Online Conversation | Hope, Heartbreak, and Meaning with Kate Bowler
What do you do when life doesn’t work out the way you thought it would?
In her most recent book, No Cure for being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), Duke professor and best-selling author Kate Bowler explores this question in wrestling with her own stage IV cancer diagnosis and searches for wisdom and peace with her limitations in a culture that says anything is possible.
On October 15th, we hosted a conversation with Kate about her life, her book, and what she’s learned in her search for hope in the midst of a culture saturated with cheap optimism, toxic positivity, and performance-based merit. Kate offers a richer understanding of hope in the face of uncertainty, despair, and suffering as we begin to understand that life is a chronic condition, and there is no cure for being human.
The song is “Bring the Light” by Abby Gunderson
The artwork is ‘House at Dusk’ by Edward Hopper (1935).
Special thanks to this event’s partners:
Transcript of Hope, Heartbreak, and Meaning with Kate Bowler
Edgardo Colón-Emeric: Welcome. Gracia y paz con ustedes. Grace and peace be with you. My name is Edgardo Colón-Emeric, and I serve as dean of Duke Divinity School. If you visit our website, divinity.duke.edu, you will read that Duke Divinity School is committed to spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education in service and witness to the triune God in the midst of the church, the academy, and the world. In my own words, our mission is to form gospel dreamers who build for a better future. We’re delighted to partner with the Trinity Forum as it connects thinking leaders with leading thinkers. We have partnered with the Trinity Forum for several years and always appreciate the meaningful engagement between our faculty and those who are drawn to the Trinity Forum’s programs. Today, you will hear from Kate Bowler, one of over 50 scholars who serve on the faculty at Duke Divinity School. She is a renowned author, remarkable teacher, and dear friend, who has the special gift of connecting God’s dreams to our heart’s hurts and hopes. Again, thank you for being here with us today. I will turn it over to our moderator, Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder.
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Edgardo, and welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Kate Bowler on hope, heartbreak, and meaning. We’re delighted to get to partner once again with Duke Divinity School, and I’d like to particularly thank Edgardo, who you just heard from, their new dean of the Duke Divinity School, as well as Dan Struble for their leadership in this effort, as well as to also thank the McDonald Agape Foundation, whose support has helped make today’s program possible.
So if you are one of those three hundred first-time guests and are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space and resources for leaders to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. And certainly, it is hard to think of a bigger or a thornier question than the one we’re going to wrestle with today on hope, heartbreak, and meaning. All of us will experience heartbreak and suffering in our lives. And it’s entirely human to search for meaning in the hardship. But no matter how diligent our search or how sure our foundation, there remains a dark mystery to suffering and a limit to the certainties of our understanding. Whatever our response, pain and suffering almost always seems to upend our assumptions about the world and our place and purpose in it. So how do we make sense of trauma and suffering? What does it mean to hope when options are limited and healing is impossible? These are obviously big questions and deep waters without easy answers, but today we’ll have an opportunity to talk with a guest who has lived and grappled with such questions with extraordinary wisdom, faith, honesty, and love, even in facing down her own medical life sentence.
Kate Bowler is a New York Times–best-selling author, historian, podcast host, top TED-talker with more than six million views, and an associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke University School of Divinity, whose scholarly works include Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel and The Preacher’s Wife. But she’s not only a scholar. She’s also a woman with a remarkable story. At the age of only thirty-five and with a baby son, she was unexpectedly and very quickly diagnosed with stage-four cancer and given less than a year to live, an experience she wrote in an extraordinary memoir entitled Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), and in her new release, No Cure for Being Human, which we’ve invited her today here to discuss.
Cherie Harder: Kate, welcome.
Kate Bowler: Oh my word, what a privilege. And to see everybody’s places. It’s a global community. I feel so special to be with you guys.
Cherie Harder: Well, it is really great to have you here. So thank you. And I really wanted to start off this, as I hinted, by asking you to tell a bit about your own story.
Kate Bowler: Sure. I had very normal dreams, I wanted to be a historian of American evangelicalism, as all people do.
Cherie Harder: Very normal.
Kate Bowler: It’s just a global— I had this— Both my parents were professors at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and I knew it to be good ministry, like the small, lovely work of caring about students and ideas. And so I put in ten years on that investment trying to get my PhD, and then just for a second there all my kind of expensive hopes had added up. I, after a lot of infertility and miscarriages, finally had this gorgeous, smushy little baby with like giant frog eyes, and I landed my dream job at Duke University and in the divinity school with all these do-gooders. And I, yeah, I had just written my first book, and I was like, I felt like I stuck the landing on all of these hopes. And then out of the blue, I started getting stomach pain that they thought was nothing. And then I got a phone call at my office at work that said that I had stage-four cancer. And that was like the end of a life that I really loved. And I didn’t kind of yet know that people have sort of before and afters in their lives, and that there’s kind of a line that gets drawn. But that was my before, and it was really good.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You mentioned you were a professor and a scholar of a particular kind of American evangelical history, prosperity gospel. And I’ll ask you to say a little bit more about it. But you know, essentially the idea that God’s plan for the faithful is to experience a life of abundant health and wealth and prosperity, and that faith makes that possible. And then after having literally written the definitive book on the history of the movement, you find yourself not blessed but bludgeoned with incurable cancer, what seems like a life sentence that was about to expire really quickly.
