IN 2015, at the age of 35, Kate Bowler was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. The survival rate, eventually extracted from a reluctant young doctor, was a 14-per-cent chance of surviving for the next two years.
Six years later, having turned 40, she is in what a doctor describes as “durable remission”. Having wondered whether she would see her son turn three, she has watched him reach school age. She is a history professor at Duke Divinity School, in North Carolina, and has also managed to complete her second work of history (The Preacher’s Wife: The precarious power of Evangelical women celebrities) in just five months, not to mention several New York Times op-eds and two memoirs (Features,16 February 2018; Books).
A self-confessed “human bulldozer”, she has achieved an enormous amount in the past five years while grappling with a terrifying diagnosis, a scan every 60 days, and, for several months, 3.45-a.m. starts to fly to the site of a clinical trial. Yet, at the heart of this second memoir, No Cure For Being Human (And other truths I need to hear), is her struggle to discern what to do with her time, how to live, having confronted “our beautiful, terrible finitude”.
She writes: “Now that I have every good reason to be afraid; now that I know what it feels like when the earth buckles; now that I’m afraid to stay as I am, but more afraid to move forward: What if I forget what I learned? And what if I can’t learn to hope again?”
THE term “cancer survivor” is not one that she relates to, she tells me, speaking from North Carolina. “I guess because the word ‘survivor’ feels very fraught. . . I always get another scan and then I find out. I feel like on the day of the scan I will be like, ‘Yes, I am a cancer survivor!’ But, for the rest of life, my health always feels kind of uncertain, and I don’t think that being afraid is really something I am going to get over and be able to move past.”
The bracketed subtitle of the book suggests that she writes for herself. Did she have a reader in mind? “I can’t really picture anyone else if I am trying to write the truest, hardest thing,” she observes. “Honestly, writing has been the way that I have practised telling truths that I really don’t tell to the people around me, and especially to the people I love. I don’t know how to look at someone who desperately loves me and wants every good thing for me, and then whisper that I no longer believe in ‘best’ now, or that I imagine myself as finite and fragile.”
But she is also conscious of the community that she has encountered since she started writing and “that has — I think, I hope — cured me from a lot of the narcissism of pain. Now I realise that I am writing for all of the people who feel like they are living in the after of their life, and they really miss the way it was before.”
While this memoir, like her first, is full of humour — often mordant, always honest — it also contains profound reflections on the nature of time. Used to racing towards the future, she finds that she must “lay an entirely separate mental track, headed straight for a cliff”. Time is remorseless (“I have tried to pour infinity into these stubborn hours. But I keep ticking”), and yet the “terrible gift of a terrible illness” is a new ability to live in the present (“The things I love — the things I should love — become clearer, brighter”).
Hope for the future is described as “like a kind of arsenic that needs to be carefully administered, or it can poison the sacred work of living in the present. . . I want to be alive until I am not.”
Her faith presents itself as both a comfort and a challenge. She recalls the scriptures that pronounce that we are but grass, but is acutely aware of her own desire for more, and wonders: “Am I unfaithful in clinging so tightly to life?” A theologian friend introduces her to the concepts of tragic, apocalyptic, and ordinary time.
“I know I am meant to be comforted by the Christian belief in a redemptive apocalypse — a sudden and wonderful conclusion is coming, a burst of blinding light that will sear our eyes and fill our hearts with terror and relief,” she writes. “But in the meantime, screw this.”
I once read that Dallas Willard’s mother, who died when he was two, told her husband to “keep eternity before the children”. John Calvin wrote that we ought to learn to have “one foot raised”, in preparation for heaven. How is it possible to hold together these two realities — life here on earth, and the grand vision of eternity?
“When we are in grief, or prolonged uncertainty, and then we have to switch back to picking a kid up from school and being irritated about traffic and email . . . we do toggle between these different experiences of time, and God really is in each of them; but we feel it in a different way,” she suggests. “In ordinary time, I guess maybe that’s kind of the time for just blessing our boring regular lives, where we just have to remind ourselves that God’s present, but it won’t be obvious, because dinner has to be made.
“But, in tragic time, when we have lost somebody, when we know that we can’t possibly be separated from that person we love for ever . . . [there are] the things that only God can make true, truths we wouldn’t be Christians without, and one of them is that God promises ultimately to solve the problem of death and of our separation and our pain.
