I recently discovered that John Green from the Vlogbrothers was actually the same John Green who wrote Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars, and a few other YA books that you’ve probably seen in stores. This was rather surprising to me. I vaguely liked the Vlogbrothers as producers and supporters of great content on YouTube. I didn’t watch much of their original creations, but I loved the idea behind DFTBA and I followed DFTBA creators like CGP Grey, The Nerdwriter, Wendover Productions, and Numberphile for years. My impression from the sidelines was that John Green the Author just wrote sappy, forgettable fiction, like Nicholas Sparks for teenagers, which would make it even less relevant to my life. I’m honestly not sure how I never connected these two things until just a few weeks ago. What should I take from this moment of cognitive dissonance, this realization that the two John Greens were really one and the same?
The last few years have been pretty terrible, both as an objective statement of the facts of American life but also as a personal lived experience. I thought these years would be great as I worked towards them. When I look objectively at my life, I think I should be happy if not thrilled by the last few years. My wife and I are finally homeowners, albeit in our mid-30s. We have three beautiful kids now, all in the last few years. I got my “dream job” as a tenure track assistant professor. These aren’t bittersweet achievements. They are genuinely amazing milestones. And yet, I find myself more often than not thinking about how needlessly terrible life is right now. The rage, anger, and incompetence of the Trump administration. The continuing idiocy of tech companies failing miserably at privacy, security, or even simple empathy and ethics. The hideousness of a Christianity so broken and warped that there’s apparently not even enough decent Christian residue left to rebel openly. I could go into a litany of more personal disappointments, including rifts with old friends and family, but let’s just not. The point is that I have this odd feeling. I suppose it’s not technically another moment of cognitive dissonance, but it rhymes with that. I should be happy, but I’m just not. What should I take from this moment, too?
Upon discovering that the John Greens I thought were separate were actually one and the same, I took another look at the author. Was there something I missed? Something I should re-examine? I wandered over to the author’s website and started browsing. Moments later, I was watching his video titled The Broccoli Tree: A Parable, embedded below.
You should watch it now because I’m going to talk about it.
Done? I don’t want to ruin anything.
Ok, let’s continue.
Seeing this now, I think it’s among the truest videos on YouTube, even knowing that sappy YA author John Green wrote it. The Broccoli Tree: A Parable would remain genuinely great even if the whole story was made up because the point of a parable is to demonstrate a deeper moral lesson in stark terms.
At one point in the parable, Green says, “To share something is to risk losing it. […] The truth is, if we hoard and hide what we love, we can still lose it. Only then, we’re alone in the loss.” When I heard that, I immediately understood something I had spent months wondering about. Namely, why did Tyler Trent’s family help him travel all over the place in the months leading up to his death?
If you haven’t heard about Tyler Trent, he was a 20 year old Purdue student diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer. His story was the focus of a College Game Day story leading up to the football game where Purdue hosted then undefeated Ohio State. These stories are sadly common. Some sports team has a big game. Media outlets have time to fill, so they start digging for a story. Eventually, they find a fan suffering from some disease or misfortune, and they share the story of how it happened. It’s easy to mock these moments, much as it is easy to mock YA fiction as somehow sappy or unimportant. These stories often feel forced or artificial, also like YA fiction.
But Purdue is my team, so I watched the story. I tried to go into it with an open mind, and not bring the disaster baggage of the last few years or the pointless cliché of so many similar sports stories into my perspective. And the story is basically what you would expect had you brought all that disaster baggage and cliché with you anyhow. But it was also a real story, with a real person living it.
Then Purdue won the game, and Tyler Trent’s story didn’t disappear. He became a fixture at Purdue games, even traveling in late December to their bowl game. Sportswriters kept writing about him and reaching out to him. Maybe this was because he wanted to be a sportswriter and they saw a little of themselves in him. I don’t know. I was once a 20 year old kid from Indiana who went to Purdue, but I still only saw the cliché in the story. It just didn’t feel real to me, and one of the questions that keep bouncing around in my head was, “Why did his family help him travel to all those away games?” He was basically on his deathbed. It was clearly painful and expensive and logistically challenging and certainly not something a parent would plan to do.
Green says, in The Broccoli Tree, “You loved something. You shared it. Many people loved it too. And then one or a few people decided to cut it down. Given enough time, such people will always cut down such trees.” Many people loved the Tyler Trent story because it wasn’t a cliché to them. They related to it because it was their life. I was privileged to view it as a cliché simply because nothing that bad had ever happened to me, even in the dumpster fire of the last few years. I know why Tyler’s family took him to those games and shared him with ESPN and other media outlets, even knowing that those outlets were fundamentally seeking to fill airtime.
When asked why Jesus used parables he said, “Because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” I think I may have misunderstood John Green’s novels, literally without reading them. Of course, we all must evaluate and decide on things–even big, important things–with limited information and time. Careers. Finances. Relationships. Elections. We’re going to make mistakes, sometimes awful, horrible ones. But we keep trying anyway. The purpose of parables, including The Broccoli Tree, isn’t to ensure we will forever afterwards make perfect decisions. It is to help us understand why and how we should work to make good decisions in an imperfect world.
One of the mistakes I’ve made the last few years was too often expecting that things would be good rather than searching for the good things that were there. I didn’t used to think this way, and this shift in my thinking was too subtle for me to notice immediately. But it was an important, dangerous shift. This year, I’m going to correct for this by sharing something I think is as close to unambiguously good as possible each month. I recognize that this act alone won’t fix the Trump administration, give tech companies the empathy or ethical backbone they need, reveal all the wolves wearing sheep’s clothing, or solve any number of professional disappointments. But it will force me to look for good things more often, rather than simply expect them to be there. I hope this will get me closer to the mindset I need to be happy.
This month, I’ve shared The Broccoli Tree: A Parable because the purpose of that parable is that recognizing, identifying, and sharing the things we love is actually how we love those things best. No part of that is easy. I’m sure it was profoundly difficult for Tyler Trent’s family to share him with us. I don’t expect finding something unambiguously good to be easy for me either, but I’ll share something else next month. It will take time. It will feel like too much effort for a blog that no one reads. But the reality is that I need to do it for me. I need eyes that see and ears that hear the good things in life, and in this world we must actively cultivate those things.
And I’m going to read one of John Green’s books.