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The Point of Life

Updated at the bottom

A friend who shall not be named unless she decides to come out in the comment section was struggling with the point of life.  I happened, in the very moment that the email arrived, to be on page 168 of The Fault in Our Stars.  Which is to say that it felt like more than kismet that her email popped up at THE EXACT MOMENT I was reading about Augustus telling Hazel how he viewed the point of life.  So I wrote her back:

According to John Green, the point of life is to give something great in exchange for your life.  You do something amazing, and it’s payment for that life you were given.  A fair trade.

Augustus takes his own thought a step further in the ensuing discussion to state that “everyone wants to lead an extraordinary life.”  I wish I could back him up there because I think his first point was fabulous, but then he ran with it to where all of us run with it, and that — and that alone, perhaps — is our problem.


I think we set the price of our life payment higher than necessary.  I think that the universe expects us to pay perhaps a nickel in order to have it be a fair trade, and we counter that we want to pay $500.  How insane is that?  Can you imagine going into a store that is asking you to pay $2.89 for a loaf of bread and scrunching up your nose while you say, “you know, I’d really like to give you $10.11 for it.”  No, we pay the $2.89 OR we try to negotiate a deal OR wait until something goes on sale.  But nowhere else in life do we hear that we are expected to pay X but in turn ask if we can pay the much larger Y.

Until we get to living.

So the universe wants us to pay a nickel’s worth of goodness in order to compensate for this life we’re given.  Which is difficult enough to do — to live a nickel’s worth of goodness.  To affect the lives of a small handful of people.  To touch the lives of your parents or your siblings (if you have any) or your friends.  To couple up and become someone’s partner — which is very difficult work to get as well as maintain.  Not everyone gets a partner to love and affect, and even those who do, they may not keep them.  Or they may not positively affect them.

Raise a child or two, and again, for some of us, it’s not only difficult work to get but it’s also a constant uphill battle to maintain.  Some of us may not know how we did as parents until we see our kids through to adulthood and know whether or not we gave the world someone great or if our parenting was a domino that crashed down a long string of figurative dominoes.  Will we get to count our parenting as part of our nickel, or will it be another payment we owe the universe?

But let’s assume that parenting (if you get to do it, and if you even want to use that task as part of your payment to the universe since there are so many other ways to reach a nickel’s worth of goodness) works out well, and then throw in a few friends and a few other family members that you positively affect.  Maybe a job that you do that changes the lives of a few dozen people around you or some volunteer work.

And all of that amounts to about a nickel’s worth of amazing goodness.  It’s what we owe the universe.  To leave it as well as we found it if not better, by not only balancing out the negativity in the universe but perhaps tipping it in favour of positivity.  Just a very small amount.  Not a widely-seen, known by all amount, but a miniscule amount of extra goodness.  If we can do that, we’ve fulfilled what we owe in exchange for being given these lives.

The problem, of course, is that we think of the word amazing with a capital A.  We want to be like Mother Theresa, Andy Warhol, and Magellan all rolled into one, and we want to be hyper-remembered after we’re gone, with small children doing book reports on our biography for eternity much in the same way that we speak of Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, and Ronald Reagan.  We don’t want to live.  We want to LIVE.  Big.  And feel as if we not only dotted up the crumbs on the brownie platter at the end of this party called life, but that we also threw the festivities and made the party the type of event that gets talked about for eternity.

It wasn’t until I finished writing out this thought to my friend that I read page 169, which has Hazel countering Augustus’s thought by pointing out that she doesn’t have much time left and she hasn’t made the mark that he claims matters.  “It’s really mean of you to say that the only lives that matter are the ones that are lived for something or die for something.”  Again, I think Hazel too is hearing that she has to pay a nickel’s worth for her life — because I would argue that she has made her 5¢ mark on this world based on the way she has affected her parents and friends — and is stressing that she isn’t paying $500 for the honour of living.

If you are concerned that you haven’t sent a nickel’s worth of goodness into the universe, in a few days, Msfitzita will be holding her annual Thomas’s Random Act of Kindness day.  It’s very simple.  On March 9th, go do something good for another person and tell them that you’re doing it in honour of Thomas.  There were, at last look, 250+ people already set to do this.  I think helping someone who is gone affect others has to count for at least a penny of goodness.  And then think about it, you’re 1/5th of the way to paying off your life balance.

