baby, we were born to die
There are some writers who are so skilled in their craft that they can, with the flick of a wrist or the stroke of a keyboard, conjure up images of life and death and heaven and hell that are so vivid, so powerful, that they’re all but impossible to shake from our hearts.
One of my residents once handed me a collection of bound pages that she purported was written by one such author, looking me in the eyes, saying: “this is my favorite book. Read it.”
And though I assured her I would read her legendary book and return it promptly, the tome has sat on my bookshelf, completely untouched, for the better part of two years.
But because I’m traveling this week, I decided I might as well bring the thing with me to have something to glance at on the plane. I arrived in Orlando a couple of days ago (to attend the 100th anniversary of a wonderful association for college unions) and I’ve had enough leisure time here that I am able to do quite a bit of reading.
The writer in question is John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, as well as the novel in question: the ineffable and all too-short Looking For Alaska, which I finished last night.
The book follows the journey of Miles “Pudge” Halter, a young Floridian who decides to leave his Orlando home to seek adventure by moving to the classy, contentious Alabamian boarding school his father attended. With Miles, we’re presented a quirky but relatable narrator, a gawky learned fellow who is replete with authentic philosophical ponderings on life, death, and what – if anything – comes after.
In these pages, woven within a unique and engaging coming of age story, the characters grapple with authority, hormones, relationships, and chillingly, their own mortality. Students at Culver Creek play pranks, study, drink, smoke, and spend classroom time examining how three religious traditions in particular (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) seek to answer the universal human question (whatever that is).
As the story progresses and the semester shifts and seasons change from fall to spring and back again, the reader is reminded that everything is temporal.
As a person of faith, I enjoyed the narrator’s musings on life and death and what follows. In a rare move of brilliance, Green manages to both affirm and challenge my own conceptions of life after death.
See, as a Christian, I tend to cling to the idea of eternal life in order to mentally shield myself from the true horror of the universality of death. Life always comes after death, I remind myself, trying not to focus on how exceedingly inexplicable, irreversible, and inevitable dying actually is.
But our storyteller never shies from this possibility.
Notably, Miles’ favorite hobby, at once esoteric and delightfully morbid, is learning and memorizing the sometimes perplexing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes downright funny last words of important historical figures.
Several of these appear throughout the novel:
“I know you are here to kill me,” Che Guevara is said to have spat to his executioner. “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist–,” declared Union general John Sedgwick as he was swiftly truncated by a Confederate sharpshooter.
“The nourishment is palatable,” quipped President Millard Fillmore, upon tasting his diluted last meal.
“I go to seek a great perhaps,” spoke humanist playwright and monk François Rabelais, moments before he stepped out of this world.
Though this wry sense of mortality pervades every page in the book, the discussion takes on a much more serious tone when it really begins to wrestle with the unreasonable finality of losing those we love most. It’s perhaps in this area that the story, and Green’s characters, shine brightest.
Our protagonist and I share several similarities. We both claim a Western faith tradition and simultaneously appreciate the influence of Eastern thinkers in our lives. We were both “the good kids” throughout high school, declining to smoke, sleep around, or partake in alcohol. We both, not to put too fine a point on it, “hated sports, hated people who played them, hated people who watched them, and hated people who didn’t hate people who watched or played them.” And we each dramatically struggle with the onus of becoming infatuated with impossible women, endlessly chasing after vain phantasms and other such illusions.
Watching Miles begin to fall in love with his wild (and wildly complicated) friend Alaska (from the Aleut Alyeska, “that which the sea breaks against“) was a painfully cataclysmic (and familiar) turn of events. Reflecting on the two, I couldn’t help but thinking that the isolated passions we felt so strongly as destiny-driven youths are not somehow limited to our pasts, but have a way of sustaining themselves, following us into the future.
This complicated relationship between the past and the present is profoundly explored in this work, and it’s worth reading for this reason alone.
But the most powerful punch the entire project packed was for me something wholly personal, something that caught me completely off guard: the narrator’s own last words to his readers which, echoing Rebelais’ suggestion of “the Great Perhaps,” aptly compose the final cadence of the book.
Here, Miles longingly concludes his ultimate meditation on the afterlife with the illuminating(?) last words of Thomas Edison: “It’s very beautiful over there.”
“I don’t know where there is,” Miles admits, “but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”
I found myself struck with familiarity at these words, wondering why they sounded so familiar. Then it hit me. Edison’s dying breath – supplemented by these sixteen short words from Alaska’s narrator – were the same words my sister had chosen to end her eulogy with at my grandmother’s recent funeral.
If we’re really being honest, we have to admit that even the most devout among us doesn’t know for sure where there is either. But we can believe that it’s somewhere. We can hope to God that it’s beautiful.
In case I haven’t made it clear by now, this novel cooly boasted everything that makes a great story. I laughed within the first few pages. Reading this story, I felt pained and joyous and proud and sad. I got chills and premonitions throughout. Finally, like one of Alaska’s main characters, the story itself commanded my attention and forced me to think about crucial things I very much might have liked to avoid.
In other words, maybe it just took a work of great art to help me see what I already knew to be true: that as unpleasant as it may be to dwell on, deep down I always knew how my story has to end.
Because whether we believe in the after or whether we think the now is all we have; whether we find romance or choose another path; whether our last words or the words others use to eulogize us are tragic, funny, clever, foolish, clichéd, grand, or delirious – death remains that one last trouble which comes for us all.
And like the larger than life characters in Looking for Alaska, we were each of us undeniably born to this trouble.
As surely as sparks fly upward.