Kate Bowler: Yeah.
Cherie Harder: And you wrote in your book that you realized that even though you had consciously and deliberately rejected the theological tenets of the prosperity gospel, there were aspects of it or assumptions that you’d internalized nonetheless. And I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about, you know, what those were, why that would be, and how that was revealed to you.
Kate Bowler: Yeah. Well, I thought I was a very just loving and dispassionate observer of a movement that was so frequently ridiculed. Like everyone imagined sort of corrupt televangelists and private jets, and so I tried to write this very compassionate, wide history to account for the kind of faith that is meant to bring you a healed body and a full bank account and family togetherness and happiness and all the things that we might hope for. And I had really never imagined myself as being caught up in what I believe to be a kind of inflated sense of what believers can do. But then I think my first reaction to being diagnosed was horror and embarrassment. Just kind of a mixture of that and outrage. Like, why would that happen to me? I mean, wasn’t I kind of nice to strangers? And I know you’re never supposed to say you’re a good Christian because that means you’re not a good Christian, but I was like, wasn’t I a little bit kind of a good Christian, faithful and orthodox and good to dogs? And I just, I realized that somewhere along the line—and part of it maybe is just the hubris and naivety of being young, where you just haven’t yet been taken apart and maybe you age into that kind of knowledge—but I had absorbed the belief that if I worked hard, I will be able to overcome any obstacle, that I was— that it was part of this bigger story of the American dream, of kind of sacralizing your hopes and desires and imagining that you can always move towards some kind of good, better, best. And it was a real humbler to realize that tragedy comes to everybody’s doorstep. There was no good reason why it was supposed to be someone else and not me.
Cherie Harder: So after you received your diagnosis, you wrote in your work about the ways that you initially sought to deal with it. And there were a variety of ways, but there are several that, of course, really piqued my interest, and one of them was somewhat counterintuitive in that you said that eventually you realized, and I’ll quote you here, “you cannot make thankfulness or gratitude the solution.” And many of us sort of reflexively, you know, believe that not only is gratitude a good thing, a virtuous thing, or, you know, something that is reflective of God’s own spirit, but also a helpful thing, that it has the— it is not only innately virtuous, but often advantageous as well. And so I’m curious what you found the limits of gratitude to be and why you decided that couldn’t be the solution?
Kate Bowler: Yeah. Well, it came to because I— so I’m a historian of the prosperity gospel, but the history of the prosperity gospel is the same one as the development about ideas about positive thinking that really that began in the late 19th-century in America and flourished into this sort of fully orbed American culture of “a certain kind of mindset makes life comparable, beautiful, joyful.” And there’s so many aspects of it that are kind of Christian approximates. Like, isn’t— you know, optimism begins to look a lot like hope. Or in this case, sometimes gratitude, which is just the— You know, when we can, like, pull away the, like a layer of our heart and see the beauty of God’s goodness and in, you know, natural revelation, like God’s hilariously showy nature, or the way that our people love us or that like, there’s so many good things to be grateful for. And I did a lot of that. At first, I started making little gratitude lists on a whiteboard, and I put it over the fireplace so everyone could see it, like a nurse that was kind or a little bit of good medical news or friends and family that came to stay. And when we walked by it, I thought this will help anchor us in the fact that right now we are actually in the midst of a tragedy and none of those things will be obvious. So maybe it will help us see those little glimmers of light. The problem, I think, was—and this is part of an intellectual interest I have in these sort of cultural formulas—these solutions were given to solve the problem of pain. And one of the most common ones is just “be grateful.” Like “a grateful heart”—well, you know, insert cross-stitch pillow. And the problem is gratitude opened me up to others; gratitude helped me notice the work of God. Gratitude did not solve the problem of pain. And if I kept thinking of the gifts of the spirit or any of those things as solutions, I found them to be like very burdensome because then I wasn’t just supposed to suffer and have like garbage blood work all the time, but then I had to be the grateful patient. And unfortunately, I was very committed to the role of grateful patient, to the point where I was probably a colossal liar to others and myself about how hard it really was.
Cherie Harder: You know, another response that you talk about, which was something that you exhibited less than others around you—which I thought was fascinating with its sort of hints of empiricism—which was when those around you failed to find meaningful words, it seems like they would turn to quantification. And you talked about doctors where, if you asked a particularly unvarnished question or began to cry, they would almost immediately retreat to blood cell counts or chemotherapy records. You said that one of them, when you asked a hard question, “retracted like a salted slug” and later said that “in tragedy, everyone is an accountant.” Why is it that when we can’t find the words to express meaning, we start counting?
