5/5 Stars with John Green - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Stars with John Green.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
I am not alone or even a little bit creative when I say that human beings are such fascinating creatures. I saw ... you know when tweets end up on Instagram and so you can’t even really tell who said it, and also I'm going to recall it poorly, which is basically on par with somebody describing their dreams to you. But it was an imaginary conversation between a person and an animal, and the person was like, “Oh, we are so smart and superior,” and the animal was like, “You’re also the only species that pays money to live on Earth.”
I laughed so hard because it stings a little and it’s also very true. We are the only species that pays to live on this planet.
There are lots of strange things about being a person, and in this century, one of the strangest things is that we are all so committed to having opinions on everything, and also to having our opinions heard and documented.
Just 20 years ago, if you wanted to know whether a restaurant was good, you’d ask a friend, maybe. And the friend would say, “Yeah, it was pretty good. Try the burger.” If you wanted to know what to read next, you’d ask a bookseller, a librarian, or the aunt who reads like four books a week, and they’d say something like, “Well that just depends, what other kinds have you enjoyed? What kind of fiction do you like? What kind of non-fiction do you like?
Now, you go to one of many review sites, where people say things like DO NOT GO TO THIS RESTAURANT, ONE TIME THE HOSTESS WAS RUDE TO ME BECAUSE I WANTED TO BRING MY PARROT INSIDE!
Or, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK, THE PERSON WHO WROTE IT IS DEEPLY ANTI-PARROT! And these are two examples I made up, but I bet if you look they do exist out there.
Our opinions are shaped before our experiences can even happen. Our opinions are easily and readily broadcast to total strangers who might not know that actually, we are in the pockets of BIG PARROT! It’s true.
There are many good things about this, too, of course. This is the democratization of opinions and taste. We don’t HAVE to wait for Siskel and Ebert to tell us which movies get two thumbs up (that’s a reference for everyone who’s a senior millennial and older). We can go to Rotten Tomatoes and see what thousands of other people have thought about whatever we were considering for Friday movie night. That’s cool, right?
This is how smaller businesses and organizations can find customers … or lose them. Like everything, there is nuance. Like everything about people … it is fascinating.
The author John Green is one of my favorite observers of humanity, in part because of how gentle he is with even the most maddening parts of human existence: illness, both mental and physical, human foibles and failures. His novels. His YouTube videos. His podcast. And maybe most impressively, he’s a creator who has existed on the Internet without letting it completely destroy him and his opinions of humanity.
John’s wife had a brilliant observation about this element of modern humanity: that, like most things, the reviews themselves are not about the thing being reviewed but about the person who wrote it. She compared these reviews to little mini-biographies of the reviewer, a little bit of their own personal worldview and history shared with the masses. A way of being known and seen, and putting that message out into the ether of the Internet.
And when you think of it that way, isn’t that phenomenon kind of beautiful?
So, why are we talking so much about reviews … OH! John took that brilliant observation by his wife and did what so many of us writers do: He stole it. Let’s say borrowed it. Stole it! And used it to fuel his own creativity. This very new era of human behavior exists within the newness of humanity itself, an era called the Anthropocene … and all of that brings us to John’s latest book, The Anthropocene Reviewed, and this conversation you’re about to hear.
The book itself is so soothing and refreshing — a look at parts of this Anthropocene era both big and small … filtered through the lens of John’s own experience, and then made to fit within that ludicrous 5-star scale that we have reduced almost all parts of our human consumption to.
Here’s me and John -- and Jeyca, listening in as a John Green superfan and producer.
John Green: I'm not in a hurry. This is all I got to do today. Actually, it's my kids’ last day before summer break for me. So I'm luxuriating in having the house to myself.
Nora: They're gone, baby. They're gone. How old are your kids?
John Green: They're 11 and 8. So it's an exciting time.
Nora: It is. It is. Is it the last day of second grade?
John Green: The last day of first grade for my daughter. She's actually about to turn 8, I shouldn’t say she’s 8. She's going to be 8 in three days
Nora: Do not rob her of that. She's 7.
John Green: But my son's school ends in like another one more week. So Alice's summer is starting tomorrow and we still got another week of Henry's fifth grade.
Nora: Oh, poor dude. Sister's sitting at home just kicking her feet up. Going to relax. Not you. You gotta go in for that last week of like, popsicles, desk cleaning and...
John Green: It's stressful.
Nora: It’s stressful.
John Green: This is like the end of elementary school, too. So it's like a kind of you know, it's a kind of goodbye. It's a goodbye to a building and all the memories there. And that's intense. You know, it looks different to adults. But when you're a kid and it's the only school you've known for all these years, like it's a big, it's a big goodbye.
Nora: I also think that going to middle school as an 11-year-old is so bananas. It's so bananas. There's such a big difference between a sixth grader and an eighth grader. When I entered sixth grade, I was sure that the eighth graders were like, married with children, honestly. I was like they’re ... Alex Lewis Brock, if you are out there, I was like, “Holy crap, this is a man. OK? There is a man in our midst.”
John Green: Yeah, it is. It is really surreal to be in sixth grade and to be like, “I am still a kid and I don't…” My feeling my main feeling in sixth grade was like, “I feel like I'm being rushed into this. Like I feel like I'm being told that I'm ready for something that I'm quite sure I'm not ready for.”
Nora: I cried the night before sixth grade, because I was like, I'm not prepared to have a locker. I'm not prepared to have a third location to leave things. It's just so stressful.
John Green: Yeah. And to go from class to class and have a class schedule and have to remember to go to this classroom at this time. Oh, and that's not even mentioning the social stuff. So middle school is hard, and I am really, really glad that I never have to go do it again.
