arts & creativity, book reflections, mental health & wellness

How to Tell Sad Stories: With Humor

“You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.” – Hazel Grace Lancaster

This is my favorite line in all of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, slipped in subtly on page 209 right before the climax is about to arrive and the reader’s Kleenex box is about to come out.

Why? What are the key ideas here?fault in our stars

Choice. Good characters are active, not just acted upon. They make the conscious choice to interpret their circumstances in a particular manner. In the case of Hazel and Augustus of Fault In Our Stars fame, they’ve flown across the world to meet an author who they’re sure will offer wisdom and answers — and (spoiler alert) the reclusive writer is utterly disappointing. Naturally, they’re angry at the time. But, afterward they choose how to interpret the experience, and they make “the funny choice.”

Like Hazel says, you — we, all of us — have a choice in this world. We might make multiple interpretative choices that shift as our circumstances shift, but no matter what we can be in control of the choices.

Stories. With an interpretation chosen, Hazel and Augustus shared their experience verbally with Hazel’s mom. Stories have tellers (e.g. Hazel and Augustus) and stories have listeners/readers (e.g. Hazel’s mom). I’m convinced that we need to be tellers and we need to have listeners/readers for our stories — especially sad stories. This is why therapists exist, why so many people “vent” into cyberspace via social media, and why Maya Angelou so truthfully said that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

I realize that getting the untold story out of you, when it’s a sad story, can be a pretty great agony too. (Can’t keep it in; can’t get it out.) So, I wonder what would happen if we asked ourselves this: “If my circumstance was in a book/movie what genre would that book/movie be? What genre would I want it to be?” Then, gently guide your sad story over to the aisle where it would belong in Barnes & Noble.

Funny. Hazel and Augustus chose to place their story in the comedy aisle. In the scene I’ve been describing, they role play their frustrating experience to Mrs. Lancaster, turning it into a sort of SNL sketch with grand gestures and embellished accents.

The “funny choice” is a wise and healthy choice, encouraged by philosophy and psychology. According to John Morreall, professor of religious studies at The College of William and Mary (my alma mater!), comedians and philosophers actually have a LOT in common. They both appreciate cleverness, think critically, and ask questions (e.g. “What’s up with that? Why do we do that?”). And psychologically, humor lowers epinephrine (adrenaline), boosts the immune system, helps us be mindful of amusements in the present, and helps us put aspects of the past and/or future into perspective.

I hope to write at least one more blog post about other approaches to how to tell sad stories. If you have suggestions, let me know!

Above all, I hope you make the choice to tell sad stories — and at least consider placing them in the comedy aisle. 


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