On paper, you might expect a conversation with Kate Bowler to be somber. After all, the wife, mother, and associate professor at Duke Divinity School was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at age 35, with a prognosis of less than two years to live. But having just interviewed Kate for the second time in a couple of years, I have to say that talking with her is oodles of fun.
Though she has endured tremendous anxiety and suffering, she also manifests joy, grace, and empathy – and can even laugh at the absurdities of life, such as her recent experience being bitten by a venomous copperhead snake.
Kate won a Christopher Award a couple of years ago for her memoir “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.” And she has now written another memoir entitled “No Cure for Being Human: (and Other Truths I Need to Hear).” We discussed the book (and her snakebite) recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Kate has always been a person who believed she could “outpace and outwork any problem. Then, when I just kept being leveled by things I couldn’t fix – a devastating cancer diagnosis, the persistence of chronic cancer – I realized I was going to need a different framework for how to move forward…Because I’m a historian of self-help and the idea that you can always fix your life, I started trying to think through it as a Christian and as a historian.”
That’s what led her to title her latest memoir “No Cure for Being Human,” to counter other self-help messages, such as “You Can Conquer Everything!” Kate explained, “[This book] is my desperate, loving attempt to try to get back to something a little gentler and a little truer, which is that we’re all a lot more fragile than we expected. We’re all in need of each other, community, and love. And that our limitations are, in a way, much more constitutive of who we are than these wonderful fantasies that we can do all things.”
In the initial hours and days following her cancer surgery, Kate notes that she felt “God’s supernatural love” and “supernaturally bubble-wrapped” in ways she never had before. Then she asked her pastor and theologian friends whether this feeling would go away, and they confirmed that it would. And it did.
Kate said, “It’s wonderful to experience a supernatural gift of the Spirit, but then also, it kind of is a miracle. And then there is life. So I guess that’s a lot of what I’ve been trying to live with…How do you experience the life of faith when you don’t always get those bursts of joy and love and all the things that make pain less awful?”
In her previous memoir “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” Kate made it clear that she doesn’t believe that God gives us diseases to teach us lessons – which was an opinion she heard from various Christians. It’s not that lessons can’t be learned during our struggles, but that isn’t the reason we are struggling. And by sharing her views on this matter publicly, Kate has become a light to many people who felt emotionally and spiritually alone in their suffering, for whom Christian bromides and new agey slogans didn’t fit their reality.
Kate said, “The second I got sick, I felt like I was some kind of theological problem that had to get solved. Explain why this young mom has a horrible problem. And then it was like, explain to this young mom about what smoothie she should be drinking, and what essential oils [to use], and have good vibes only, or learn to be present…The obsession with formulas has made it really painful for all those of us who suffer, which is basically all of us at one point or another…[We should be] letting beauty and meaning and truth crack into our hard lives and suffuse them somehow, but not being those monster lesson people where they’re like, ‘This plus this in your life equals everything is okay and don’t worry, God is still good.’ Well, God is still good, but I don’t really need a hype man who runs around explaining to me how my life is supposed to add up.”
Another issue Kate takes on is “toxic positivity,” which is different from the regular positivity that we all need to function in life. As a historian, Kate has written a lot about positive thinking and the prosperity gospel. She believes that positivity sounds good to most people because they take it to mean “optimism or hope.” But toxic positivity is not that.
“I’m talking about a kind of intense, religious belief that comes from the late 19th century, that convinces us that our minds produce reality,” explained Kate. “So we only have to think and say positive things in order for them to come true. And as Christians, we can just joyfully let that one go. That is not true. We can, in fact, say very negative things that are still faithful. Jesus on the cross did…We can be people of hope – and people of hope say things like, ‘God is drawing us into a beautiful future in which there will be no more tears, and that the world is being saved and will be saved by God.’ But none of those things are the same as saying, ‘My life has to work out,’ and that is the same thing as me being a faithful person. So I think it’s okay for us to practice having a little higher tolerance for saying things that might feel negative on the surface. But knowing that…something closer to honesty is not the same thing as despair. We’re still people of hope. We’re also people who like to tell the truth.”
A lack of understanding on how to approach people struggling with illness has led to some uncomfortable situations for Kate. Once, while she was having a good time at a friend’s birthday party, another guest turned to her out of the blue and said, “So, you have cancer.” He then proceeded to tell her to “go out with a bang.” The incident derailed her fun.
Kate appreciates when people show genuine concern about her, especially when they say things, such as, “I know a little bit about your situation and… you don’t have to talk about it, but I’m on your team.” Or, “So lovely to see you. I know not all days are easy, but it means so much to me to spend time with you.” Or even, “How are you today?” which offers a nice qualifier.
“Just being around and using that nice open face lets people like me know that if I wanted to talk about it, that I could,” Kate continued. “And also that those of us on the losing team sometimes are not really so strange.”
Surprising as it may sound, not all of Kate’s friends have stuck with her through her cancer struggle. And judging from the mail she receives from her fans and social media community, that is common in the lives of those dealing with chronic illness.
Kate explained, “You get the house-is-on-fire friends, and they show up when the sirens are still there. And then there’s the people who really are okay with the long haul of suffering. And I think that’s a really hard place for people to be close with someone where they can’t always fix the problem. So, I think it takes a different kind of friend to want to be the slow walking-beside friend.”
Speaking of slow walking, Kate was recently walking along a narrow path near her home, when an elderly man with a dog approached from the other direction. She stepped out of his way, onto a well-mowed lawn, to let him pass, then continued on her way. But suddenly, she felt an ever-increasing pain in her leg. She took out a mirror and discovered she had two fang marks from being bitten by a venomous copperhead.
“It was unbelievably painful,” Kate recalled, “but I couldn’t stop laughing because it was so ridiculous. Like, how am I the person that that stuff keeps happening to?… I always find it so surreal because you think, ‘Why do bad things happen to me?’ And then you’re kind of like, ‘Why not me?’ And then you think, ‘No, this one’s a little over the top.'”
Though there is no cure for being human, there is thankfully a cure for venomous snakebites, so after 24 hours in the hospital being treated with anti-venom, Kate was free to return to her regular life of dealing with chronic cancer.
Kate remains alive today, six years after her diagnosis, due to the fact that the cancer she has responded to a new immunotherapy drug. She will likely never be considered cured, though, so she makes the best of living with the uncertainty of what the future holds. And she hopes that readers find the comfort and guidance they need in reading “No Cure For Being Human.”
Kate concluded, “I hope they feel a little more permission to feel limited. To feel like their lives can still be gorgeous and meaningful, but that they don’t have to be superhuman. And I hope that we get to say vaguely unpleasant things to strangers and friends from now on…like, ‘Well, there’s no cure to being human.'”
(To listen to my full interview with Kate Bowler, click on the podcast link):
RELATED: Read my 2019 interview with Kate Bowler about her Christopher Award-winning memoir “Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.”