and they used it to attain holy perfection. Such a goal should be the example for people today, especially young people who have precious few role models.
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written by Mike horn, June 27, 2014
Mother Theresa advocating, even enjoying, masochism:
“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ's Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,"
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Where I come from, this is objectively wrong. A cancer patient needs treatment, not recommended masochism pretending to be religion. Treatment requires active, constructive research over decades. Maybe recommend study and advocacy work for the sick, though I recommend spending it more constructively than mother Theresa ever did. On doctors and medicine and nurses and sanitary facilities would have been great in her case. She failed.
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Benedict blames suffering on the sin of Adam. That is a cop out. If we recognize a previous mistake, the proper response is to work towards fixing it. Don't tell someone to suffer and be glad because when they die it is all rainbows and kittens - only a horrible person would do that, someone just as guilty as Adam, committing yet another sin. What Catholicism doesn't get about the Western world is all the work done to alleviate or eliminate suffering through real means. The Catholic notion of holy suffering sounds medieval because it is. 500 years ago or more, we could do very little for cancer patients other than try to give them mental peace with notions of eternal bliss. But smart, good people have figured things out, and continue to do more. Want to give a cancer patient hope? Empower them to help others in some real way, like helping to understand the disease better so that maybe someone else will not get it, not even enter into suffering. That is how you respond to evil, to the proverbial sin of Adam.
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Then there is this horror about teen sex. Pain and suffering, stigmata and death, these are all beautiful. But sex? How awful! That wins you exactly zero arguments because of the shear perversity of the position. This has been playing out in the HPV vaccine debate. Some claim that STIs, like HPV that leads to cervical cancer, infertility, , pain, and death, are necessary evils to counter the allure of sexuality. They don't want their daughters vaccinated in case that leads to sex. Prime example of how awfully wrong Christianity can get: we can eliminate HPV in a couple generations with mandatory vaccinations, yet the HPV vaccine has been fought with crucifix and bible. This even hurts the "pure" girl who saves herself for marriage, but marries a man who faltered even just once and now carries HPV with no symptoms (this is very common in men), gives it to his wife after marriage. She then gets cancer after being infertile, preventing children she wanted. But a vaccine against an STI would have eliminated it, developed by smart people doing the right thing, by people doing real actions to help the sick.
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Where am I coming from? From not accepting worldly evil. From a desire to make this world a better place.
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written by Manfred, June 27, 2014
This piece and the comments are very illustrative of the fact that Catholicism has finally joined protestantism at the bottom of the slippery slope. Catholicism has become protestantism with a papal figurehead. However, do not look for the Magisterium as the church's teaching will be continually changing. That is why the world awaits the Extraordinary Synod on the Family to be held in October. It is suspected, with great reason, that this pope will be the driving force to change the TEACHINGS OF CHRIST on marriage.
This will result in the schism that Ross Douthat of the NY Times forecast. True Catholicism has not been taught for the last fifty years. What is now de facto will become de jure.
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written by Richard A, June 27, 2014
Austin Ruse recently, on this site, told three true stories of children who entered into the redemptive suffering of Christ. Surely we can bring our good news to the world today, since it actually truly happens.
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written by Nick P, June 27, 2014
City of God vs. City of Man

Free will =>consequences of choices

Picking up from Randall's post, this piece does fit nicely with Tony Esolen's reflection from Thursday. It seems that our culture is trying to re-wire people's responses. Mike is saying nothing new, but is framing it in the post-modern Epicurean form.

I am a lifelong Catholic, albeit certainly a wayward one. I do not once recall being urged to seek out suffering for its own sake, nor to wish it for others. When I do suffer -- illness, poor fortune, whatever, I look for legitimate ways to lessen that suffering. I have, however, been commanded to seek to relieve others' suffering, even if doing so would cause me to suffer. St. Francis asks to comfort, console and understand others, not to seek those things for myself. And that's good, as I can take action to console another, while seeking my own consolation is largely out of my control. As I recall, the Church was among the first owner/operators of hospitals, and good Catholics noted contributors to modern, Western medicine. Odd we should do that given our twisted desire to see and cause suffering...