Kate Bowler: Oh my gosh, and we do it all the time. I’ve done it a million times, and so much of it too is, it’s the first framework by which to understand what’s happening. So I, when I was diagnosed, the first sort of meaning, the first number I was given was 14 percent, that I would have a 14 percent chance of survival. And then I had this long silence in which my brain just kind of short-circuited. And then I realized that the word survival was also a number. And just as the doctor was about to go, I was like, “Wait, wait, what do you mean by survival?” And then, you know, just the look on his face and he was like, “Oh, it’s, we count it medically as two years.” I realized, one, that that was not in any way a framework that I knew how to live inside. Like how do I take— You know, I don’t know what 365 days times two feels like. I know when it’s fall and I know when the semester starts, and I know when it’s my son’s birthday and I know when I’m— I know when it’s Christmas. Like I knew moments, but so often our frameworks are entirely metrics and minutes, and the math of tragedy is maybe one of the weirdest things that we do. Where, you know, if, “Oh, your grandfather died? How old was he?” Like, we’re running “How sad is it?” “How should I feel?” “Did they—?” Or I could hear it in the way people were narrating me, like, “Oh, she’s a young mom married to her high school sweetheart.” Like, there was math around how sad it felt and the weight of it. And because I was in a clinical trial, my whole life was numbers. It was, “Your blood work is this much and you’ve got this many protocols and this number of days.” And I realized how easily substitutable what is rational is with what is meaningful and that we are really just these, like, there’s nothing general about a human life. We are, you know— or the fact that I have a completely un-elasticable hair. I mean, this is like a four-elastic head of hair. And that I love the smell of chamomile because it reminds me of walks with my sister, and I love the smell of my kid’s head, and I love the feeling of old books in my hands. Like there is nothing quantifiable about our dumb, gorgeous, beautiful lives. And so I found it to be very hard to try to be translated into a metric when I think maybe we are just untranslatable.
Cherie Harder: In many ways, your work is about, well, fear and finitude as well as faith. And I wanted to ask you about both of those. In many ways, I mean, fear is a recurrent theme of your book, just the fear of leaving your family, the panic and the horror over your diagnosis. But you also, you push back against the idea that fear is somehow the opposite of faith. And I would be curious how your fear has affected your faith and vice versa as you walk through this?
Kate Bowler: Yeah, I did, I guess, I think it was— Also like we had three f’s there. We had like “fear” and “faith” and “finitude.” We would both make amazing televangelists. Yeah, I guess a lot of my intellectual and spiritual interests are around sort of like, when we widen up the aperture outside of our “good vibes only culture,” are there good, beautiful, sometimes even Christian things that we can notice from the maybe more negative spectrum of reality? And I think fear is one of them because I had really imagined—you know, “perfect faith drives out fear”—that there’s something about this, a mindset, a spiritual mindset, that I should have. And what a wildly un-Christian word is “mindset” as it turns out. That I was supposed to be— like a good or faithful person would barely recognize fear at all. And I was like, “Wow, what an impossible—.” Well, when I knew that I would have to sort of, as I progressed through my treatment and then realized that my life wasn’t going to be solvable, but it was probably that cancer, like other parts of my life, would have to be a chronic condition, I was like, “Oh gosh, I’m going to have to come up with a different relationship with fear because I’ve got to build my house, like, not right on the edge of a cliff, but like maybe a couple feet back. And I won’t even need air conditioning. I’ll always be able to feel the upper draft.”
So I just started to think through what would be a more helpful relationship with fear. And I think one is that fear, I think, put rightly, helps keep us awake to our loves. Like, what are the things you can’t live without? That was immediately clear to me the second that I had my “after” life, was the things that are irreplaceable, things— I always think of them as, like, what are my impossible thoughts? Like, what are the things that are so precious that if it broke that it would just, like, your brain has a power surge, like those strips, those power strips, we were like “off.” Fear reminds us about the things that we love and can kind of act like a flashlight for all those gorgeous things. And I think, too, we serve a God who shows us that Jesus was afraid. Jesus suffered. I also like that when the angels show up, they’re always like, “Do not be afraid!” because they are obviously terrifying. And that we have plenty of good reasons to fear, and that it felt like a little bit of like Christian honesty to kind of be a little bit more real about that than I was before.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, absolutely. You know, with finitude, in many ways, it’s a fairly countercultural thing to write a book about finitude.
Kate Bowler: [laughs] “Hey, guys!” Everyone wants that person at the party.
Cherie Harder: It’s so American, right, to push back against any limits.
Kate Bowler: [laughs] That’s exactly right.
Cherie Harder: So there’s a bunch of tech bros now like researching longevity and trying to download their brains and live forever that way.
