Kate Bowler’s first memoir, prompted by her stage IV cancer diagnosis at the age of 35, was titled Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved). Doctors estimated Bowler, then the mother of a new baby and author of her first academic book, had about two years to live. Now 40, Bowler is still producing trenchant books, still an associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke University, and still hosting a podcast, Everything Happens, where people share the meaning they have found amid tragedy. Her second memoir, No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear) comes out from Random House in September.
PW talked with Bowler about looking clear-eyed at the prospect of death, then carrying on anyway.
We’ve all had a bitter taste of considering mortality during this pandemic, but do you think it’s been particularly hard on women?
Yes. When things come apart, it lands on our shoulders to keep the world together. We are certainly the greatest casualties of the myth we have that we can be and do all things. In the pandemic, women have discovered it is absolutely impossible not just to be excellent but even to be basically competent. If you had a video camera on me, sometimes you would think I signed up for a reality show full of drama. I have moments I can’t manage my rage. When you have less and less and are expected to create more and more, you just have to have rage.
Yet you have kept on teaching, researching, and writing history books. In No Cure, you wrote that working made your life “not simply bearable but beautiful.” How so?
Work makes my world bigger. It gives me a sense that while we are all broken, we are broken open to each other. Work lets me connect. And there is joy in paying attention, not necessarily to find solutions but to make meaning out of a situation. When so many choices are taken away, you still have the beauty of each minute you live.
Many people, given a fatal diagnosis, would make a bucket list of all they want to see and do. You suggest a different list: count what you can’t live without. Why?
It is much easier to count items than to know what counts. With all the pressure to be positive that people expect, and the notion that we are supposed to “battle” our illness and then die cheerfully, I did feel it was my place to be honest. There is no cure for being human. We have finite resources in numbered days, and we have to live [these days] as we are.
How have cancer and the pandemic affected your Christian faith?
I kept thinking before my diagnosis that with faith, like in life, I would sort of get somewhere. There were goals and boxes to check. But faith, like life, is another thing that is just never done. Faith can’t be another box to check off. Now, I am faithful, but all I can hope for is more grace, more wisdom.
Your book skewers the self-help titles that extol limitless choice, endless progress, and relentless mindfulness. Why?
A myth I would love to joyfully combat is that loving ourselves and taking bubble baths will save us. Our positive attitude is supposed to cure everything. Well, bubble baths don’t solve your 20-hour workday or your decaying neighborhood or your inability to access childcare. I just finished writing a devotional titled Good Enough [Convergent, Feb. 2022]. In it, I try to lovingly talk to people about focusing on what is possible today. I like books that get at the question of how we live beautifully inside the things we can’t change. —Cathy Lynn Grossman