Nora: We never have to do it again. We never have to do it again. Which actually, you know, I'm just going to I'm just going to ask you about that chapter in your book, like you talk about the Internet and remembering kind of how it arrived in your house and what it was to you, which was like it just lived inside, it lived inside a box in your home. And I think that we are kind of part of this generation, the last generation that remembers life before and after.
John Green: Yeah. And it was a huge change for sure. It was a big change for me personally, because once I discovered that you could talk to people on the Internet it meant that I didn't have to, like, be myself anymore. Like, I could be made out of keystrokes instead of being made out of, you know, meat. And I was really, really uncomfortable with being myself. And I was bullied a lot at the time. And so it was a huge relief to be able to connect with people, and it was a place where, because I was made out of my keystrokes, I was sort of impossible to differentiate from other people, which was a huge relief. And it really was the one of the first times that I felt like I had a community. And you know, that Internet had all the same problems that this Internet has, just on a different scale. And I don't want to romanticize it, because I think that there were lots of bad things happening online in the ‘90s, just as there are today. But it was a huge gift for me to be able to find peers who I felt like understood me, because I often didn't feel that way at school or like, more generally in Orlando.
Nora: Yeah. What did it take to find those friends?
John Green: I think to some extent, just luck and time. I had an amazing best friend in high school, this guy, Todd. But one of the many, many gifts that Todd gave me is we would go to parties or, like, meet up with people or whatever, and then we would leave. And after we left, he would, in a very generous way be like, “So that was great. You were great. You're a great guy. I do have some notes. You lean forward when you talk to people, and then they lean back, and you just kind of keep walking, and then they're up against a wall and that makes them uncomfortable. So watch out for that one.” And he would just kind of go through them one by one, teaching me how to socialize. And it was so- but it was loving. It was never cruel.
John Green: And it meant the world to me. And honestly, I think Todd is the biggest reason why I'm relatively well-socialized these days.
Nora: That's a really compassionate person and a really compassionate teenage boy. And I do think we tend to believe that boys are somehow less compassionate or less emotional, which is false, which is false. And I think one of the beautiful things about your fiction and non-fiction and the way that you perceive the world is that you are first sort of like an observer. I wonder if that does come from just sort of feeling like a little bit odd or a little bit off growing up. But like, there's such a tenderness to the way that you observe even really difficult things, like even really difficult topics. And you are a sensitive person. You're a sensitive person in a really harsh world.
John Green: Yeah. I really loved on a recent episode of your podcast, not to like, fan out about about the podcast that I'm talking on, but I really loved, in a recent episode of the podcast, you talked about how you're suspicious of the word vulnerability because it's only ever used by people who are not actually making themselves vulnerable. And I think that is one of the hardest things about writing and also just about being a person is doing the work that you have to do to make yourself vulnerable and being OK in that place. You know, when I was younger, one of the ways I kind of protected myself was by being an observer and by like, being outside the circle of of people who were dancing or whatever and almost trying to analyze it, or imagining myself, instead of being a participant in these wonderful conversations, imagining myself as an observer or a chronicler of them. Because I often felt like I couldn't fully participate in them, because there's always been- and this has gotten better in the last few years, but especially when I was a kid, I had a huge problem with being able to respond in a timely fashion in an appropriate way, because everything I heard kind of had to drip through the filter of my anxiety before I could respond to it. So I would laugh belatedly at jokes, or I would really struggle to express myself in a way that felt appropriate to other people. So I think that was sort of a protective mechanism to be like, well, I don't participate in these conversations, but I can observe them very carefully.
Nora: Yeah, and you do. And what does anthropocene mean? Also, every time I say it, it's one of those words that I'm sure I'm saying wrong.
John Green: The Anthropocene is the proposed term for the current geologic age in which humans have become such a powerful species that we're not just overwhelmingly the most powerful species on Earth, but we're also sort of a geologically significant phenomenon: changing the climate, reshaping Earth's biodiversity, making these huge interventions into the landscape. And so some geologists say that we should acknowledge that we are living in this new age where we are overwhelmingly powerful. And that's what I wanted to write about in the book. But I also wanted to write about all of the ways in which we are absolutely powerless. We are powerless to stop those we love from suffering. We are powerless … you know, our whole community can be brought to its knees by a single strand of RNA. And so there's this weird contradiction of human power right now, where together we are making big changes and, in many cases, changes we don't want to make to our planet. But at the same time as an individual, I often don't feel that power.
Nora: Yeah, yeah. There's this line in your book where, I'm going to paraphrase you back to yourself, which is like, it feels like we are making up human nature as we go. One of the first chapters is about temporal range. And and one, explain that for our listeners, because I'm too dumb, and two, you really ranked our temporal range very highly, which I was very surprised with.
John Green: Yeah, it's a little bit bold.
Nora: That was a bold range.
John Green: OK, so our temporal range, it's actually one of the words I found out when I was making the audio book that I pronounced incorrectly and they wanted me to go back and say it their way. And I was like, I can't, I can't do it. Every species has a temporal range. It's the time through which your species lives. So the temporal range of elephants extends back over two and a half million years. The temporal range of other animals, like this reptile the tuatara, extends back 250 million years. And our temporal range only extends back 250,000 thousand years. So that's how long we've been a species. Every species has a temporal range, and that means a beginning and an end. And we, of course, don't know what our ending will be. And so for me, this was a way of trying to write about my own apocalyptic worries, my long-time fear that we may be in the last days of humanity, in which I know I'm not alone. And especially, as the pandemic began to dominate so much of life and caused so much human suffering, I wanted to write about other times when we felt like we were close to the edge, as a way of trying to understand them in some kind of historical context and maybe make myself a little less afraid. So I think the reason it has a high rating in the end was that I was trying to, for lack of a better term, sing myself into courage.