Kate Bowler: Yes, exactly.
Cherie Harder: And here you have a book on finitude.
Kate Bowler: Oh my gosh. I honestly—one, I was totally shocked that they let me title it No Cure for Being Human because I was like, “How do we like the feeling of gentle despair, guys? Do you feel like that’s going to market really, really well?” But I thought, you know, I wasn’t trying to write a book about time. You’re right, exactly. I wanted to write about the fact that we’re not unlimited, like just getting ourselves off the invincibility-perfectibility train, because wouldn’t there be things we could lift off our shoulders if we could learn to live there a little?
Cherie Harder: What did you lift off your shoulders once you were kind of gobsmacked with finitude?
Kate Bowler: Ok, but, Cherie, the only reason I write about these—like I write about these formulas, right: “you only live once” or “be present” or like trying to give up the gospel of hustle. The only reason I write about them is because all I do is I return to my monster efficiency framework of trying to pour infinity into a day and then conquer it. And so this is the disease of modernity, and I am always trying to find, like, what are the, what are the ways out of this kind of madness? And one of it has to be that we are not primarily our mindsets, and we are not— that we can’t like ramrod our every positive intention and hope toward a desired outcome every day. And maybe actually that is maybe the one thing I got really good at and I’ve kept it, is I’m very good—at that one moment of diversion where everything is off the rails and totally dumb and usually surreal because usually something either very inconvenient or terrible has happened—and I’m very good at pausing in that moment and recognizing it as a kind of—.
There have been long seasons where I couldn’t, I just couldn’t get through, I really couldn’t get through the days and weeks by myself, and knowing that every day kind of almost requires a miracle of either God or somebody else or just something to show up. I feel like I’m better at— Like I was getting blood work, and I just hate it. I hate getting blood work. I find it kind of overwhelming to sit in the hospital and the taste of saline and then just having a minute where I started making jokes to the nurse about how he probably lived in that basement because he was a vampire and wanted to use my blood for his own purposes, and when he began to immediately play along, like gently stroke the inside of my elbow with a kind of creepiness that I came to realize as just my new favorite person, I realized like that is the surprise in every day is letting it go off the rails and be entirely inefficient. But that’s— in there there’s always a gift. It’s always a person. Always a gift. Always a miracle.
Cherie Harder: I also wanted to ask you about love, and one thing that was particularly striking, I think, in your book, is when you talked about the fact that when grief and finitude were perhaps the most acute and in some ways death seemed nearest, sort of paradoxically, you also had kind of perhaps the thickest sense of being borne by love. I would love to hear more about kind of what you experienced. You know, your thoughts on why the two seem to be linked. And I think you were even warned or cautioned by someone that it would subside.
Kate Bowler: Yeah.
Cherie Harder: What’s the link in your mind between that sense of both divine and human love and our own manifested frailty?
Kate Bowler: Hmm. Gosh. Cherie, can we also just pause to say that your use of language is perfect?
Cherie Harder: Oh, well that can’t be true.
Kate Bowler: Gosh, yes. You I will keep. I, yeah, I will never forget how I woke up from a surgery that I didn’t know what they would find, and I was scared and stuck in a body that now felt— My friend described it after a surgery where you like look down and you have all these bandages and you don’t want. I was like, “Oh, hey, just beware, your first shower is going to be weird.” She’s like, “Oh, you mean my introduction to my frankenbody?” I was like, “Absolutely.” Like, you just, you don’t know. You feel like you’re, like, reassembled by amateurs. And I woke up feeling entirely like my body didn’t belong to me anymore, and I— all these gorgeous pastor-professor friends had come from the divinity school and the way they, like, put their hands on my shoulders and my head and, like, blessed me, I felt remade, like even though I felt like my body was no longer good because it felt like just paper. And I had that very intense feeling of feeling beloved, even though I simultaneously felt so disposable, you know, medically speaking. And so I think that was— the sense of being beloved by God really stayed with me as a—very embarrassing because I’m a historian and prefer not to talk about my feelings with this amount of specificity, Cherie, thank you. [laughs] And I was like, “Oh gosh, this is not me.” And actually it was.
I asked Edgardo over. I remember we were sitting on my couch and I was like, “Is this normal? Because I feel, I know I’m really not supposed to live for much longer than this year, and I feel intensely loved by God.” And then he immediately—because he, every single day, he always knows what Feast of the Divine Something something is—and he was like, “Oh, in, you know, in the Christian tradition, this can be referred to as the sweetness or—” like, rattled off, you know, “Augustine said that…” And that’s why I love him. And he was like, “Yeah, is it is a gift, but it will go. It will fade.” And like the experience of love as a gift. And knowing then that God sometimes gives us these moments of supernatural closeness, and it is often directly correlated with our times of greatest suffering, that God’s presence is really one of, like it is really God’s amazing A-game. But that, in a way, is why we need the power of community and church and others is because when it fades, like, we will need to be carried and we will need those reminders that we are beloved when we feel disposable, and that is the kind of stuff that only people who love you can do.
