Discussion Questions for John Green: Chronic Not Curable
1. “I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.” The episode opens with these words from inside the mind of sixteen-year old Aza, the protagonist in John Green’s novel, Turtles All The Way Down. Do you agree? If so, when has it felt as if your story is telling you and not the other way around?
2. John is the author of bestselling young adult books like The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, and Paper Towns. He likes to write for teenagers because they ask big questions without irony or embarrassment, like, “Who am I?” and “What happens when I die?” What do you know about asking big questions from spending time with adolescents, either real or fictional? What can you learn from their earnestness? What prevents youfrom being similarly curious?
3. Mental illness is a precarity—John’s new favorite word—that both the fictional Aza and the real John live with.Who or what in your life reminds you of what it’s like to be fragile? How has this fragility shaped your identity or relationship to others?
4. John and Kate agree that often people want to ascribe superpowers to people with chronic illness, even though they’re often trying to live as normal a life as possible. Have you ever been made to feel exceptional because of something difficult you were facing? Have you ever tried to make someone else feel heroic in theirhardship? What kind of response, do you think, would be more welcome?
5. Just snap out of it. You just need to take care of yourself. If you have a positive outlook… it will get better. These are example of some of the advice John has received for treating his obsessive compulsive disorder. But, for John, agency is more limited, especially when talking about mental illness. Describe a time when your agency—or ability to control your own outcome—was limited. What could you do? What couldn’t you do? What, if anything, actually made you feel better?
6. A lot of characters in Turtles All the Way Down can’t help Aza in her suffering. And, in fact, John thinks that the impulse to save others from suffering—especially our kids—actually does the opposite. Instead, he says, we have to integrate suffering into our life experience (i.e. out is through, like the cheesy motivational posterproclaims). What does that mean to you? Use your five senses to describe the look/sound/smell/taste/feel of asuffering that has not been sidelined.
7. People don’t always get better at caregiving the longer they do it. Kate notices, “Sometimes when it’s people’s jobs, it all stays in a very hypothetical place for them.” Have you experienced this to be true? Why do you thinkit’s so? What practice(s) help you flex and build your caregiving muscles?
8. John says we don’t get to pick the painting of our life, but we pick the frame. How would you describe the frame you’ve chosen for your life? Is it thin or thick? Is it simple or ornate? Is it kind of tacky or classy? Is there another frame that might better suit your canvas?
9. Kate asks John what Turtles All the Way Down can teach us about how to be a better parent, friend, or care- giver to someone with mental illness. His response? To love. To reassure (without lying). To be present (withouttrying to fix). What advice would you add to his? What advice will you take to heart?
10. John’s books give an account of life that is chronic rather than curable. There may not always be answers butthere is abundance, like a “loaves and fishes” multiplication of love. “Love,” John writes “is both how youbecome a person and why.” What loves animate your purpose and personhood?
Bonus: After listening to this week’s podcast, what part of Kate and John’s conversation resonated with you most? What insight will you carry with you?
Discussion Questions written by author, editor, and facilitator Erin S. Lane.
For more discussion questions and helpful resources, visit KateBowler.com.
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