Nora: Maybe if you had written that chapter on us on a, on a different kind of day, you would have been like one star, one star.
John Green: Yes, that's very true.
Nora: It's not looking good, folks.
John Green: That's very true. And one of the things I wanted to do in the book was to write myself into hope, because I often don't feel it, and it is, for me, not merely some existential question. It's a matter of life and death. It's what allows me to get up in the morning. It's what allows me to go on. It's what allows me to make breakfast for my kids. I need to have hope that the human experiment is worthwhile and that life has meaning.
Nora: There's ... I can't remember if it was that chapter, but they tell you basically, oh, you know, the world could end at this, like, in this sort of moment. You're 9 or 10, you know, maybe it's a planetarium or something like that. But it's like, I had that same kind of existential dread as a child. I don't want to live with that kind of awareness. And I think we are also the only species, which you point out, that has any idea of what our temporal range would be and what misery that is. An elephant has no idea. They’ve got no idea.
John Green: Yeah, they don't know that they've been around for 2.5 million years. And we do know how long we've been around. And that is, that is weird. I think that's one of the things that makes consciousness really challenging, is that you have to figure out how to confront the incredibly strange but universal fact that it's going to end. And that is really, really hard to get your head around. And I think that's one of the reasons why I think people feel so uncomfortable around death and so uncomfortable talking about death is because it means something personal for each of us. It means having to grapple with loss, but it also means having to grapple with the end of our own lives in the end of our own awareness, you know, in this world. And that's a hard thing to think about. And so I understand why people get uncomfortable around it, or why people try to dodge and deflect and move on from it. But of course, that isn't much help to people who can't dodge it or can't deflect it or can't turn away from it. And so I think a lot of times in our conversations around death and around the ending of individual lives and the ending of the human species in general, one of the reasons we get so uncomfortable is because it means that we have to acknowledge our own, our own mortality and our own temporariness here.
Nora: What do you do with a ticking clock, you know? What do you do with, like, watching time count down? To live with sickness is to also sort of like, walk that knife's edge between hope and hopelessness, to really know, like you've got to live two parallel lives, one where, like, things are still possible and one where things aren't. And when we heard that he had cancer, we both said like, well, never tell us how much time there is. Like, we never want to hear, like, oh, six months or oh, three months because to be aware of temporal range, whether it's like, species-wide or individual, is such, such a burden. It really is. Like it's just so much to carry.
John Green: Yeah, and it's something that we're all carrying all the time. But when it comes into that kind of stark relief where you're forced to think, “Am I doing this for the last time? Am I doing this for the last time?” There's this really wonderful line in my friend Amy Cross Rosenthal's book, Textbook Amy Cross Rosenthal, she didn't know at the time when she wrote this that she had cancer, but she, she did. And she died shortly after the book was published. But in the book, she talks about how if someone tells you that you have 12,000 times left to look at a tree, it feels like a lot of times. But it also feels completely insufficient because anything other than infinite is insufficient. Any number is not enough. When I think about Amy, that always breaks my heart that she didn't even have 12,000 times left to look at a tree. And none of none of us know how many times we have left to look at a tree. But I think you're absolutely right that that can become paralyzing. Like it can become paralyzing if you're told, “You have six months. Do everything you can.” And you're like, well, you know, I also still like to watch Netflix and I also like to just hang out. I just- I still want to have, I like the things that I like.
Nora: Yeah. I like the things that I like. And that's, you know, there's when people are like YOLO or like I think- right when Aaron died, the Tim McGraw song, which I later understood, he wrote about a person who was dying, a friend of his, the “Live Like You Were Dying” song. You know what it's all about, like, “Jump out of a plane, wrestle a bull to the ground, whatever.” I was like oh like Aaron did watch Netflix. Like we watched Netflix, we went to work. We like, ate shitty frozen pizza and Sour Patch Kids and like that's what it meant to like, live like you were dying is to have this true appreciation for the mundane. And there is so much beauty in the mundane, and I picked up on that in your book, too. I want to talk about scratch and sniff stickers. The sort of ephemera of life that also ends up signifying something bigger to us, too.
John Green: Yeah, I think you're- I think that's exactly right that so often the mundane and the everyday gets overlooked, because it's every day and because it happens often. But if we start to pay a different kind of attention to it, it gets really fascinating and beautiful. And I wanted to write about scratch and sniff stickers initially because I found out the technology behind it is the same technology behind time-released medication. And there was something sort of mind-blowing to me about the fact that the medication that I use to treat my obsessive compulsive disorder relies on essentially the same technology that scratch and sniff stickers do. Not least because when I was in, like, middle school, I used scratch and sniff stickers as a mental health treatment for lack of a better term. Like I would come home after these really difficult days at school. And, you know, if I didn't feel like I wanted to go through telling telling my mom about what what had happened and how difficult it had been, I would just go into my room and I would close the door and I would open up the sticker book that I had since I was a kid, this beautiful pink sticker book. And I would just smell the scratch and sniff stickers and I would feel like I was a kid again and I would feel small and safe. It was a huge gift to me. Initially, I didn't want to write about that, because that felt like, really vulnerable and close to me. And so in the podcast version of it, I just write about like, “Oh, isn’t it wild that scratch and sniff stickers use the same technology that now helps me treat my OCD.” But when I was writing the book, I was like, I do need to write about this, because it's such a huge part of my life. And those scratch and sniff stickers, like the reason they worked is because smell is so powerful, it can transport us so profoundly. And in that time when I felt really unsafe and, you know, some really difficult days. I'm not going to pretend that scratch and sniff stickers like, solved the problem or anything, but they were a break, and I needed, I needed that.