Cherie Harder: Yes, there’s so much more I want to ask, and we’ll turn to audience questions in just a second, but all of us will suffer in our lives, and all of us, we will love people who suffer. As you say, there is no cure for being human. And having been thrust into this prematurely, at such an early age, I would love to get your thoughts on what it means to bear suffering well, as well as what it looks like to do exactly what you were talking about, to be that community, to comfort and support and encourage rather than further distress those who are suffering.
Kate Bowler: Yeah, because—and if you don’t mind me just lovingly complaining about— We people of faith, because we have a particular kind of version of the bad version that we do, and that can be that we accidentally hand the person who’s suffering our theological problems and questions. So we’re like, “Why would it happen to you?” And then offer our just general theories or try to— I think all of this theologically is just trying to solve, like solve the mystery of suffering by asking one person’s life to be a test case. And that can be very cruel when, for instance, even if something is true, like heaven is likely very great, seems like there’s a lot of documentation on that. Then saying that like, you know, the beauty of heaven then— that God’s future then renders my pain and the loss of my family to be able to be together irrelevant or solved, feels very cruel. So even things that are theologically true are not always helpful to say, like, “Well, God is good.” Well, it doesn’t— This part doesn’t feel great. Or “heaven needs an angel” is always terrible because angels are created beings, technically, and God doesn’t make them out of dying people. And it would also make God a sadist. Usually just general “at least” comments: you know, “at least you had a son,” or “at least you’re in a great hospital.” Our attempts to usually teach— Oh, or also just everyone has an aunt who has faired very poorly under whatever medical condition you have. There’s always— Aunts of the world are doing very badly right now.
And it all comes out of beautiful things, which is like, we do this all the time. “Oh, I’ve read that.” “Oh, I, you know,” we just want so much to relate and we want so much to connect. But mostly what people want is your loving presence, your desire to walk alongside. Feel free to always say, “I’m never sure what to say, but I want so much to love you” and just say dumb, obvious things. But know that there’s that lovely image of the ring theory about the person who’s at the center of the crisis and the concentric circles, and try to locate yourself in relationship to the crisis and make sure not just to support the person who is at the very center, but any of the rings closer than you because those people usually, like, they need to give in. And so the caregivers and the friends and the family, because they’re not allowed to, might not have a person to complain to.
Cherie Harder: Before we turn to audience questions, Kate, how are you doing now? I’m sure everyone who is listening to you wants to kind of just reach out and give a hug.
Kate Bowler: Oh, thanks.
Cherie Harder: How are things?
Kate Bowler: They’re pretty good. It’s just a bumpy road. So I did very well in immunotherapy and then a little bit poorly with some of the drugs that I had to be on for the clinical trial. And I had some rough surgeries. And so I have had wonderful results by comparison with everybody else. But I kind of, like, if there’s a medical superhighway, I’m sort of like on the adjacent service road where I’m, like, just always kind of— I still always have another scan and I still always have something that’s a little bit alarming that I have to manage. So I think I’m very good considering, but it’ll always be a thing.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, we have many questions from viewers kind of all lined up. And just as a reminder to viewers, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular or urgent questions are. So we’ll start with a question from, I think this is from Jenny Savage, which is, “What is one thing you would ask the medical community to make so that they can see and encourage more qualitative parts of humans in our suffering?” And then relatedly, there was a question I’m going to combine too, about what advice you would give to medical professionals to better acknowledge the humanity of their patients.
Kate Bowler: Those are such thoughtful questions. I have kind of since the dramarama had a lot of opportunities to ask doctors and nurses about training that they got that felt like they were— what made them best able to respond to patients they have. And a lot of it, too, I should just add, their response was that many structural issues internal to their jobs, because of fast medicine, make it very difficult for them, that they’re often trained out of the habits that would allow people a beat to help them translate between metrics and meaning. But I have loved when doctors, and I can’t— nurses, they live in the gap between, they live in the work of translation anyway. So I just— nurses already know this. But that there is a moment where a good doctor, a good person who’s interpreting your scans, they need what Christy Watson calls that ability, that desire for just a second, to love, to love a stranger, to know that there is a bridge between you and to not be so afraid of being burnt out that they can’t create a space to just to reflect back to you a moment of unfairness, which is “I know this is difficult news” or “I’m sure this is really overwhelming.” But most of the appointment—and I know there are wonderful doctors in the world; I just happen to have maybe drawn a few short straws—but I normally I had the sense that I was like part of a business meeting that needed to end in about 10 minutes. And I usually found myself kicked into the hallway after being completely overwhelmed by what I’d gotten like fire-hose style. And so just a moment to have the translation, to have a minute to reflect back. “I think it means this. Does that sound right?” And just to feel the soft place, that would have been a tremendous gift.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Marypat Henders and Marypat asks, “I find myself constantly trying to draw a line between the bad thing and some perceived good consequence.”