I don’t know… do you think we overshoot what we owe the universe in exchange for our life?  What is big “enough” when we talk about living a full, amazing life?


I finished the book.  Oh my G-d.  I have one of those cry headaches now from it.  No one warned me how much I would cry, and it is, perhaps, because John Green has written a book that becomes other people’s An Imperial Affliction.  You cry because you care; because he has made those characters so real that you feel you’re in the room with them.

I bought the book with the intention of passing it along to my sister after I read it.  But when I was about halfway through, I decided to buy her a different copy because I didn’t want to part with mine.  So please don’t ask to borrow my copy.  Because I really don’t want it to leave the house.  I also started marking it up towards the end.  There was a lot to mark up.

Maybe the line I am sitting with the longest is “Grief does not change you, Hazel.  It reveals you.”  Discuss.  You don’t even need to read the book to have thoughts on that.

I’d like to add that I quit a book to read this book.  The other book was doing nothing for me; it neither annoyed me or made me think.  It just was.  This book changed my brain a bit.


1 Chickenpig { 03.04.13 at 8:16 am }

This is too deep for me this early in the morning 🙂 I’ll get back to you.

2 Mic { 03.04.13 at 9:13 am }

Oh gosh, I’m going to echo Chickenpig. My head can’t comprehend such deep thoughts this early on a Monday morning. I’m also going to sit and mull this one over.

3 Ana { 03.04.13 at 9:24 am }

No time to say more, but this is one of the best things I have ever read. At a time that I am pondering (lamenting?) the lack of real impact of my work & my childrens’ progress (at the developmental things kids do) seems to more circular than linear and I’m wondering what the point is…this really opened my eyes.

4 Kristin { 03.04.13 at 9:29 am }

Thank you so, so, so much for plugging Thomas’ Random Act of Kindness Day! I appreciate it more than you know 🙂

5 loribeth { 03.04.13 at 9:56 am }

This is great, Mel. 🙂 It seems to me that parents can always justify their nickel’s worth of value to society by pointing to their children. As someone living without children, I often feel judged, like “what are you doing to justify your existence, then?” And, as you said, I sometimes feel this guilt that I only “just” work & commute 11 hours a day, do a bit of volunteering, support my friends in the blogoverse, help out our parents, siblings & nephews, etc. etc. — in other words, mostly the same stuff that everyone else does, just without raising kids ourselves.

It’s like, no — I need to chuck everything & become a missionary in Africa — or become the CEO of my company — or even just run away & live on a tropical island somewhere — because I should be able to do that without kids, right? Ordinary is not enough when you don’t have kids, it seems. I sometimes feel like I disappoint people — like they think my life should be so much more grand and exciting than it is.

I dunno… I think it’s a pretty good life myself, when all is said & done. ; ) Even if it doesn’t include my own children.

6 Katie { 03.04.13 at 10:51 am }

For me, the answer is yes. In general, I am guilty of overshooting. My husband tells me this all the time. I try so hard to change everything and make things better, but these are often things I have no control over. He says, “You’re overextending yourself again.” And he’s right. I’ve been trying to step back and simply take care of what I CAN take care of, and this post is a nice reminder that this is okay. So thank you for this. 🙂

7 KeAnne { 03.04.13 at 12:23 pm }

I may have to come back later after I’ve had a chance to process fully your excellent post. It reminds me of Hobbs’ quest in The Natural and what he missed out on by his desire to be great.

I think we do overshoot. We want our life to have some grand meaning, and it can be exhausting trying to pay that much larger amount. I’m calmer and happier living a 5 cent life.

8 It Is What It Is { 03.04.13 at 12:50 pm }

Gosh, in all my 46 years, I have never felt indebted to the universe for my life. I do believe that every person has a calling and that a key to happiness (which is a temporary state) and contentment/fulfillment/satisfaction (more consistent states) is to align ourselves with our calling. But even doing so does not seem to be payment for our very life.

I just don’t see it that way.