We’re going to take a quick break.
Nora: When you were that age, was OCD even a part of your vocabulary, or was it something that your parents were aware of?
John Green: No. I mean, it wasn't part of my vocabulary. I mean, if it was part of my vocabulary, I had very specific associations with it, you know, like washing your hands a lot. I don't have any compulsive behaviors around hand washing. And so it never would have crossed my mind that I had OCD. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that a psychiatrist pointed out to me that a lot of the behaviors that I was doing were compulsive behaviors related to trying to manage these obsessive worries that I couldn't banish from my mind, and that's actually what OCD is, not hand washing. The O comes first for a reason. One thought floats in like a snowflake. And then you're looking at the snowflake and you're like, well, I don't want that to happen. And then suddenly it's a blizzard, and there's nothing but those snowflakes. And you have no ability to choose your thoughts. No ability to control the worry, and it really can overtake me and kind of hijack my consciousness. And then if there's a compulsive behavior that works, I'll do it, because I'll do anything to stop having to feel terrified. And so you get into these loops where you use these compulsive behaviors to manage this obsessive worry. And then over time, those compulsive behaviors take up more of your life and also provide less relief. And so it gets to a point where it's really, really unmanageable. So I didn't know I had that in middle school, but I did have it. I didn't know what it was. So I had all these food aversions. I really struggled. I honestly, I struggled to eat anything. And then I would pull at my skin all the time and open up sores on my hands and stuff as a way of just trying to calm myself down. I had a psychiatrist say to me once, like, “If it's not a problem for you, it's not a problem.” And I was like, “Oh, it's a problem. It's a problem for me. It's a problem for my family.”
Nora: Open sores, it is interrupting my life, like.
John Green: Yeah. And as I got older, I think I developed different, different fears. And this stuff morphs to find the places where you are vulnerable and where it can weasel its way in. And so as I got older, maybe the behaviors became a little harder to identify from the outside, but they in some ways became an even bigger part of my life.
Nora: I think the worst part of being a person is that we don't know what we don't know until all of a sudden we know it, and then we're grown ups and all of that stuff would have been much more useful before, or would have been at least extremely useful before. And then time just keeps going, and we all want to be really good. And the fact is, like we are young, like we are still new to everything. And then also like, as a species, as an era, like we are still new to things like we are still sort of learning things for the first time, or our collective memory is so short that we can't remember the things that we already learned.
John Green: Yeah. I mean, we have only been using the Internet for a few decades, so, like, no wonder we're bad at it. And I think that people in the future will be better at using the Internet. And I think they'll look back at us and be like “Oof. Those people are really struggling.” And I hope that they're able to look back at us with some level of empathy and compassion. But I think that's true for a lot of things, not just the Internet. We are in this weird historical moment where a lot is changing really quickly and we don't know how to do a lot of the stuff that we need to figure out how to do. And that's true for me on a micro level. It's interesting you say that because I can look back at my childhood self and feel a tremendous amount of compassion for him and really just want to give him a hug and tell him that it's going to be OK and that this is hard and that the people who are trying to minimize how hard it is or like telling you that these are supposed to be the best years of your life or that you've got it so easy because you're a kid and you don't have to work, that those people are like just completely wrong. Profoundly wrong. Adulthood sucks in a lot of ways, I don't want to, I don't want to minimize the ways that it sucks, but like, I'll take it any day over being 13.
Nora McInerny: Yeah.
John Green: But I struggle to have that same kind of compassion for myself now doing things I don't know how to do. Like, I don't know how to be a parent. I look at my parents and I watch them with my kids and I'm like, “Oh God, these people, they know what they're doing.”
Nora McInerny: Yeah.
John Green: But they didn't know what they were doing when I was a kid. So that's how they learned. And I think about that a lot because I don't know what I'm doing. I don't I- at this time of life, I don't know how to do this time of life.
Nora McInerny: Yeah because we're doing it for the first time, every single time. Like you are about to have a middle schooler for the first time. You're about to have a second grader for the first time. And it's so hard because when you are a kid, you do believe, like, the grownups have some sort of secret knowledge that they've unlocked and you will get there and it'll feel different. And it does feel different. But it doesn't feel always feel better. And I think especially, you know, COVID-19 happens. And I think back to like, March 2020, how absolutely freaked out the kids were. We're doing all these things for the first time and we believe that there's no precedent. We kept saying “unprecedented times.” And one of the most soothing slash reassuring parts of the book, too, was that nothing is truly unprecedented, even while it is new to us, if that makes sense. Everything's a repeat of a repeat, even when we're like, “I've never seen it before. I've never seen it before.”
John Green: Yeah. And we've never seen it before. And I think that's important to acknowledge. But humanity has seen it before, especially when it comes to infectious disease. And I wanted to write about that, I mean, partly because I'm obsessed with infectious disease, but partly like even before the pandemic. But I wanted to write about infectious disease, in part because I wanted to look at the ways that people have responded to it in the past as a way of understanding how we're responding to it now. How did people respond to cholera in the 19th century? Well, they responded by marginalizing the already marginalized. They responded by blaming outsiders. They responded by getting angry about public health measures and quarantines. But they also responded with extraordinary generosity and real deep, profound solidarity. And seeing both those narratives be able to coexist in history helped me feel like both those narratives can also coexist for me now. Like, I can be upset with the way that we've responded to COVID-19 and the way that the pandemic is much worse than it had to be, while also really celebrating and and feeling the solidarity that people have expressed and the ways that we've understood ourselves to be bound up in each other, even when we're forced to be apart. So I wanted to write about that because I needed to reconcile that stuff for myself. You know, like, that's a weird thing about this book. Like all my other books, were written, you know, for people who are quite different from me, like a lot younger and, you know, living in a in a different world than I lived in when I was that age and trying to imagine what would be helpful to them, what what could be useful to to them. And with this book, I was really- I mean I hope that other people will like it, but a big part of it was writing it for myself by trying to get myself to the place that I needed to be to get through the pandemic and also just to try to understand it, to try to make sense of it.
