Arts & Humanities
Kate Bowler: Things We Learn in the Dark
By Alison Jones
In her new memoir and podcast, Kate Bowler brings empathy, intelligence and even humor to life’s darkest moments.
Two and a half years ago, Kate Bowler was living what she calls a “pretty shiny life.” She had married her high school sweetheart, given birth to a healthy baby boy and achieved her “dream job” as an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School.
At 35, she also had just published a book, “Blessed,” about the history of the American prosperity gospel, the peculiarly American belief that God rewards the faithful with perfect health and fat bank accounts.
Then one Thursday morning the phone rang. Bowler’s doctor was on the line with news for which no one ever is ready. Bowler had Stage 4 cancer. For Bowler, it was if someone had suddenly drawn a sharp red line dividing her life into “before” and “after.”
Here she was, the preeminent authority on the prosperity gospel, facing down cancer. She laughs at the rich irony of the situation, lowering her voice a few octaves to say that in that moment, she did not feel terribly “blessed.”
Then, on top of the heartache and irony, came the reactions. Neighbors offered explanations for why Bowler was sick; others recommended cures (“Have you tried acai berries?”); still others free-associated, sharing vaguely related stories of illness (“You know, I’m reminded of my Aunt Mabel’s bladder cancer…”).
And again and again, Bowler heard “Everything happens for a reason.”
Bowler’s new memoir and podcast were born from those conversations – and from her strong wish for better ways to talk about life’s darkest times.
The memoir, “Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved)” (Feb. 6, Random House), is Bowler’s frank, heartbreaking and funny account of learning to live without certainty.
The podcast, “Everything Happens with Kate Bowler,” builds on the conversation Bowler started with her writings. In the podcast, Bowler talks with others for whom life suddenly veered off course about what they learned in dark times. Her guests include writers, doctors, humorists and preachers.
Bowler takes a seat in the studio as she prepares to record an episode of her podcast. (Photo by Megan Mendenhall / Duke Photography)
Bowler says that by talking to wise and funny people, she hoped to learn some things about coping with hardship – and she has.
She also hoped the conversations would move past the trite ways people often speak of illness and tragedy, to find ways of talking about hardship that were warmer, more empathetic and more authentic.
“I was hoping to gain wisdom, and also maybe make the world gentler for people like me who probably are also inundated with a sense that the world is really fragile,” Bowler says.
“I’m trying to figure out what it means to live without certainty. I was so surprised to learn that that’s where many of us are – how many people are in a similar boat. We want ways to connect without always having to pretend that things are okay.”
The conversations are rich and emotional – and sometimes funny. In one episode, Bowler talks with Duke pediatric oncologist Ray Barfield about how he helps children and families face cancer. In another, she speaks with Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri, author of “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences,” about human beings’ profound clumsiness when confronting illness and tragedy.
Bowler also speaks with Lucy Kalanithi, widow of bestselling author Paul Kalanithi (“When Breath Becomes Air”). Lucy and Paul met and fell in love as medical students, and after Paul’s sudden death at a young age, Lucy carried on his legacy by completing the manuscript that became his book. Bowler’s conversation with Lucy Kalanithi takes a deep dive into the topic of love — real love tempered by the fire of hardship, that is — not the thin, treacly love of pop songs and greeting cards.
“People have different tools for dealing with heartache,” Bowler says. “Sometimes it’s humor, sometimes it’s justice, other times it’s commiseration.”
In the course of their conversation for the podcast, Bowler and Kalanithi found a connection.They are both young mothers whose lives were profoundly disrupted by cancer at an early age. And each of them emerged from hardship with little appetite for trite sayings and for pretense.
For Bowler, it’s encouraging to find others like Kalanithi – who she now considers a friend — who want to talk about hardship in ways that are vulnerable and real.
“We’re all so good at pretending,” Bowler says. “This is a peek inside the life so many of us are leading.
“Life is not always full of bright skies and it is not always a steady march forward. There are healthier ways of thinking about your life than just expecting endless progress.”
Audio produced by Alison Jones
Photos by Megan Mendenhall
Design by Jonathan Lee
Videos by Julie Schoonmaker
Read Bowler’s recent essay in The New York Times and her previous NYT essay, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.”
Read and listen to more stories from Kate Bowler:
6 Things to Say (or Not) to a Friend in Need
‘I am preparing for death and everyone else is on Instagram’
Book Review of ‘Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved’
Author Kate Bowler on finding faith and hope after an incurable cancer diagnosis
Kate Bowler on the presence of God in the face of death