IT WOULD be short-sighted to presume that it is only children who stamp their feet and complain, “It’s not fair!” The Book of Job explodes with the injustice that Job felt when terrible things bombarded him. Michael Mayne reflects on his terminal cancer in Enduring Melody with cut-glass poise and grace.
In Kate Bowler’s memoir (Features, 16 February), she shakes her fist, wrings her hands, and longs for more life after her diagnosis of a stage 4 cancerous tumour in her colon. She is a bright and breezy 35-year-old Canadian professor of history at Duke University, with a toddler bursting with new life and a husband who was her childhood sweetheart. She mourns “the regular person with regular problems” and describes with verve the challenges of facing horror while being swamped by terror.
Bowler’s Christian faith was alive and kicking until her cancer struck. Now, she admits, “I plead with the God of maybe who may or may not let me collect more years. It is a God of love and a God that breaks my heart.”
There is a more concrete paradox within her story: shortly before her diagnosis, Bowler published a book, Blessed: A history of the American prosperity gospel. Such a gospel promotes a good-news lifestyle in which being good brings prizes and Perfect People preach the gospel of fair. With this brand of Christianity, prayer is a bet placed for a pain-free world. As long as you are good, tragedies, Bowler explains, are simply opportunities to claim a bigger and better miracle. It is no wonder that the New York Times accepted an article that she sent; such an irony could hardly be crueller.
Bowler admits to placing her future in the hands of cutting-edge medicine. We read about the gruesome brutality that cancer-trial medicine inflicts. She laments delicately an obsession with the future which dominated her life before time seemed so limited; now she grieves for a future with her son and husband which cannot be hers. She learns as she suffers to try to live, as she puts it, in Ordinary Time.
Her family, colleagues, and friends people this rather extrovert memoir. Mostly, they bring comfort, but occasionally their attempts to help weary her. “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent.” Say no more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is an appendix of what not to say to a cancer sufferer, and another suggesting what may work. Bowler offers us a further insight: learning how to die well even when it feels unfair.
The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Goodenough College and Associate Priest of St George’s, Bloomsbury. She is the author of This Is My Body: A story of sickness and health (Canterbury Press, 2017).
Everything Happens for a Reason: And other lies I have loved
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