Nora McInerny: Yeah, that chapter specifically, it was a reminder that people have always been generous, people have always been kind, people have always been compassionate, and people have always been fearful and cruel and dismissive and that we all contain those multitudes, which is difficult. You quoted C.S. Lewis as saying, “I did not realize grief looked so much like fear.” And I wrote that down in my notebook because I was like, oh, God, like when you trace- like when you lift up what's under what's under fear or with under sort of like anger or it's under a sort of like all of unrest and and and cruelty like you do see fear. Yeah.
John Green: It's an intense fear too. I mean, grief is- grief is, is for me anyway, very, very close to fear. I'm afraid for people I love, I'm afraid for myself, I'm afraid that the stability I feel I'll never feel again. I'll never feel OK again. I think maybe what's maybe what's different about grief is that there's also this intense longing to go to a place that I can't go to anymore or to be with a person I can't be with anymore, to get back to a past that I know I can't get back to. And that makes you feel very, very raw, very exposed and. Yeah, it's close to fear, but it's not quite, you know, like it's a little different, I don't know.
Nora McInerny: Yeah.
John Green: When I was working at the hospital, I would sleep in the pastoral care office and they had like a little library of sad books. I read “A Grief Observed” during that period and it was hugely helpful to me and had a big impact on me back then.
Nora McInerny: You mentioned working in the hospital and that I mean, you are like you're a person with a lot of tenderness. I think people have, like, a lot of empathy and a lot of compassion. You know, compassion is to suffer with somebody. And it can be hard to witness suffering without taking it on. I would love to hear you talk about that time and the effect that it's had on you as an adult. Also what it's like to switch tracks when you think that you know what you're going to be doing and the way that feels as a person, because it's so difficult to sort of define and redefine yourself when so much of who we are in the West is defined by what we do. Like, what's your job? And I got to say, being a chaplain in a children's hospital, unimpeachable, unimpeachable, John Green.
John Green: Hard to, hard to impeach. And I still have a ton of respect and admiration for the people who do that work. By the time I was a senior in college, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I had a very set idea of what was going to happen. I thought I knew who I was going to marry. I thought I knew what I was going to do for graduate school and then what I was going to do as a job. And I was going to go to divinity school and I was going to graduate and I was going to become an Episcopal minister. And that was going to be my life. And I felt quite certain about that stuff. And as part of the training for becoming a minister, most people work for a time as a student chaplain at a prison or at a hospital. And I worked at a children's hospital. And it was very difficult for me because I did struggle with being present for people. I mean, for one thing, I was 21 years old. I wanted to be present for people on the worst day of their lives. I was not able to leave it at the door. I was not able to walk away and feel like, “Well, that was work and now I'm in a different space.” I walked away and never was able to do that. It's still ... I think I referred to it in the book as the axis around which my life spins and it does feel that way sometimes there is this break. That relationship blew up. My goals for my career blew up. I realized that I wasn't going to go to divinity school and I wasn't going to become a minister. And for several years, that was extremely difficult, because I'd had a plan and I had a really hard time accepting that the plan wasn't going to work out the way that I thought it was. I think it's especially difficult when, like, as is the case for you and to some extent me, your identity is really wrapped up in what you do and and who you are, who you are and what you do aren't fully separate, because so much of your work has has been about acknowledging your own experience and your own pain as a bridge to others. And it’s really hard to answer the question who are you separate from your work when your work is deeply wrapped up in who you are and what your life experiences have been.
We’re going to take a quick break.
Nora McInerny: Hearing you say and reading like that, this is the axis around which your world still turns, and it's been, what, like 20 years since you quit or 20 years since you went on something else like or went on this other path and several paths too right. You weren't like, well, no, I don't do this. So time to become a best-selling author.
John Green: That would have been great.
Nora McInerny: Only other pivot to make. Like, I got two options.
John Green: I would have loved it.
Nora McInerny: Yeah. Yeah.
John Green: No, it didn't happen quite that quickly, but yeah. I mean. It's still a very important part of my life, because it's where I began to ask the questions that I'm still asking and that I still don't feel settled on. And it's also where the hope that I had kind of taken into chaplaincy proved, to me anyway, totally insufficient, and so my world view had to change because this idea that I had of of how hope works, if that hope can't withstand the reality of experience and the reality that suffering is, in my opinion, unjust, profoundly unjust, it's unjustly distributed. But then I think suffering itself is also, would not be part of, of a fair world. I had to rebuild a hope that could live with that. That could acknowledge that. And respond with something other than just despair and nihilism. When I left chaplaincy, I still kind of thought I was going to go to divinity school. I was still unsettled about it anyway. But then a few months later, I was living in Chicago and I'd started to work as a temp, as a typist at various places. And I mean, my response to it by then was just absolute nihilism, just, you know, real despair and feeling like the only honest response to consciousness was to kind of laugh at the stupid, horrifying meaninglessness of it all. And I had to, I had to rebuild something that was going to work.
Nora McInerny: What does that hope look like now, and how do you keep yourself from sliding into nihilism? Because I slip in. I slip in there, sometimes.
