Kate Bowler has written a book about her struggles with several serious health problems, with the worst being a stage 4 colorectal cancer diagnosis. It is funny, sad, moving, inspiring, and so much more. From the first page to the last, I was deeply engrossed in her story.
"Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved" is one of the most moving books I've ever read.
Even though I don't believe in God, and Kate Bowler does, I felt wonderfully close to her as I finished her marvelous book in a few transfixed sittings. She and I have much more in common -- our shared humanity -- than what divides us, our theological worldview. Like Bowler, I have a chronic health problem, though one that isn't nearly as serious as hers.
I'm so thankful that Bowler had the talent and courage to write a book with so much heart. She is so honest, so truthful, I found every sentence she wrote to be captivating.
What I admired the most was her willingness to look at her Christian beliefs with such openness and sensitivity.
Bowler accepts what makes sense to her, such as God exists and loves us. She rejects the nonsensical aspects of Christianity, notably the Prosperity Gospel ridiculousness. As someone who read and scoffed at The Secret, which similarly posits that we can create our own reality, I loved her putdowns of those who tried to find meaning in the tragedy of her cancer diagnosis.
I struggle every day with my much milder chronic condition. Thank you, Kate Bowler, for writing a book that has made it easier for me to carry on in the present moment, which really is all any of us really has -- despite our predilection to stare at the past and future rather than what is right before us.
One of my favorite passages is this:
Beverly lived in the apocalyptic future, and the scholar lived in the past. I think I believed that I was living in the center, but I rarely let my feet rest on solid ground, rooting me in the present. My eyes shifted to look for that thing just beyond, the next deadline, the next hurdle, the next plan.... I would not say it was simply that I didn't stop to smell the roses. It was the sin of arrogance, of being impervious to life itself. I failed to love what was present and decided to love what was possible instead. I must learn to live in ordinary time, but I don't know how.
It's really difficult for me to summarize Bowler's book.
She writes so well, with such heart, I feel like I'm doing a disservice to her if I substitute my words for hers. So my main piece of advice is Buy This Book. She has a web site, a blog, and a Twitter feed if you want to sample her writing that way.
Here's some other passages from her book that I loved:
My in-box is full of strangers giving reasons. People offer them to me like wildflowers they picked along the way. A few people want me to cultivate spiritual acceptance. "We have had millions of births and deaths in different life-forms," explains a Hindu woman gently. "Don't worry, this life shall pass and your soul will move forward to its next step."
This world is a place of suffering, they write, a garden full of weeds that we tend as best we can.
But most everyone I meet is dying to make me certain. They want me to know, without a doubt, that there is a hidden logic to this seeming chaos. Even when I was still in the hospital, a neighbor came to the door and told my husband that everything happens for a reason.
"I'd love to hear it," he replied.
"Pardon?" she said, startled.
"The reason my wife is dying," he said in that sweet and sour way he has, effectively ending the conversation as the neighbor stammered something and handed him a casserole.
Christians want me to reassure them that my cancer is all part of a plan. A few letters even suggest that God's plan was that I get cancer so I could help people by writing the New York Times article. There is a circular logic to these attempts to explain the course of my life.
If you inspire people while dying, the plan for your life was that you would become an example to others. If you don't and you die kicking and screaming, the plan was that you discover some important divine lessons. Either way, learn to accept God's plan.
...These are the three life lessons people try to teach me that, frankly, sometimes feel worse than cancer itself.
The first is that I shouldn't be so upset, because the significance of death is relative. I like to call the people with that message the Minimizers... A lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home first. And atheists can be equally trite by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning.
...The second lesson comes from the Teachers, who focus on how this experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body, and spirit. "I suppose that this is the ultimate test of faith for you," one man muses, hoping that I will have the good sense to accept God's will... Sometimes I want every know-it-all to send me a note when they face the grisly specter of death, and I'll send them a cat poster that says HANG IN THERE!
...The hardest lessons come from the Solutions People, who are already a little disappointed that I am not saving myself. "Keep smiling! Your attitude determines your destiny!" says Jane from Idaho, and I am immediately worn out by the tyranny of prescriptive joy.
...There is a trite cruelty in the logic of the perfectly certain. Those letter writers are not simply trying to give me something. They are also, always, tallying up the sum of my life, sometimes for clues, sometimes for answers, always to pronounce a verdict. But I am not on trial.
...This is the problem, I suppose, with formulas. They are generic. But there is nothing generic about a human life... There is no life in general. Each day has been a collection of trivial details -- little intimacies and jokes and screw-ups and realizations. My problems can't be solved by those formulas -- those cliches -- when my life was never generic to begin with.
God may be universal but I am not. I am Toban's wife and Zach's mom and Karen and Gerry's daughter. I am here now, bolted in time and place, to the busy sounds of a blonde boy in dinosaur pajamas crashing into every piece of furniture.