9 Chickenpig { 03.04.13 at 2:25 pm }

I am still unable to answer. Or I should say, I will have to write my own post about it because my thoughts are too rambling to fit into a comment here.

The Fault In Our Stars has to be one of the most amazing books I’ve read in a long, long time. I cried too, and then I felt silly for crying for characters in a book, and then I cried some more. I am going to buy my own hard cover copy of this one, because having it just on the Kindle is inadequate.

10 Pie { 03.04.13 at 2:25 pm }

i love love love that book. i’m not a very existential angst kind of person though, i don’t belabor my death. its gonna happen, hopefully not for awhile, and then that’s it. you’re worm food, or in my case, ashes. i know, i know. i try to do well in my life, do well by myself, by others, and occasionally i’m terrible at it. but do i feel i need to pay for my life? um, no. do i need to be extraordinary? not really. i just want to do right by myself and others as much as i can because that makes me happy while i’m here living. i guess i’m more of an of-the-moment type of girl. and i value the smaller things of life a lot more than the big “extraordinary” stuff.

11 Shelby { 03.04.13 at 3:41 pm }

I was looking for a book to add to my reading list. I want this on there, but not sure I can handle the crying headache just yet, even in a good way. But still-I’ll be getting my own copy soon. 🙂

I do think there is enormous pressure to live a big, grand life, one that has moved communities, changed countless lives, but I counter by saying that it is far more than enough to change just one life for the better because in doing so, that one change will spread and affect many. I sit here just a few days past the first anniversary of my Mom’s death and I am reminded of this even more so. You see, my Mom lived a quiet life. She was not involved in any philanthropy, had few friends, not a lot of family and while her friendliness could put a smile on many faces at her job, no one could say that she necessarily changed their lives…but me. You see, she spent her life focused on cultivating me as a person, her only child. The whole of her energy was put into parenting. Because of this, I can turn around and offer that same care and love to others and the people who I have affected (especially my son) will hopefully do the same. Because of her love (and perhaps her mother’s before her and so on) and now mine, my son will surely give the same to those he loves. It’s a contagion. My Mother cannot add any big titles or acheivements to her name, but she can claim that and that is far more than what the universe is owed.

12 Amber { 03.04.13 at 4:05 pm }

I’ve got that book on my list of books to read now!

13 Rachel { 03.04.13 at 5:39 pm }

“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”

I could write an essay on this. (Ok, maybe I should…and start blogging again. Novel idea.)

I think this is so true…and what’s even more, as grief changes shape, so do you as a person. 6 years into my deepest loss, and I’m still in my “why did this have to happen” phase. And by all accounts, this was not a surprise…my grandma was 85, and I was able to sit with her for the last two weeks of her life. And yet, I’m constantly discovering more about life and love through the lens of this loss. It’s breath-taking (and I mean it in that the pain can cause me to find breathing hard…not in the beautiful sense of the word).

14 a { 03.04.13 at 6:12 pm }

I loved that book – very few books make me laugh and cry. And cry. And cry some more.

I sort of wonder if our debt to the universe is paid when we make it out of the birth canal. I read somewhere that the odds of conceiving in an average cycle are about 20%…so it’s a miracle to make it through regardless. When you’re born, you have beat the odds – debt paid. Any good thing you do from there increases the good/offsets the bad in the world. So, while it’s not our duty to repay the universe by doing good, we’re all better off for doing so.

Of course, I believe there is some extraordinary in being ordinary – doing the things that need to get done, remembering dates, schedules, etc., looking after the minor details in life so others who have great ideas can be a different kind of extraordinary. Then again, I don’t care for the spotlight, so that may be my motivating factor.

But back to the book…I cannot reconcile how a guy who can do this
can write so movingly about teenagers and death and life. But I’ll keep reading his books. There is some of that in all the books of his that I’ve read.

15 Lori Lavender Luz { 03.04.13 at 6:52 pm }

*raises hand*

This does help, somewhat. I know of people who were cursed with parents who gave the message “you’ll never amount to anything” and always felt blessed that my parents imbued my sisters and I instead with, “you will achieve great things; you can do anything you put your mind to.”