I am very skeptical of taking someone like Mother Teresa, St. Francis, or St. John of the Cross out of context, or too literally in my own life. These were extremely holy people by the time they uttered the words Mike cites. While I can aspire to be more like them, I ain't there yet. In a similar vein I have given up trying to spin a Mickelson-esque 60-degree wedge from a close lie to a cup 8 feet over a trap, I will not advance my own "game" by snatching one of St. Frankie's one-liners and going for it.

That said, after a good number of years in the AA program, I have always found that if I am suffering, confused, upset or otherwise disturbed I can reduce that disturbance by reaching out to help another. Always. Even when it "costs" me in the short term.

On another note, I remember an episode from the earlier incarnation of the series "24." Jack Bauer and his female friend and the president's daughter, Audrey, have just been through hell -- tortured, beaten, shot at and shot. They find themselves in an apartment. She is frightened near death, the bad guys are hot on their trail. So, what do they do? Well, it's obvious, sex is on the menu. Now what age would have found this a "normal" reaction in such a situation?

Yet we teach our children through these stories.
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written by Tony, June 27, 2014
Mike: What Mother Teresa was commending were the virtues of courage, patience, and humility; and I daresay that the poor to whom she ministered accepted their deaths -- and we must all die -- with much greater grace and much less trouble to their families than do our well-stuffed and querulous selves.

Your trust in vaccines is demonstrably foolish. You say you want a better world -- but what better world has the sexual revolution brought? Two out of five children in the USA are born out of wedlock. Add to them the children who, because of divorce, will not live out their childhoods with both parents. People are not marrying; it is an anti-culture of alienation. You say we are "obsessed" about teenage sex. Nobody here has said anything specifically about the ages of the people in question. They are NOT MARRIED -- that is the key. They are doing the child-making thing, with no intention of caring for the child they may make.

The Catholic Church INVENTED THE HOSPITAL -- don't you know that? What you call "medieval" -- what are you talking about? Do you really know anything about the Middle Ages? Do you know that in the Middle Ages men and women founded orders specifically devoted to the humane care of the suffering and the sick?

You have set up here a false dilemma. There is no contradiction between a desire to suffer on behalf of others and a desire to palliate the suffering of others. St. Damian of Molokai, a case in point.
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written by Bruno, June 27, 2014
Great, I have already seen where your confusion lies in, Mike. You think saints are 'masochists'. I can't reprimand you for that, since you seem to lack the moral and spiritual knowledge to minimally understand them, as I once did myself. I do, however, reprimand you for your presumption and calumny in calling Saint Francis 'perverse and evil'.

Do you think that Christians regard death as a good thing by nature? You would be very wrong if you did; the difficulty, nay, impossibility that we have in accepting death is an essential trait of human beings, going back all the way to the first homo sapiens and informing religious rituals everywhere. We don't accept it happening to us, we don't accept it happening to others.

It's not different in Scripture, and it is well known that Jesus wept facing the death of Lazarus. And St. Paul also wrote about death as the enemy, the enemy that had been defeated. So make no mistake, Christianity has it quite clear that death is terrible, that it ought not to be. But nonetheless death is. And no one escapes from it - although we flee from it, instinctively. Only a mad man would run to it, no?

Well, many mad men certainly did. What do you see when a man willingly faces his death? That can only be an unnatural act, a perversion. Madness. Mad men don't make sense.

Could run to death fully aware of all that death entails, and not be mad? One could, provided that he be not only courageous, but had faith and hope that this encounter would only be fatal to death itself. But are such courage, faith and hope possible?

As you know, we believe that this was the cause with one Man, and after him many more. And I don't regard only the martyrs here, but pagans as well, like the Buddhist monk that torched himself for a higher cause. Because we don't believe these men to be mad, nor perverts, it follows that their faith and hope are real, and if that is the case their testimony of faith is sure to be rewarded, for our own faith and hope grow stronger as a consequence. And death, thus defeated, becomes not something to flee but to face, head on, with the certainty of victory. And thus even something as bad as death - which indeed the worst thing there is - becomes a good, becomes a crown. That is the redemptive power of God.

