TL;DR: If you’re an overachiever who’s facing suffering and trying to be, well, the very best at facing it, you may feel kinship with and learn from Kate Bowler in “No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear)”. You can listen to a chapter on her podcast, “Everything Happens”, if you want a taste of her signature self-deprecating humor, authenticity, and faithfulness. 

Kate Bowler is an author, professor at Duke Divinity School, wife, mother, and… mid-30s stage IV colon cancer patient. And she is not shy about it, even though sharing this makes her the equivalent of “the angel of death at every party [she] goes to” (pre-pandemic, of course, but the statement still holds). 

When Bowler learned her cancer diagnosis, a diagnosis that is at best chronic and at worst fatal within a few years, she began researching how people have understood the finitude and purpose of life in the last few millennia. (She is a researcher and a tad bit of an overachieving person; if she has to die, she wants to do it well.) She realized almost immediately into her research, though, that the answers for post-WWII America are more capitalistic than they are rich with meaning. 

We want to live “our best lives” now. We want to be good, better, best, and our self-help book lists and TV shows and email subscription lists and aching hearts and shamed selves show it. We have expectations, at least. Bowler’s experiences of suffering fly in the face of what many of us, especially people with deeply-held religious beliefs, are taught to pray for – no, demand – from life, the universe, God, however you might term it. And America’s Christian nationalism underpins these with the belief that if you are good, God will be good to you in every material way imaginable. With self-deprecating humor, authenticity, and faithfulness, she dismantles this sort of toxic positivity from society and works to separate the Creator of the Universe from “promises” about life that were twisted or never given at all. 

Some of my favorite takeaways from the book:

  • “We are as fragile as the day we were born, and we will need each other if we’re going to tell the truth: Life is beautiful and terrible, full of hope and despair and everything in between, but there’s no cure for being human.”
  • We can name our griefs and, in fact, we must. “Everybody pretends that you only die once. But that’s not true. You can die to a thousand possible futures in the course of a single, stupid life.”
  • We are not the bad things that have happened to us. We are not the bad things that are still happening to us.
  • We can worship at the altar of self-help and a capitalistic “carpe diem/check off every item on your bucket list of expensive hopes” all we want, but we still cannot prevent our own finitude.
  • We cannot deny our truths and be good companions to our loved ones who are suffering (or ourselves). Here are some things we can avoid saying to others or ourselves.
  • We can learn to ask ourselves, “Am I making progress, or am I making meaning?”
  • We are loved. So, so deeply loved.

 

An important note is that Bowler writes as someone who has been a Christian her entire life and now is a researcher about the prosperity gospel, which is an ultimately harmful combination of self-help and Christian-ish “good/better/best” things. (The irony). There are moments when her specifically Christian theology informs her reflections, yet most of the uses of the word “God” throughout the book could be replaced with a term that makes you feel more at home – toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing are not unique to American Christianity, after all. It can be read and enjoyed through a more spiritual than religious lens.

If you don’t have time to read a whole book, or if you do and then want to experience more of her work, you can watch her TED Talk; listen to her podcast, “Everything Happens”; read my favorite article by her, “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party”; and see her everyday moments and written blessings on Instagram).

PS: I’m super grateful that there are people in my life, like the writers and readers of Sweatpants & Coffee, who remind me that it’s okay to not be okay. Kate Bowler would fit right into the blanket fort; I’m sure of it.

 

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a hospital chaplain in New York; a Reverend in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.

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