John Green: I slide in there, sometimes. I'm not, yeah, I mean, I’d like to tell you that I've got some kind of magic hope bean that grows amazing hope vines that I can climb up whenever I want to. But alas.
Nora McInerny: Here's the recipe. OK.
John Green: Yeah. What I do think, what I do really believe is that for me there's two two sides of it. Number one, I believe that love survives death, and I believe that love is stronger than death. And I really believe that. And I guess it's a religious belief. It's not backed up by science, but I believe it. And I believe it's true in the narrowest sense, in an observable way, which is the people I love who have died, I still feel that love and it still holds me together. And I know that when I die, the people who are still here, who I love will still feel that love. And so I know that love survives death, and I find hope in that. And then the second thing that I find hope in is wonder and awe and the pleasures, the strange, wonderful joy of attention. And this is something I've learned from my kids most of all. That when I'm trying to, like, engage with, with wonder on some grand scale and trying to, like, fathom the distance of the stars and everything, my kids will be looking at a leaf or something and they'll just be like, “Look at this. I mean, this is wild. This came out of a tree like this emerged from inside of wood. And then it grew and then it fell.” And I'll be like, “Yeah, I mean, that is pretty wild. That's pretty awesome!” And so that feeling of wonder is very close to hope for me, in the same way, maybe, that grief is close to fear.
Nora McInerny: Yeah, it is. You describe this feeling of also having a person to look at something with or wonder at something with. I'm getting the words wrong.
John Green: No, that's exactly it. There's this Donald Hall essay where he writes, after his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, died, he wrote about the pleasure of what he called the third thing, when two people's gazes entwine around a third thing. And for Sarah and me, for my wife and me, our first third thing was art. Sarah is an art curator. And when we met, she was working at a gallery in Chicago, and I'd never seen contemporary art before. I couldn't have named a contemporary artist. I didn't know anything about art. I actually, like, bought a book before I went to the opening that she invited me to the art opening that she invited me to. I bought a book called like, “An Introduction to Contemporary Art.” And I read it. Which is not what I should have done. What I should have done was just ask questions.
Nora McInerny: But also you don't want to look like a dummy. None of us.
John Green: I think I was scared to look like a dummy. But then, of course, like I did look like a dummy because, like, nothing makes you less informed than reading one book.
Nora McInerny: Because you'd read a children's book.
John Green: Yeah. But having those third things in a relationship I think is so critical, because you can't always be like, staring deeply into each other's eyes. A lot of the time, it's about having a place of what Donald Hall calls joint rapture. And I do love that. I still love going and seeing art with Sarah. And we have many other third things now, from the New York Times crossword puzzle to the TV show “The Americans.” But the reason I love going to see art with Sarah is that feeling of we're both looking at the same thing. Our gaze is entwining not around each other, but around this thing we both love.
Nora McInerny: And to love things earnestly, which is something that you write about, is like being earnest is like a form of vulnerability, and especially in a cynical world, especially in a world where you're more rewarded extrinsically for the things that you dislike than you are for the things that you appreciate.
John Green: Yeah, and earnestness is kind of on the edge of cringiness, right? Like there's something cringey about real earnestness. This is something I wanted to grapple with in the book, because I often try to not be earnest, because I feel like it's going to be embarrassing. I feel like everybody is going to be like, “Oh God, he really loves that, and he's not even hiding it. Yuck.” But I do really love it, and I want to find a way to acknowledge what is lovely about life and to love it openly and aggressively and earnestly, without denying or dismissing or minimizing what is also horrible about life, and that's a lot of what I was trying to work my way through in this book. I was trying to figure out, well, how can I love the world earnestly while also still acknowledging that we are a complicated species and there's a tremendous amount of injustice in the world and there's a tremendous amount of suffering, and I want to acknowledge that and be alive to it. But I also want to acknowledge and be alive to the wonder and the hope and the joy that can also surround us.
Nora McInerny: Yeah you mentioned that, I mean, suffering is never distributed evenly or fairly or justly in any way. And it's also true that the thing that makes life meaningful, the things that make human life writ large meaningful is the fact that it is temporary, like the fact that it does, like, include suffering. And that is a hard thing to acknowledge also when it's very easy to tip into just, you know, not even toxic positivity, but I cringe follow several sort of like people like in influencer-y space where, you know, they'll they'll be like, “You know, your pain is a privilege,” or just these things. Like to turn it into an aphorism is so easy and really it's like there is like, sort of a, maybe not necessary, but an unavoidable level of suffering no matter who you are. And also some people just have it worse. And that freaking sucks.
John Green: Yeah, it's a really hard thing to navigate because I don't find a lot of comfort personally in “everything happens for a reason.” I really bristle at, you know, “suffering is how we become grateful for every day” or whatever, which is just, A.) not my experience, and B.) I also think like, if you're saying that from inside a place of suffering like that, that's fine. I don't know how to tell other people to live their lives, but like, doesn't it doesn't help me if you're saying it from outside. But at the same time, part of the meaning of life is that we're only here for a little while and we've got to try to be good to each other. I also think, though, that there's this kind of separate thing, which is that suffering is universal and suffering is unjustly distributed and sometimes suffering is unjustly distributed just because of bad luck. But a lot of time, suffering is unjustly distributed because of these unjust power structures that privilege certain kinds of people and certain lives and and don't others. And so it that's also complex to navigate. When you're talking about the meaning of suffering or the meaning of pain is that you never want it to be a way of saying, “It's OK that these systems don't work, that they aren't fair.” I've often struggled with feeling like I don't deserve the incredibly lovely things that have happened to me professionally and personally, because I don't deserve them. But I also don't deserve the shitty things, you know? I think deserving is mostly just the wrong lens.