Kate Bowler: Yes.
Cherie Harder: “‘Oh, my mother died when I was a year old so I could care for my sister’s kids when they died,’ trying to find meaning in the suffering. Can you speak to how you’ve considered this meaning-making of suffering while still holding to a belief in a sovereign God?”
Kate Bowler: Oh my gosh, yes. And that is the, that is the bad math we do in which we say, “This equaled this and therefore it was OK, or it must have been for a reason.” “You went through this hurricane and therefore are able to…” I mean, this is all part of people’s attempts to say, in a “before” and “after”, the “after” always has to be as good or as meaningful or you now know things you never would have known or “I’m glad because…” I just want to take all of those words off of people’s shoulders. There needs to be no gratitude for a tragedy in our lives. There really doesn’t. We could have likely learned that lesson by watching a helpful documentary. You know, we’d be like, “Oh, maybe I will have compassion for so-and-so.” [laughs] We can’t know. But the desire to make meaning— I think we just accidentally move backwards from things we know about God. “God is good, and therefore…” And then we go, “It must have been.” And then we wind our way back sometimes to really false or impossible to prove equations between awful things and our desire to know that God loves us.
I think part of— There’s always two competing thoughts, I think. There’s a terrible thing, the meaning of which I will likely never know. And in the same breath, God is desperately invested in the particularity of my life. God cares about the hairs on my head. God loves the breath in my lungs. And sometimes we— I think both those things can be true, but they are not often solved in the same equation. So trying to maintain our sense of our belovedness and God’s involvement in our life without then freighting all of our worst moments with lessons.
Cherie Harder: A question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “What are the characteristics in a friend that you find the most valuable in times of suffering?”
Kate Bowler: Oh my gosh, yes. And there are different kinds, right? There’s the crisis friend who comes in. They’re a little bossy normally. They’re like, “Does everyone have towels?” They’re that friend. And maybe that can be a different kind of friend. And they’re always like setting timers for your pills or figuring out if anyone needs things, like they’ve got a sort of cruise director, like an angry cruise director vibe. And I love that. I love bossy people. So I always have room for that in my life.
I think the kind of friend that I love now is different. It’s the crisis versus chronic friend, and I need the chronic friend. I need the friend who, even though I kept my hair, knows that I have a lot of scars under my clothes and knows that I have experiences that I don’t always know what to do with and that I’m not sure if I’m allowed to complain about because I’m so grateful about things. So I think my favorite people are the ones that don’t forget. The ones that say, “You are loved, but you are changed.” And like it is OK; it is OK that we are changed. And just kind of holds the story. So lots of times when I’m trying to be that friend, I’ll realize I’m going to forget somebody’s problems. So I’ll just kind of put it on the calendar for six months from now or two months from now. I’ll just say “ask so-and-so about…” Just so I can practice being the friend that doesn’t forget.
Cherie Harder: Oh, that’s great. Our next question comes from Joni Barth and she asks, “I see the challenge to reconcile the conflict between feeling beloved and feeling disposable. Is there a healthy way to accept both?”
Kate Bowler: Hmm. I think there has been— The rise of trauma studies in different sorts of language of embodiment is in a way, I think, responding to some of the divide that the disposable and the desire to be beloved creates, which is that for those of us who grew up with either pietistic, like heart-religious traditions, and head-religious traditions, we didn’t have a place for our bodies anymore. So when we age or when we’re feeling things we can’t explain or feel, like the place of fear, anxiety, or depression, or feeling like we just weren’t— we just lost a person we could have been. Like all those kinds of grief, I found the language of embodiment to be, So how can we love God? How can we feel our belovedness in our own bodies instead of just as a series of mental frameworks? And so I think part of that growing for me has been in reading things that help me break down those kinds of dualisms and just, yeah. I guess it just gets back to finitude, I guess, is learning to be a finite person who, though feeling broken, can still take a second to feel loved.
Cherie Harder: I’m going to combine two questions, the one from Don Morgan who asks, “Have you found the book of Job to be either helpful or not helpful?” And then one from Sarah George, who asked, “Are there any novels, films, pieces of music, or other works of art that have been particularly helpful to you during this time?”
Kate Bowler: My gosh, can we just say like, what a classy group! Can we do this forever? Like all of these questions are very, like, “Guys, when I was listening to Mendelssohn the other day…” Oh, I love you guys.
Yeah, Job is such a wonderful— I mean, the ending of the Book of Job is—”And where were you when the foundations of the Earth were laid?”—is such a perfect— I always kind of pictured that as like a rebuke to the people whose preassigned set of meanings made my life really complicated. I love the mystery of it. I love the— I love that they were— the friends were only wrong when they started to speak. Because I study the prosperity gospel and televangelists, the bad version that I always heard was like, “But then he got more land!” But I was like “and better kids?” Like, he lost. He lost. There’s so much mystery packed into that book, and it really is one of my favorites.