“I find it very hard to live there in that place for too long. . . But I think it’s good as Christians to live there long enough to keep our eyes wide open to the world that God will make true, and also to be able to see the pain in other people. But then I think we shouldn’t fault ourselves when we sort of snap back to the long line at the grocery store . . .”
One of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, she observes, was a shared experience of precariousness — something that made her feel less alone, no longer operating “behind Plexiglass”.
“I’m so grateful that people are maybe more comfortable talking about grief than they were before; but I would love if we could talk a little bit more about that collective experience of feeling delicate, and just how much a part of our human condition that really is,” she says. “I think, at least in the United States, it is wildly unpopular to not just be an aggressive optimist all the time.”
HAVING started out as a historian of the prosperity gospel, Dr Bowler remains fascinated by America’s philosophy of endless progress — “you can have it all if you just learn how to conquer your limits” — and the hard impact when it runs up against the reality of mortality. “I curated my own life until, one day, I couldn’t,” she writes. “I had accepted the burden of limitless choices only to find that I had few to make. I was stuck in this body, this house, this life.”
It’s a philosophy that has proved hard to escape. One of the books on display in the hospital where she received her diagnosis was Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now. Her own writing is hard-headed about the failings of this theology, and yet always empathetic with regard to its temptations. I ask about her relationship with scripture. What about those verses offered to those facing trials that seem to offer a guarantee that all will be well?
She holds up a mug that reads: “With God, all things are possibel (sp)” — part of a collection of “heretical mugs, or ones with scripture that has been misused” collected by colleagues. “Of course, [it] is referring to Jesus’s resurrection power and not our own ability to conquer [the exercise bike] Peloton,” she observes. “I think it’s important to recognise that, in scripture, there are parts that promise the kind of formulas that I am trying to dismantle.
“There are all kinds of proverbs — ‘Never have I seen the righteous go hungry’ — which are very sanctimonious; and there is a long tradition in the Old Testament of faithfulness yielding rewards for God’s people.
“I think the deep comfort I feel now in my faith is, I no longer am looking for faith as a kind of certainty — faith as the ‘get out of this unscathed’ guarantee. Really [it is] faith as loving God, as guaranteeing not very much more than our lives are likely going to be meaningful and also deeply painful, and none of us have solved the problem of mortality yet.
“But the joy is something I see in scripture — absolutely unnecessary feelings of being loved by God and surrounded by others. . . An early suffering Church who somehow saw the presence of God everywhere even in the midst of a world that was not yet redeemed. . . I was definitely into world-view before. Now, I’m more like, ‘Dear God, what are the virtues that I am going to need to live this horrible life?’ I mean that in the most cheerful way, I really do.”
The trajectory of her treatment is extraordinary. She was one of just three per cent of patients likely to benefit from immunotherapy, and after undergoing an operation to remove more than half her liver, a scan revealed that another tumour, which could not be cut out, had disappeared. Shortly after her son’s fourth birthday a scan indicated that most — if not all — of the cancer cells were dead.
“I think a lot of people interpreted my health as a miracle,” she tells me. “Sometimes, I really regretted writing about it at all — because there was so much pressure, because one life isn’t proof of anything, and I did feel the weight of it.
“I think it has been hard, especially for people who love me, to balance the fact that my ongoing life truly is an incredible shock and gift, and we praise God for it — and also that most of the people that I have gone through this experience with died, and there is nothing — I mean this in a really loving way — there is nothing special about me. . . I think that’s just hard for anyone who’s so desperate to have the person they love live. . . We are always trying to assign causality, especially when we are desperate to see it work out one way or the other.”
AMONG the stories in No Cure are candid accounts of navigating the health-care system, including various examples of inept and even callous communication by professionals (“the sooner you get used to dying, the better”). Having spent months flying to a clinical trial in another state, returning at midnight attached to a chemotherapy pack, Dr Bowler later learned that another patient had been receiving the same treatment in pill form, at her home hospital for months. Desperate for information, including data about how her fellow patients are faring, she sees how territorial doctors could be about their access to it.
“In my first book, I was very complimentary about my doctors and about my medical experience, because I realised I was still auditioning for care,” she reflects. “I was still hoping that, if I was the good patient, the easy patient, the uncomplicated patient, that they would be more motivated to try to help me. And, after five years of cancer care, I can tell you that being charming has not worked!”
She’s honest, too, about the complexity of feelings towards her body. “I felt like I was supposed to be really grateful for a body that had survived so much; and then I also felt like it would be superficial to want a body that’s decorative,” she recalls. “I guess one of the questions of survivorship is: are we allowed to go back? Is there a normal to go back to?” When she was first diagnosed, she stopped buying clothes: “It took me three years maybe to start feeling like it wasn’t a waste to buy something new.”