Nora McInerny: Yeah, there's no deserving, there's literally no deserving. These are not merit badges, none of them.
John Green: Right. Yeah, exactly. Like, yes, none of it is merit- based. The good stuff isn't. But also the terrible stuff isn't like, you know, my brother doesn't deserve all the great things that have happened for him in his career. He also doesn't deserve to have ulcerative colitis. Like, it’s just not the way it works. But I am so hardwired to like, think of the universe as somehow rewarding or punishing me according to my virtues and vices, and it's hard work to de-wire that.
Nora McInerny: Yeah well we're like, meaning-making machines, you know? Like we are also, as far as we know, I don't know, we don't know what dolphins are really feeling. But, you know, the only who knows who knows what else, what kind of poems they're writing. Like we are like the species that defines and decides and categorizes and assigns not just like, oh, this is good or bad, as in like this will kill you, this will keep you going. But like, this is what it means that this is good.
John Green: Yeah. And we are so hardwired to draw constellations from the stars and to draw meaning from experience, but we have to be really careful what meaning we make. Because I agree with you, I don't think we have a choice about whether to make meaning, whether to construct meaning out of our experience, but I think we have to be careful about what meaning we make, because that can be inclusive and welcoming and healthy, and it can also be really toxic and exclusionary.
Nora McInerny: Yeah, like when you try to define it for somebody else, I think when you try to make meaning for other people, which happens when people say,” everything happens for a reason,” which happens when people say like, you know, “just” or “at least” or like you should like they're trying to get.
John Green: “At least.”
Nora McInerny: Oh god, at least.
John Green: Oh god at least, at least. At least you got to love him. And also, like, you don't want to be a jerk at that moment. It's so hard too because, like, you don't-
Nora McInerny: It's so hard.
John Green: And they're saying that saying that from a kind of place of love in the sense that they don't want you to have to feel what you're feeling.
Nora McInerny: Yeah, yeah.
John Green: But you do have to feel it is the thing. So like that that's why people minimizing it can feel like they're just not acknowledging the scope of the loss.
Nora McInerny: Yeah. You have to feel it. And so many of these essays too are not about one feeling, like the connection or I like the word constellations. I'm gonna steal that from you. The constellation of all these feelings at once. And speaking of crappy things that I've seen on the Internet, I do have to follow different people. But there is this meme that I'm scrolling through, I stopped at yesterday. That was like, “you can't be grateful and anxious at the same time.” And I was like-
John Green: Oh. Wow, then I can't be grateful. I better be able to be grateful at the same time because I don't have a choice about whether to feel anxious.
Nora McInerny: We aren't like emotional switchboards. We aren't like experiential switchboards, and our feelings are not salad, they're soup. Like it's all connected.
John Green: Yeah. And like, learning to live with all that stuff co-mingling is hard for me. And I wanted to write, I love really straightforward self self-help books. I don't find them helpful, but I really love their certainty and clarity. You know? I want to be certain and clear. I'm not, though. And so I guess like, one of the reasons I wrote this book was to try to be OK with that uncertainty and be OK with my feelings being a soup and all this stuff kind of coexisting together for me.
Nora McInerny: The idea too, that- Sarah said this, right? Where she said “every review is like a mini memoir.” Right. Like the person who is writing the review is not really telling you about the thing. Right? It's not about the- when my first book came out, part of my self, you know, torture or the way that I really, like, just hurt my self harm, right, is that I love to read bad things about myself on the Internet just to prove that I'm a bad I'm a terrible person. I'm trash. And so I would click on the reviews of my first book and I'd skip the fives, the fours. I'd go right to the twos or the ones.
John Green: Yes. I would literally sort the reviews by one star, because I don't want to read the four-star and five-star reviews. I only want to read the one star reviews. And Sarah saw me doing this once and she was like, “Did you just sort Goodreads by one-star reviews?” And I was like, “Yeah, how else would you sort it out?” And she was like, “Why do you want to know?” And I was like, “Well, because I want to, you know, I want to know, like, what's wrong with my work.” And she was like, “Well, let's read some of these and see if they explore what's wrong with your work or whether they just like, explore personal vendettas, or I was having a bad day or like..” I think about the books that I would rate one star. And I think some of them aren't good books, but like a lot of them, I read in the wrong time of my life or it wasn't a book for me.
Nora McInerny: It wasn't for me. Yeah. Yeah.
John Green: And that's OK. But the problem with sorting reviews by one star is you end up like, trying to make stuff for the people who are definitely not going to like it.
Nora McInerny: Right. They're definitely not going to like it. They're definitely not going to like it.
John Green: They're just not the people who are going to be into it. And so I have also stopped doing that. But it took boy, it did take me a while.
Nora McInerny: It takes a while. And the first one that I read that I still have a screenshot and I used to put it in, like, talks- maybe I'll bring it back, because I didn't just click through to see the two stars, John. Then I clicked on her name and I was like, what else has she reviewed?
John Green: Oh my God. Yeah. Then you're like Googling her, like, I need to know everything.
Nora McInerny: Why don't you like me? The only other thing that she had reviewed was a snow brush like for your car. She wrote on my book, “Nothing special. Like the husband dies nothing special, like we've seen it before. John Green Green did it first.” And so the snow brush: three paragraphs, five stars. She loved this snow brush.
John Green: A great snow brush.
Nora McInerny: Great snow brush. The reach, the capacity, like the scraping mechanism, the padded handle. It met her expectations. And I like that is cringe. That is absolute cringe. And also, I was like, Nora, Nora, Nora, Nora. What are you doing?
