Do We Deserve Redemption Narratives?

Thursday, July 20, 2017 - 4:37 pm

Do We Deserve Redemption Narratives?

Spoiler alert: If you want to read “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara and have not, bookmark this read for when you are finished.

Reading is central to my spiritual practice. When I’m immersed in the world of a book, reveling in the way another human being has managed to put words to something I’ve felt or thought but never quite pinned down, I am in heaven. The real world, with all of its unpaid bills and hungry babies and immoral political leaders, fades away; it is me, the words, and the people that are made of those words.

Reading feels even more pleasurable and important these days when everything is so oriented around being productive. What could be less productive than reading a really long novel? It’s an act of rebellion against the worship of efficiency.

I slowly but surely made my way through Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel, A Little Life, falling in love with the characters as I went along, and the writer’s understated style and timeless plotting. It’s about four friends navigating their post-college lives in New York. It’s about the damage that is done to us as children and how we integrate that as we become adults. It’s about our broken bodies — how we manage chronic pain, how we resist and accept care. It’s most profoundly about the healing power of relationships. Yanagihara writes:

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

It’s also a dark book, filled with the worst of human nature: sexual abuse, parenting cowardice, exploitation. I kept reading for two reasons: first and foremost, because the writing was so beautiful and surprising at different moments, but also because I was sure that slogging through all the darkness promised a hard-earned and transcendent light at the end. I was sure the conclusion would be redemptive. I anticipated reveling in one of the most poetic portraits of the power of human beings to heal and find safety, joy, love…

You probably know how this ends. Badly. The main character, Jude, is not saved by the love of his friends. He dies by suicide. I finished the book feeling so deeply let down by the author. Seven hundred twenty pages and I hadn’t earned my happy ending?

But the more I sat with the book as a whole — its beauty and misery and final punch in the gut — the more I realized that it was probably the most honest book I’ve ever read. I started looking around at all the narratives that surround me in books and television and even songs, realizing that every last one of them is biased for redemption. Even the narratives we tell within our families, amongst ourselves, out loud at dinner parties and to our children, are all filled with “productive misery.” If it’s sad, if we’ve failed, if there has been exploitation or pain, it all leads in a straight line of our own making to something wonderful. We were abused so we could help others who are abused. We got cancer so we could have more empathy for others who are sick. We got divorced so we could meet our real, true love.

Perhaps this is true some of the time, but is it really true all of the time? What about the people we’ve lost to opioid addiction? What about the cancer that ravages your body and teaches you nothing? What about the father that really screwed up and never tried to make it right?

There are the happy endings, but there are also the sad stories with sad endings. We don’t tell them very often and so we expect everything to conclude with a happy twist. We make people who have experienced them feel isolated and grumpy and outside of our cultural norms. We essentially pressure people to make redemptive stories out of their lives even if that doesn’t feel true. A Little Life has expanded my own spiritual intelligence. It has made me question how entitled I feel to happy endings and redemption narratives. It has made me want to see and hear people who fall outside of these expectations.

The book, as it turns out, is also about how even the most healing relationships can sometimes reach the limits of their power, that even people who are loved so well can fail to survive this sometimes very cruel and dysfunctional world. It is about the fact that not all pain is productive. Sometimes it’s just pain. And it’s not fair. And that is our world, too.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Lauren Moore Kase

    Perfectly said – thank you!!

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thank you!

  • Gabby

    If we live with eyes open and not safely behind comfortable walls, we see people all around whose pain and struggle have not had silver linings- who have, in fact, been unable to play with gratifying result the hands they have been dealt. It is not a character flaw. It is not that they haven’t meditated enough or prayed enough or been spiritual enough or been courageous or resourceful enough, or anything for which it is fair to blame them.

    If we mean to live open-heartedly and stand with those in strife, we must not to hang onto cruel myths: 1) the sugar-coated view that people in pain must be enjoying some compensatory silver lining, or 2) the assumption that people either do, or don’t, deserve some sort of redemption and get what they deserve.

    We just need to try to help when we can in a practical way, actions rather than only hopeful thoughts, as if they were our loved ones.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Beautifully put, thanks Gabby.

  • Nancy Bolton Beck

    Possibly it is redemptive, only not able to be seen by ourselves at this time. I believe that there are many of us who have been touched by the experience of someone we know taking their own life. For me, I have found solace in the words of the great soul, John O’Donohue.
    “…May you be given some inkling
    That there could be something else at work
    And that what to you now seems
    Dark, destructive and forlorn,
    Might be a destiny that looks different
    From inside the eternal script.

    May vision be granted to you
    To see this with the eyes of providence.
    May your loss become a sanctuary
    Where new presence will dwell
    To refine and enrich
    The rest of your life
    With courage and compassion.

    And may your lost loved one
    Enter into the beauty of eternal tranquillity,
    In that place where there is no more sorrow
    Or separation or mourning or tears.”

  • Tracy

    Oh my lord, that book! Whoa. It moved through me in a strange and powerful way, its residue unlike any other I’ve experienced. Even now, just thinking about it, I get a deep stirring in my gut. Granted, I read it just after the birth of my fraternal twin girls, an already strange and powerful time. For me, the redemptive aspect came through my feelings for Jude. For I loved him. And although that love did not save him, I think it helped remind me of just how remarkable it is that I could feel so much for one little life. One little fictional life! I think part of what made the book so overwhelming for me was learning this in the midst of welcoming two little (very real!) lives into my home and heart. Thank you, Courtney. You’re my girl!

  • Gabby

    When someone you trust or care about doesn’t believe you, it feels really horrible. But it is only some specific people who might not believe you. It is not the whole world.
    May you find better friends.

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