Kate Bowler has written a psalm to human finitude. Her recent release, No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear) functions as a companion to her bestselling memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved). Bowler, an associate professor of the History of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at the age of 35, when her son Zach was still an infant. She writes, “(this book) is a memoir for all of us who understand that we are more limited than we have realized.” In her first memoir Bowler chronicled the stunningly unhelpful platitudes that were heaped upon her (and which are pulled out by kind, well-meaning people at the first sign of tragedy) as she grappled with her diagnosis, treatment, and the uncertainty of her future: giving up the “lies she had loved.” In “No Cure,” Bowler describes the hard-won truths of the human condition, which we mostly try to avoid talking about in polite company. First the lies; now the truths.
Bowler has written extensively on the prosperity gospel, an ideology that promises happiness, health, and wealth will follow if one’s (Christian) faith is only strong enough. She describes a harrowing (and sort of hilarious) incident that took place following her first extensive surgery. Her need to be able to walk to attain discharge from the hospital has taken her, in her gown, rolling her IV pole along, to the gift shop. Upon arrival she begins to dismantle a display of books featuring the prosperity gospel. The young cashier fetches a manager who tries to understand Bowler’s concerns. “You can’t sell this in a hospital,” Bowler insists, “You can’t sell this to me,” as she gestures (melodramatically) to her hospital gown. After further back and forth, her energy flagging, she tells the manager, “Just let me point out the books that actively blame people for their own disease.” The manager obligingly removes all copies.
Many of the stories recounted here walk that fine harrowing/hilarious line. Bowler trying to get Famous Doctors to tell her the odds of her survival—really, trying to get nearly all the doctors involved in her treatment to speak frankly and directly with her. Bowler sitting on the floor surrounded by concentric circles of hundreds of pages of medical reports, waiting to find out whether she will “maybe live, die immediately, or have some kind of magic cancer that gets special treatment.” Bowler, getting the magic cancer treatment, and telling the doctor “Blast me,” musing to herself that she will be the John McClane of cancer patients. Bowler, at the suggestion of a counselor, looking back at “bucket lists” she’d made as an adolescent, and wondering whether it makes sense to try to get to the pyramids given that she feels “propelled faster and faster toward and end not fully in view.”
Bowler is painfully honest about her anguish and fear, even as she recognizes that such conversations can be profoundly difficult for the people around her. This is a psalm of lament. Many of the most heartbreaking moments feature her son.
This is the only kind of eternity I can understand: how we can eat Goldfish crackers and lie in the hammock until the light fades, before deciding that dinner should be cereal again. I have tried to solve the problem of finitude. I have tried to pour infinity into these stubborn hours. But I keep ticking.
And this is a psalm of praise. In a chapter detailing the toll her many surgeries have taken upon both her body and her sense of being embodied, Bowler recalls “the last time [she] felt whole,” when she was enduring the initial onslaught of surgeries.
Each day was a terrible winnowing, separating wheat from chaff, but I felt a surreal completeness. I remember clearly in the hospital how I felt this strange closeness with God, how I did not feel like dry grass. I was becoming less and less, but I was not reduced to nothing. God’s love was everywhere, sticking to everything… Despair was never far away, but somehow the seams of the universe had come undone, and all the splendid, ragged edges were showing. And they brought me closer than I’ve ever been to the truth of this experiment—living—and how the horror and the beauty of it feels almost blinding.
Bowler writes that she has made her house on the edge of a cliff—the cliff of not knowing, of fear, of business left undone. Ultimately she concludes—and a strange encounter with a fellow tourist in Portugal affirms—that this is the human condition. Not getting through the bucket list, not knowing whether you will see your child graduate from kindergarten (let alone see grandchildren), not getting to write the novel, learn Chinese, or fill every hour with enough joy, enough love, enough. We spend our hours and days on things we will never complete, and, because this is the most human thing of all, it’s better that way. Bowler’s psalm will resonate, as she has said, with those who have come to understand that we are more limited than we have realized. Bowler, and her memoir, are boon companions for our journey.
Pat Raube has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007, and is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is a contributor to the RevGals’ book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” (SkyLight Paths Publishing). A native of the Jersey shore and in love with the New England coastline, she is happy to report that yes, she has been to the ocean this year.
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