A consequence of such candid writing is a huge amount of correspondence from others learning hard truths. A team at Duke has been assembled to engage with this outpouring, operating as “a kind of a theological hospitality project”; and, in addition to her books, Dr Bowler hosts the podcast Everything Happens, interviewing guests about their own experiences of dark times. A devotional book — Good Enough: 40ish devotionals for a life of imperfection — is due out early next year. She still undergoes regular scans, and still lives with uncertainty, but is moving forward, into the future. Ordinary Times continues.
“It takes great courage to live. Period.” she writes in No Cure. “There are fears and disappointments and failures every day, and, in the end, the hero dies. It must be cinematic to watch us from above.”
‘If this is the very end of my existence, do I want to be here . . . answering email?’
MY FRIEND Luke once told me that the Christian tradition has special language for our three experiences of time: tragic, apocalyptic, and pastoral.
“What you are describing right now is tragic time,” he said. Tragic time is the grand theodicy. The problem of evil has swept away the illusion that all things will be made right, and suddenly we wonder at the goodness of the world. We grapple with the simultaneous length and brevity of our existence. We are Heathcliff, forced to lose our Catherines and endure our storied life as a collection of memorabilia that we have loved and lost.
“You are excellent at that kind of time,” he said generously, because I am.
“But then there is apocalyptic time. Which is related, but not identical.” The veil has been lifted and now we see ourselves on the brink. Systems are irredeemably broken and injustice reigns. The word apocalypse translates to revelation, and its prophets look to different signs. Some see supernatural clues, sins that have pushed the nation off its moral axis or kept communities from bringing God’s kingdom to earth. And now we must retreat to the hills, purge our impurities, restore Israel, or keep watch for the Antichrist.
Most apocalypticists need only look to the planet itself. Only a few degrees keep the ice caps from melting and the brush fires from raging and the soil from turning fetid from our poisons. The end of the world is nigh.
There is a wonderful and terrible clarity to apocalyptic time. The last chapter has been read, and, now that it is too late, all the hidden facets of our stories are beginning to reveal themselves. The people we saw begging through the car window, the acquaintances we made and then forgot, the friends whose burdens or privileges became too exhausting or alienating. There was a Great Drama all along, in which our tender humanity, our worried hopes, were all interwoven. I keep bumping into this realization again and again as if for the first time: we were always the same.
I could see this clearly in the early-Wednesday-morning hours in the Atlanta airport when I used to visit the homeless moms with young children in the bathroom, washing their kids’ sleepy faces in the sink and hoping to find a way to get them to school. They would sleep near the baggage carousel with a suitcase of all their things, pretending to be waiting for a flight.
How had I not seen the world as it really is? Now nothing can tear these scenes from my mind.
I know I am meant to be comforted by the Christian belief in a redemptive apocalypse — a sudden and wonderful conclusion is coming, a burst of blinding light that will sear our eyes and fill our hearts with terror and relief.
But in the meantime, screw this. If this is the very end of my existence, do I want to be here . . . answering email? In moments like that, I have been known to rent bulldozers, leave without warning in the middle of professional lunches, and give away essential furniture on Facebook until my husband politely asks, in the comments, for his favourite chair to be kept.
Most people, if they have any choice in the matter, will choose neither apocalyptic nor tragic time. They live in pastoral time, Luke explains. Pastoral time is marked by the seasons, the sowing and reaping and herding that keeps the land tilled and the herds fenced.
We are reminded why the title pastor comes from the word shepherd, because most of Christian ministry will be spent attending to everyday life. My students at the divinity school sign up for the grand cause of joining God in bringing heaven to earth but mostly find themselves fiddling with the sanctuary sound system and trying to get what’s-her-face off the church council.
“It sounds extremely boring,” I interrupt.
“The church calendar calls it Ordinary Time, Kate, and it is most of life,” he says, fixing me with a look. Englishmen are wonderful at these pointed moments, committed as they are to devastating restraint.
“Fine,” I concede. “I guess I’m not used to it anymore.”
Hadn’t I become a little smug? A little too sure that the drama of the world’s end was always more important than groceries and hanging photos and paying taxes? There must be a time for everything.
This is an edited extract from No Cure for Being Human (And other truths I need to hear), by Kate Bowler, published by Penguin at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49).