Kate Bowler is well-versed in befores and afters, in weighing the beautiful and terrible parts of life that run into each other every day. In her 2018 book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Bowler chronicled her sudden diagnosis with stage 4 cancer at age 35 and dissected the ways people — particularly Christians in the United States, infused with prosperity thinking — speak to the suffering. In her new book, No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear), the New York Times bestselling author, professor, mother, and “cancer alumnus” explores what it looks like to live in the after.
After a successful immunotherapy trial, Bowler, now 40, once again has to reconfigure the way forward — with new questions about finitude, medical trauma, career versus calling, and a culture that keeps trying to impose norms of what success looks like.
Bowler is an associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke University and host of the Everything Happens podcast. She is the author of several books including Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel and The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. Bowler spoke with Sojourners’ editor-in-chief, Sandi Villarreal, in early September.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Sandi Villarreal, Sojourners: After a diagnosis, I think there’s often a very strong sense that you have to find that profound message, the lesson, right? But then you also have to change a diaper.
Kate Bowler: Trying to make our lives meaningful all the time is so stupid. And it’s one of the limits to the whole “Be Here Now,” mentality, mastery mindset crap. We can’t make every minute into a moment. Sometimes you just have to pay bills and show up for your friend and listen to her talk again about whether she should dump her boyfriend — and she should — and be in a faculty meeting and be in traffic.
I think we freight suffering people with these questions more than we do average lucky people. We want our suffering to count. And I really understand that it is so hard to go through anything without believing that it’s adding up to something. But our lesson-obsessed culture is really making it hard to just go through things without feeling like you’re supposed to be joyful or profoundly existential about it.
I love what you wrote about not making a bucket list: What is it to “complete” life? What does that even mean? And if you didn’t check off every item, is it more tragic?
Totally. On the last day of our life, will our inbox be zero? We somehow have this mythical belief that [we] will have some kind of finished life.
I’ve been trying to come to some kind of peace that living is hunger. It’s this lovely want. And that even if I were the most adorably Zen-like person, I would never look at my kid and not want more time, more eating peanut butter puff cereal, and rewatching Toy Story. I think life is hunger and I think that’s okay.
The word “lucky” came up [in the book]. How do you feel about that term?
I think lucky feels like a very loaded word. Usually it feels like it’s freighting suffering people with the responsibility to be grateful for something. It forces them to put their pain and life and losses on a spectrum of other people's experiences and say “better than”/ “worse than.”
I think it’s connected to our culture’s obsessive right-siding, our exhausting optimism, our punitive futurism. Why can’t that pain stand all on its own? I read a history of luck recently because I was mad about it. The definition of luck in this book was that it had a positive outcome with a fortuitous twist, like it was positive and out of your control.
The word lucky is good at describing things that happen to us in a culture that doesn’t believe in luck. I always think of lucky people as the people that just by sheer accident nothing has happened to, and I try to imagine them with love in my heart, but I would never use it to describe someone who’s ever lost a single thing.
I’m also curious about the very triumphant way in the U.S. that we talk about prosperity and terms like “survivor” and “warrior.”
They’re so prevalent: “She lost her battle with cancer.” I guess what always feels so ridiculous about [these terms] is that they imagine that we have any control. In my life, I am living as a result of a lot of medical advocacy on my part, but then mostly a drug that was invented in a lab far away that I didn’t administer to myself, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars on a pharmaceutical charity care plan.
[That language] misses the point because most of the things that determine our life are going to be the things that we don’t choose. And so I think “victor,” “survivor,” all of that — it imagines that we’re like the hero in this story, bounding over obstacles. And it just skips the fact that we’re so fragile and usually have the dignity of only small, hard choices. I don’t feel like it really includes me. Also, it doesn’t describe people who keep suffering. Most of us have chronic life: We really never get over the problems we have, even if it’s divorce or loss or addiction.
In the book, you talk a bit about your relationship with your body. After going through something traumatic, you have to relearn how to live within your own body and who your body is. How do you start to rediscover that?
I’m a very cerebral person. So at first I was like, “Oh, what an annoying meat sack that I have to carry around. I’m so disappointed it’s not letting my brain work at peak function.” I have been really reluctant to stop being someone fixated on mental mastery.
I have such a fun job that I just got to mentally escape all the time, but then I just kept having surgeries to the point where I was on my, I don’t know, eighth or ninth belly button at this point. And I have all kinds of scars crisscrossing my body and I didn’t realize I had a lot of accumulated medical trauma, because I didn’t know really what trauma was. I just figured that pain was something that you endure and then overcome.
It started with little things: learning to buy clothes again, learning to enjoy a nice-smelling shampoo, or going on a long walk and feeling your muscles work.
One of the hardest roads for me is not accepting a thing that has been often trying to murder me. Most of the insight I’ve gotten has been through conversations I've had on my podcast [with] a whole assortment of experts who have helped me realize that I’m not just a cognition machine.
We also don’t have a very good theology of the body — a theology that helps us understand what your body is for and that it is good.