What I said of death, goes for suffering. As long as you deny even the POSSIBILITY of faith and hope, you will deny yourself not only the ability to understand those things, but perhaps even the victory over death for yourself.
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written by Randall, June 27, 2014
Thank you, Manfred and Myshkin!
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written by Carlos, June 27, 2014
Erich Segal's "Love Story" (1970, Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw) taught average people that it was OK to fornicate as long as there were justifying circumstances. "The Fault in Our Stars" seems to go a step forward by teaching youngsters to be nihilistic.
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written by Teresa, June 28, 2014
@Randall McInerny. Has a novel, High Concepts and released a short story, The Bureau of myths last week. I think he also has a play and a couple of children's comic novels too. Just put in his name at amazon.com, and get ready to laugh!
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written by Ty, June 28, 2014
There is a positive review of this film on Thinking Faith, website of the Jesuits in Britain. I have neither read the book nor seen the film, as I suspect I would find it tedious, but with a film this popular, parents need to be vigilant.
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written by Lisa, June 28, 2014
Mike, I'm sorry, but you're wrong. And, if it matters, I don't condone most of the views put forward on this site; I'm a queer, feminist, pro-choice, sex-positive Catholic, I also believe that the focus of the conservative fringe of the Church on self-repression is harmful, but your comments show a deep misunderstanding of suffering and Christianity in general. Mother Teresa should have provided doctors and sanitation? Paid for by whom, exactly, the Indian government? Should she have founded an NGO and lived on a relatively comfortable salary while paying others to work? She did something infinitely more valuable than providing the services of a few over-worked doctors: she sat with people, prayed for them, and didn't let them die alone.
Providing witness to another's suffering and letting them know that someone cares and will stay with them: that's not only necessary, it's the most valuable thing one person can do for another. You may or may not believe that a person can ask God to take on another's suffering (I'm guessing you don't), so the quotation from Francis may be a step too far for you to sympathize with, but you know, as surely as I do, that there comes a point when you can do nothing but hold someone's hand as they die and pray God receive them. I'm not saying that research into pain alleviation and cures isn't crucial; it absolutely is, and it's incumbent on us to support such research. But no matter what the fundraising campaigns say, we ultimately will not win the battle against cancer, not because there's no cure for certain cancers (there are, and we need to find them), but because finding a cure for one illness will not make people any less mortal. Remember when HIV was a death sentence? Brave men and women fought against homophobia to force the government into funding AIDS research, and people who are HIV positive can live so much longer. But they still die, not from AIDS but from a host of other maladies, and when they die, they still need someone with them so they don't die alone. People find it difficult to provide this care to their own friends and family members; Mother Teresa provided it to strangers every day. If you can't see how that's worth more than providing doctors, then you're missing a world of perspective.
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written by Paul, June 28, 2014
Mike,

Sadly stuff happens in this fallen world. IMO God allows evil to occur (free will has consequences) but more often than not it's just by chance. I've come to this conclusion from my interpretation of the NT stories where Our Lord talks about the wall falling on the people and the guy born blind. "Good" or "Evil", in this world I've seen "Good" people suffer horribly and I've seen "Evil" people breeze through life and I've also seen the reverse. You may live a long and happy life and die peacefully in your sleep surrounded by family and friends. You may die a long and painful death in a nursing home with no family or friends. Car accident, hit by a bus, violently murdered, burned to death in a house fire, accident at work, killed in a war or terrorist attack, starve to death, etc..... All you can do is trust in the promises of Christ.
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written by Terri, July 01, 2014
Give the book Fly a Little Higher by Laura Sobiech a read. It is a personal gripping story about her family's journey through her 17 year old son's diagnosis and untimely death from osteosarcoma. Compare how her families faith guided them through this terrible sadness to the fictional Fault in Our Stars. I will take her faith over Hazel Grace and Augustus' emptiness...you can decide.

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