Art that helps… Because art always does. I just have— I read a lot for the podcast because I get to read a book every, for every conversation, and that has helped me. I love memoir, too, because of the particularity of all of our lives, and so I read this beautiful one called Raising a Rare Girl by Heather Lanier that I thought was so beautiful. She just talks about having a child with a rare genetic syndrome, and it’s, the whole tone of it, is so desperately in love and learning to not accept a brokenness paradigm, which is, I think, how we all feel if we don’t measure up to a certain standard. So that has been like a treasure for me lately.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, we’ve had several questions come in asking your thoughts on how to essentially relate to different groups. So Valerie King asked, “Do you have recommendations for parents of adult children who have a terminal illness?” And Ryan Mason asks, “With regards to personal suffering, how do you support or communicate with a friend who is an atheist?”
Kate Bowler: Yes. Right. Well, then. Parents of adult kids. I think one of the hardest things was watching my mom watch me suffer. Ok, I’m just going to assume my sisters are not watching this because I found this so unbelievably funny, but also a secret. Where when my— I could tell my mom was, like, became really committed to cooking everything because I could tell she was going to save my life by running errands.
Cherie Harder: And that works well.
Kate Bowler: [laughs] She’s like, she was going to get it done. And I could tell she was like, turned toward the stove because she just didn’t want me to see how much it was hurting her. And I was like, “Mom.” And she turned around, and she was just trying so hard to hide how she was crying. And so I gave her this huge hug and I whispered, “I know, your best daughter.” She just laughed so hard because that was really a time to put my chips in about whether I was finally the favorite child.
But I think the inversion of those roles is really painful for everybody. The child, the adult child, wants to be there for the parent and the parent wants to be the child. It creates such a very intense kind of helplessness in everybody. But as an adult child, I wanted to know that my mom would be OK, you know, both my parents. So knowing that their hope and happiness in perpetuity is crucial to my feeling like the world can go on without me. And it also just, for the parents to know that they need much more support than they think they do. No one could age into that, into the wisdom required to bury a child. It’s just they, everybody needs to be carried, but they need to be carried in particular.
So on relating to atheists, I found this problem too when—because there’s a new real surge in interest in stoicism, and that’s such an interesting problem, she said lovingly, for us Christians, because we both agree on courage, that we need to be courageous, that life requires courage. But we really do have a different account of hope and that the thing that makes this OK—not OK for me, but OK in the deepest eschatological sense—is that this is a story about God saving the world and eventually me. And so I find that my atheist friends will have a different view. They want the present to feel very meaningful, and they want the— In their category of past, present, and future, they’ll load up the present with more meaning than I do. And so trying to just be loving about that, letting their minutes be moments, whereas I want to be like, “Yes, but also we need a future.” So it was kind of a, it’s definitely a divide in our frameworks.
Cherie Harder: We have a question from a viewer who’s hoping that she’ll put an even finer point on that last answer. And Pam Lucci asks, “Would you define ‘hope’ in this?”
Kate Bowler: Yeah. Gosh, I hated it. I was not a fan because I was— I was— I remember I was arguing with Warren Smith, one of the professors at the Divinity School in the hallway, and I was like, “Couldn’t we just sort of develop a non-anxious present, like an account of the present?” And he was like, “Oh, friend, like, that’s stoicism. We’re Christians.” We need an account of hope. And so what is hope? I had confused it with optimism, and I had confused it with certainty. And I think hope is… It is God’s promise that God has dropped an anchor into the future where God will save the world. It’s an eschatological vision of when finally we’ll live in a world that’s not just not yet, but finally true. It’s one of those things like when you see, you know, you kind of feel like you’re seeing a miracle when somebody says something, like someone forgives somebody, or someone does something unbelievable that like, something that feels like an impossible thought that only God could make true? Like, how could anyone, you know, solve the problem of pain or wipe every tear from every eye? And that is the story about a new Heaven and a new Earth that we believe. I just don’t think it’s the same thing as saying that my life is going to work out individually. I think it’s a story about how we all will someday be part of a world that is saved, but it really has to keep the emphasis on the “not yet,” “here, but not yet” of the Kingdom of God. And I’m not like a huge fan—I’m just going to say that—of that plan, but that’s the one we’re stuck with.
Cherie Harder: We have an anonymous attendee who asks, “As an adult who has stuttered throughout my life, I’ve often talked about how grateful I am for all the things that God has taught me because of my suffering. Kate, how can I more honestly talk about the everyday struggles I face as a person who stutters while still expressing gratitude for who I am?”