John Green: “Nora you have ceded a huge percentage of your consciousness to someone who thought to themselves, you know what I should write a thousand words about today? My snow brush.”
Nora McInerny: “It didn't let me down. Not the way this book did.”
John Green: “I'll tell you what you can count on: this snow brush. But whatever you do, while you're buying the snow brush, make sure not to pick up at Target this crap book. Super sad.”
Nora McInerny: Oh god. But it's like I just love the concept of taking that, like that very- and again, when we talk about or you talk about like, oh, we're inventing human nature, right. Like we are inventing human nature. It is very recent that we are able to have this capacity and this compulsion to rate, review, sort every single part of our lives and everything that we've sort of come into contact with. And I do wonder, like how future generations will look back and be like, “Oh, my God, I mean, someone gave you a bad slice of pizza and you had to … you got one bad slice of pizza. You want to bring this guy down? You OK?” The answer is we are not okay.
John Green: “No, I'm not OK. I have- I'm carrying a lot of hurt. And today this is the direction that I am channeling it.”
Nora McInerny: Directing it. Yeah.
John Green: It is really hard. I am hugely suspicious of the five star scam in general, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to write about it in this way, because I don't think we can distill our experiences down to a single data point. I just don't. And I think we do that not for ourselves or for each other, but for these data aggregation systems that cannot comprehend real qualitative analysis but can comprehend like a single data point. But I find myself now thinking almost against my will about whether or not something is good, like what my rating of it would be. Usually pre-Internet I would go out to a restaurant, not that often, but like when I would go out to a restaurant, I wouldn't think, like, is this meal great? I would think, like, “This meal was good because of the person I was with or it was bad because the conversation wasn't good. Or maybe it was bad because the food was bad.” But there was a lot going into it that didn't have anything to do with the restaurant. And that's still true for me when I go out to eat, like I went out to a restaurant for the first time about a week ago with my wife at lunch, and it was the best meal I have ever eaten in my entire life. And it was not good food. But it was the best meal, because someone made it for me. It was hot.
Nora McInerny: I wasn't in my house.
John Green: I wasn't in my house. I felt like 17 different kinds of alive that I haven't felt in 18 months. And it was an amazing nine-star Michelin Guide lunch at a burger joint. But you can't, you can't distill that into one, you can't, the whole idea of being able to distill that into one data point is ludicrous because what made the meal so special was that Sarah was there and that we were vaccinated and that the burger was hot and I hadn't had a burger that I didn't make in a year and a half. That's what made it amazing.
Nora McInerny: Which meant you also got to get toppings that you're like, oh, God, I'm not going to be like a-.
John Green: Yes right yes.
Nora McInerny: I'm not going to make a sauce for one burger. No, we're going to eat this dry ass burger because- maybe I'll slap some ketchup on it. We got like two tablespoons left in the bottom of the bottle.
John Green: Yes. I'm not buying an onion just for this burger. Yeah, that is a big part of it. Oh, God, it was so great. Like, I feel like for the next 50 years I'll close my eyes and picture that lunch. I had a beer, and it was really cold.
Nora McInerny: It was poured for you.
John Green: It was from a keg. So it's just it's just different. Better. It was amazing.
Nora McInerny: Yeah, well, I give this conversation, I give it five stars.
John Green: Oh that’s very generous, Nora.
Nora McInerny: I give it six, it really did exceed my expectations, and my expectations were incredibly high. OK? The danger with this, with meeting anybody that you admire is that they will bum you out and disappoint you. So.
John Green: Well, I have to say, I loved this conversation. Have I loved it as much as I love my snow brush? No, no. My snow brush is just so good.
If I were to add to this book – and John Green, I might – here is what else I’d like to see reviewed:
The American Health Care System: 0/5 stars
Rescue dogs who are completely indifferent to their “rescuers”: 5/5 stars. I love a dog who is ungrateful. I love a dog who is like “Okay, and… what else do you want? Sure. you brought me into your own and feed me and bathe me. What do you want from me? I didn’t ask for this.”
Friends who always remember your birthday but never remember to text you back: 3/5 stars. I am that friend.
Teachers who intentionally embarrass their students in front of their peers: 0/5 stars. Find another outlet for your aggression.
Billionaires: 1/5 stars (that one star belongs to McKenzie Bezos only).
Women who are taller than their male partners: 5/5 stars, no, 6/6 stars. Let’s give me and other women like me a 6. 6/5 stars.
A glass of whole milk with dinner: 5/5 stars. If you are lactose intolerant, I am sorry that you cannot enjoy that. And if you're a person who finds it weird when an adult drinks milk with dinner you do not want to have dinner with me. I am so sorry.
John’s book is available wherever you get books. I highly recommend also listening to the coordinating podcast, which is ALSO called “The Anthropocene Reviewed.” He has a very soothing voice, as you just heard.
We’ll be doing some more episodes like this, so if there are authors you want to hear (or ones you do NOT). Let us know! Our phone number is 612.568.4441. We listen to voicemails, because I’m a senior millennial and I love the phone, and a voicemail is a lovely way to communicate, isn’t it?
This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is Beth Pearlman, Marcel Malekebu, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Jordan Turgeon. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. We are a production of American Public Media.
This episode was recorded at McInerny studios. It is my closet. I do not have enough leg space. My posture is horrible, and what it has really done is made me pare down my belongings, because when you have to stare at them repeatedly, you start to think, “Maybe I don’t need this pair of pants that has not fit me in 10 years. Maybe I could let this go. How about that?”
Well I'll see you guys later. You have a good one. One being whatever you’re doing right now. Have a good one.