But I see that the flip side of that is that being ordinary is, well, ordinary. Horrors!

I feel confident that so far, I’ve delivered at least a nickel’s worth of value. I do tend to overshoot, and this is a fresh way of looking at it. I do NOT like to overpay.

May I borrow your book 😉

16 Catwoman73 { 03.04.13 at 8:15 pm }

What is big ‘enough’ when we talk about living a full, amazing life? I’ve always believed that we are living big enough if we are being true to ourselves, following our hearts, and fully appreciating this gift we call life. Unfortunately, this isn’t always an easy thing to do- we can so easily get caught up in what others expect of us, or sometimes, what we have to do just to get by. Those things are so often incongruent with who we really are. I’ve been caught in this trap for years- sacrificing constantly, compromising my own needs and beliefs in the name of a dream that is now dead.

Interestingly, I think that grief is often the impetus we need to snap us out of these unhealthy patterns, and bring us back to our true selves. I am neck-deep in the grieving process right now, and feel suddenly angry at the time I’ve lost and the sacrifices I’ve made to achieve a dream that was never meant to be. I am trying to slowly take charge, and find myself again. My grief is ‘revealing me’, as stated in your quote. It will allow me to change and to learn to follow my heart, thereby allowing me to pay my debt to the universe.

The two sides of this conversation are very intimately connected for me.

17 Amy { 03.04.13 at 9:44 pm }

I am getting this book for the line alone, “Grief does not change you, it reveals you.” Having such a gutteral reaction to that line. Grieving for my baby girl has revealed a piece of me I never dreamt existed. Now the struggle is that I had to meet this new person I’m becoming and it is not easy work.

18 Justine { 03.04.13 at 11:31 pm }

I absolutely overshoot. And fail over and over again because I’ve given myself an impossible target. And failure, of course, makes met feel even worse about not being able to contribute. (Can you tell where I’ve been tonight? Ha.)

I have had students tell me I’ve changed their lives. I’ve had women who tell me that the working parents’ group I started changed their lives, and their children’s lives. Why isn’t any of that enough? Maybe because there is more life left to live, so there must be more to give? It’s daunting, trying to outdo yourself.

19 Peg { 03.05.13 at 9:33 am }

1. going out to get the book after I finish a report I’m writing for work…it shall be my reward.
2. ahhh…grief, my ever present friend. I’m not sure what I think about the quote to Hazel. Grief has changed me. I don’t think I’d be the person I am if Jeanne and Mike hadn’t died. In my experience, it’s actually revealed things in our family and rifts in our relationships that I wish had stayed hidden. Now, I haven’t read the book yet, but I think people make profound statements about loss/grief in an effort to bring meaning to the pain/guilt/fear of those left behind. Personnally, I haven’t found the profound yet. I just think it sucks.

20 Jamie { 03.05.13 at 10:24 pm }

Wow! This post is full of so many thoughts that I know I will be re-reading it. So wish I could dogear it!

It seems the answer is somewhere in the balnce of the two quotes. Leave this world a better place than what you found it living a good life, while giving yourself permission in finding greatness by your own measure. No kind, selfless act is too small.

21 Tiara { 03.06.13 at 7:54 am }

The line “Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.” WOW! Just wow! I really have to mull this because I have said many times that the grief of losing my Dad & the grief of losing my 1st pregnancy has changed me immeasurably…to contemplate that it reveals me…makes it sound, I don’t know, braver? I need to mull this. I had thoughts & a comment on the 1st part of your post but it has since left my head…

22 Amel { 03.06.13 at 9:34 am }

About the quote “Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.” I agree to a certain extent, but doesn’t the revelation help you grow? And through the growth we experience after the revelation, that means we “change” in some ways?

Anyway, probably the best thing that someone has ever told me when I was wondering about my “legacy for the world” (I was thinking that my blogs would be my legacy ‘coz I have no kids as my legacy for the future) was this: “Amel, YOU yourself are the legacy for the world.”

23 magpie { 03.11.13 at 6:38 pm }

I think that many things “reveal you”, grief among them.

24 magpie { 03.11.13 at 6:38 pm }

Oh, and, I loved that book.

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