Kate Bowler: Oh, that’s so beautiful. What a perfect thing to say. Yes. Because our brokenness simultaneously—or sometimes not even our brokenness, just our differences in the world—sometimes they make us. They’ve changed us into a person that becomes not just an experience, but a part of our identity, and that we have to then be able to look at ourselves and what other people would not recognize as good and see it as good. And so there is like a, such an important friction that you’re naming in. I think one is just I love the just giving up on the paradigm of “it has taught me so much and therefore…” and holding on to the “it has taught us so much.” And I feel this conflict when I want to say that we can find— because this— So this is what I— this podcast I started was because I was kind of stuck on that question is “how can we recognize the beauty and the meaning of truth without freighting it with the ‘and therefore’?” So I think it sounds like, to me, part of it is recognizing that you in all of your particularity and the struggle are so fundamentally good, that it delights God, that your gifts and also the experiences you’ve been through, like, also allows you to see the world through God’s eyes in a way that other people can’t. And I feel that way about something I wouldn’t have chosen. But knowing that it does simultaneously give us, it is both a gift and a source of pain, and holding those two in the same breath. Gosh, that sounds like that, that’s tricky work.
Cherie Harder: Kelly Christie asks, “My niece, who has had a recent cancer diagnosis, loves cards that are funny so that she can laugh, but sometimes I feel insensitive by sending a funny card? How does or doesn’t humor help you?”
Kate Bowler: Oh my gosh, yes. And so often because humor is subversive, then I know you always want it to be, like, said by the person themselves. I really get that. There’s a whole line of cards by Emily McDowell too, which make me laugh very hard. They’re like, you know, it’s a lot of like offering homicide to people who say “everything happens for a reason” or that kind of stuff. But I think humor is so beautiful when it helps us tell the truth in love. And for me, it’s helped me break out of my politeness, my deep, horrifying Canadian politeness. So it sounds like your niece has a great sense of humor and loves the— You know, but I always loved it when people had sassy— because it showed me that I was not so fragile that they couldn’t see me as a person. So I’d say if it’s worked in the past, keep doing it because it makes people feel human again. Like it reminds me of my friend whose brother found out that he had stage-four lung cancer and he went to his appointment and they were very nervously waiting for him to come back. And they got out of the car and he saw them, and then he just yelled, “Good news! I don’t have to quit smoking.” Very funny. [laughs] And I think those moments of deep trust are such a gift. You just, you choose them carefully.
Cherie Harder: We are almost out of time, but I’m going to combine two different questions and you can answer any aspect of them that you want. Rebecca Patrick asks, “Thanks for your honesty here, Kate. Can you tell us what you’ve learned or are learning about how our good God views the suffering of his children?” And then relatedly, Christine Reid asks, “Do you feel that your experience of accelerated aging has given you a perspective that your faith can be rich and helpful in a different way than your ‘before’?”
Kate Bowler: Yeah. Yes, I think things we know when we’re living in our “after” lives are we know we are fragile. We know we need the miracle of community and love. We know we are not invincible. Um, we know that our days are precious. And therefore, you know—and therefore—we should treat our own lives as precious, like more prone to fun than we might do otherwise like, “Well, I’m just going to forecast a strong fun front coming in because life is really terrible most of the time.” [laughs] So if you get a window, take it. Like, just take it.
I think all of those things have— And really, because I— So I have given up on most forms of certainty, except my deep belief that God draws near to those who suffer. God is most— God is available at all times, but wow, God loves the suffering. And so anyone who’s broken-hearted can know, anyone who is close to the edge, anyone whose dreams are deferred for others, anyone who’s embarrassed or ashamed of relationships and things they’ve done and can’t undo, God is, that is a special moment where God wants to be near. And it’s just— and regardless of perfect faith or really much faith at all. So that I feel very certain of and I wouldn’t have before.
Cherie Harder: Kate, it’s really been a joy to talk with you. We’re so glad you could be here.
Kate Bowler: You guys. Oh my gosh, what a gift to me. Thank you, my dears.
Cherie Harder: Finally, Kate, we want to give you the last word.
Kate Bowler: Guys, my room knew that it was over because my light turned off and I have motion detector and I can’t turn it back on without humiliating myself. All right, so I’m going to give you a little final blessing for when there’s no cure for being human:
“God, I feel it again, the burden of being human and the fact that nothing will exempt us from the pain of it. So blessed are we, your human creatures with mind and soul and spirit bounded in flesh and bone, struggling in the seeming conspiracy against progress, against the perfection that our minds can grasp and the hearts long for. Come help us in our humanity. Help us enjoy all the beauty that is here, the sweetness that comes to us unbidden, the light that gives us eyes to see. Because it is not all up to us, thank heaven.”
Thank you, my dears. What a gift!
Cherie Harder: Kate, this has been a delight. Thanks so much for joining us.
Kate Bowler: Take care, guys.
Cherie Harder: Thank you all for joining us. Have a great weekend.