I remember having a conversation with Hillary McBride for the podcast, and she was talking about how she was nurturing her own way out of a traumatic response to a car accident and just the loving voice that she used for herself. I had a procedure a month or so ago, and I was just trying to use that loving voice, like, Hey, you did a good job. Anesthesia is the worst.
I think abandoning perfectionism with our bodies is so hard when our body creates these obstacles. And I think pain is one of the most obvious ways that we keep living a chronic life. And if I could, I would skip it. But we’re stuck with our embodiment and it’s a lesson that I think our theology has to catch up with.
Who do you look to for encouragement?
I find small acts of bravery, especially now, to be really especially touching. The last time I was in the hospital — this was for something dumb, I’d been bitten by a snake — and I had this beautiful nurse and she had just lost her husband.
And she was there being yelled at by people for not getting water on time and taking care of people’s awkward, wounded bodies. And she had this little button and it just said, “you’re why” about why she was there. And that had to be one of the most beautiful and courageous things I’d seen in a while, especially knowing that she was there as the walking wounded herself.
Every time a day is really hard and I’m like, This again?, it helps when someone else just seems to be marching forward into the unknown.
There’s so much of this journey that’s a group effort, but then there’s also this very solitary thing: You’re the only one who knows what you’re experiencing and what you’re going through. How do you know how to divide those things?
When I was first diagnosed, I really did think I was on an island. I thought for sure that I would go through my valley of the shadow of death alone, because I don’t live near my family. My best friend had just moved away. I really figured this was going to be a solitary exercise.
And so part of the incredible surprise to me, the feeling of this being a miracle, was that I was patched together by a lot of different people who, taken individually, shouldn’t have been weightbearing. The person who drove me to the hospital at 4 a.m. most often was my librarian, Roger; he’s the very best. I guess part of the reason there are just so many people in that book was I couldn’t believe that it felt like a human life raft had been made.
I think that’s also the thing that I mourn most for people who are immunocompromised, the shuttering of the elderly, the fear of people trying to get medical care right now in a country that has politicized their existence. I mourn the fact that people have fewer opportunities to be pieced together.
I have such a soft heart for anyone who feels lonely right now because I think the scariest thing of all is to be suffering and to feel alone. And the miracle, honestly, that I pray for myself and for others, is that we will just continue to be surprised by people who show up.
There seem to be more people talking about grief and suffering but how do we get that message [of needing each other] through in the current circumstances?
We haven’t normalized our neediness and our fragility. It is going to take a lot of work to undo the cultural shame we experience when we say out loud, “I don’t think I can do this.”
Any tragedy is a logistical abyss. And most of us can’t make it alone. It really is a deep evil that we are living in a culture that has to GoFundMe funeral costs. Our thin social services, our obsessive self-help culture. We are embarrassed when we can’t do it alone, but we really can’t. I just don’t think that message is considered American.
And people protect themselves with numbers. So when you read about how many deaths there were from COVID-19, you immediately look to see whether they had pre-existing conditions — or we say “It’s only X percent of children who are getting very sick.” And so if you can put these percentages and numbers on it, you can remove yourself from that percentage.
It’s a wonderful new definition of American exceptionalism where it just always imagines itself to be the miracle few who won’t suffer. But part of — she said self-righteously — this country’s suffering is its refusal to have a public imagination for the way that we’re connected. I think we’re scared of our interdependence. And I think right now very few people do have enough.
How awful that the message of our culture now is: If you can’t expect anyone else to take care of you, you have to do it all by yourself and you have to be a teacher and a mom and gig-economy winner and side-hustle master and a Peloton user. There’s just no end to the things that we “should” be able to do in the course of the day. I’m just tired. I’m tired of it being so weird, so strange to suffer. During a global plague, you feel like now would be a good time.
Something you brought up in the book is how people tire of your suffering. In so many different ways, people are tired, and so they’re pretending like [the suffering] is not there.
It took me a bit to realize that sometimes it is the people who love you best who really will be the first to forget that something terrible is happening to you. And I wonder sometimes if delusion is just part of love — that we just can't imagine that something unbearable would continue to be unbearable.
The people who remember you after the bad thing happens are a very special kind of person, and you should share your Netflix password with them and never let them go.
I lost so many followers recently when I just posted that people should love their neighbor, et cetera. It didn’t feel very controversial. But I just figured it can’t be that strange for us to imagine that Christians care about the weak. And it turns out that it is strange.
That surprises me, from your followers particularly.
I think that people can accidentally be very sentimental about pain. Getting back to what we talked about at the beginning, I think people can imagine that we can learn a series of lessons, which will make our lives more meaningful, but they don’t hurt or don’t make my life worse. [We imagine that] Christianity isn’t going to cause me to lose out on freedoms and dreams and opportunities.
I think it’s hard to talk people into a corporate faith. So you’re like, “Hey, it’s not just individual. It’s structural.” [And people reply] “No, it’s just individual. Thank you, though.”