After being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35, Duke tenured professor and author Kate Bowler launched a national conversation about why it feels so difficult to speak frankly about suffering. She delves into how we live and cope with pain and suffering in Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved), a NYT bestselling memoir, and in her popular podcast, Everything Happens. She is also the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, which received widespread media and academic attention as the first history of a movement based on divine promises of health, wealth, and happiness. She has appeared on NPR and The TODAY Show, Amanpour & CO, as well as in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and TIME Magazine. Her work has also been praised by a wide variety of religious and political publications, from liberal print media to conservative talk radio. You can watch her 2018 TEDMED Talk here.
TEDMED: In your TEDMED talk, you describe how people often try to find a reason for why you were diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, assuring you and your husband that, “everything happens for a reason.” Given your experience, what would you encourage people to say or do when someone in their life experiences a difficult diagnosis?
Kate Bowler: It’s so tough because there usually isn’t much to say that will help–but the desire to say something is so strong! We have an intense desire to love the suffering person but usually it devolves into burdensome attempts to relate (“When my aunt had cancer…”) Luckily, the easiest approach is also the best one: trust that your loving presence is enough. Be useful and available, but ask for little. John Green recently told me something that his mentor in hospital chaplaincy taught him: “Don’t just do something! Stand there.” It’s wonderfully counter-intuitive and absolutely true.
TM: In the past, you’ve talked about how removing the need for a reason that bad things happen, and accepting your cancer has, in small ways, made you able to see and enjoy things more fully, and perhaps in a way you hadn’t before. Do any of these experiences stand out that you can share?
KB: Oh, wow, I immediately think of parenting. I had been on the superhighway of achievement, or at least I liked to think so. And now I am fiercely determined to keep my focus on my deepest loves, especially my five-year old human. There is usually a moment every day that I would have missed in my own rush to conquer the day. Today it was my son climbing up on my lap in his jammies while I was taking a call, solemnly looking into my eyes and whispering: “Can we talk about lizards now?” He was right. The sun was bright and the breeze was dreamy and it was exactly the right time to talk about lizards.
TM: Through your TEDMED talk, and the online community you have cultivated, you spark conversations about both the beauty and the difficulty of life – as you say: “Life is so beautiful and life is so hard.” How has your work been impacted by this online community and the conversations they engage in about the chaos and the clarity that comes with being human? Are there any stories that have been shared with you that you have found particularly inspiring?
KB: The biggest change in my life, after cancer, has been this incredible community I’ve found through my podcast, Everything Happens. As it turns out, I am not alone in feeling constrained by this American myth of self-mastery and endless progress. We are longing for what my friend Margaret Feinberg called “the fellowship of the afflicted.” Now when I speak to someone, I assume this person is carrying something he or she did not choose. One of the recent episodes was with Jayson Greene, whose toddler was killed in a terrible accident. His rich account of grief as the language of love was so powerful to me. In reassembling our worlds after loss, it feels honest to say that our pain is also an expression of our biggest loves.
TM: You are a self described “incurable optimist”. To what do you attribute this? Have you always been an incurable optimist, or did that come later in life?
KB: I have such a love-hate relationship with positivity as a category because I am an expert in the history of positive thinking. I found that so much of what passes as happiness or positivity is weaponized against suffering people. “Oh, are you not happy? You must be failing to live your best life now!” But I have found that a deep, hard-won joy is necessary when facing down hard realities. I may have insurmountable obstacles, but I am focused on finding beauty and truth regardless. That’s why I call myself an “incurable optimist.” It is pure stubbornness.
TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you?
KB: It was the best public experience of my life. The community there was so absurdly loving and focused on helping me share my experience honestly. The organizers even had a stage manager there to HUG ME before I went on stage. Ok, that lovely person hugged everyone, but I felt so fortunate to be loved as I attempted to do a hard, public thing.
TM: At TEDMED, we like to think about each talk as having a “gift” – that thing that reveals new perspectives and profoundly influences our own – or our collective – health. What is the gift you’d like people to receive when watching your TEDMED Talk?
KB: Life doesn’t have to be better to be beautiful. Oh, if you are hurting right now, I want you to know you are so loved. You are not a mistake.