There was no shortage of explanations for why Kate Bowler was struck with Stage IV colon cancer. She was told it was due to her lack of faith and sinful ways. God is both fair and unfair, depending on who was chatting with her. An aversion to Brussels sprouts was another likely culprit.
And of course, the one we all hear, the default explanation to everything from why you didn’t land a job to why someone divorced you to why cancer cells mutated and invaded your body: everything happens for a reason.
The Duke Divinity School professor’s latest book is an homage to that unthoughtful claim. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved is Bowler's memoir about battling a form of cancer she was not supposed to beat. After publishing an article about her diagnosis in the NY Times, Bowler received hundreds of “reasons” for her predicament, along with plenty of other unwarranted advice. (In her book she includes a useful appendix titled, “Absolutely never say this to people experiencing terrible times: a short list.")
There is some truth to her book’s title: everything does, in fact, happen for a reason. For example, as the physician Siddhartha Mukherjee has pointed out, we all have cancer cells in our bodies. The reason some mutate and strike us down are manifold, but indeed, there are biological reasons for cancer—some we understand, others not so much.
Yet that’s not what most people mean when they employ the mantra of 'a reason.' It implies mystical intervention, a faulty reading of karma. Bowler holds a unique perspective, growing up in a Mennonite family and publishing her first book on prosperity gospel preachers, who make magical thinking an integral part of their business. The world’s most famous, Joel Osteen, was even cited (among others) as being a trigger for the housing crash in 2008.
By preaching that God smiles on believers, Osteen and the prosperity preachers promise pearly gates during life, a stark departure from many centuries of fire and brimstone-style oration. (There have long been optimistic snake oil salesmen, mind you; Reverend M.J. “Father” Divine made a killing in the African-American community during the Depression, for one). Who would worry about a mortgage they can’t pay when divine blessings shine down on Christ’s disciples? A lot of believers, it turns out.
Bowler is still a believer, though, from her writing, she relies less on magical thinking and more on the value systems instilled in her. She understands compassion and humility as necessary components of living a charitable life. Having just given birth to her son, Zach, the cancer diagnosis was a shock to her and her husband, who she’s known since childhood. Suddenly she was confronted with the reality that the future she was looking forward to might not arrive:
I used to think that grief was about looking backward, old men saddled with regrets or young ones pondering should-haves. I see now it is about eyes squinting through tears into an unbearable future.
The main lessons of her tale revolve around control. Having previously dealt with infertility, even the birth of her son was a surprise. Enjoying unexpected fruits—Zach; her appointment at Duke—Bowler faced mortality during a time when things seemed to be going right. She took comfort in the mythological tale of Sisyphus her father read to her when she was little. Not every burden can be shouldered, she realized, but the fact that he kept trying fueled her own quest.
For months that included the simple act of getting out of bed. Bowler counts her blessings: she was accepted into a clinical trial featuring new cancer drugs, which, in her case, proved to be the difference between life and death. (A close friend of mine nearly died from colon cancer; the dangers of this disease cannot be understated.) While she had the unwavering support of her family and friends, the correspondence that poured in could be heartbreaking: being told she should have a “Job” experience; that her attitude defines her destiny; cruciferous vegetables.
The road to hell, wrote Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, is paved with good intentions. Offering a “reason” is often meant to be reassuring, yet in many ways it is only intellectually justifying the speaker, not emotionally satisfying the receiver. People simply talk too much when they don’t really have anything to say. They’re not comfortable with silence, of not knowing they don’t know. They destroy silence with unintended daggers.
While Bowler’s Christianity is sprinkled throughout her memoir, the conclusion is oddly Buddhist. Seated across from the man who discovered her particular form of cancer, he reminds her that all human life is terminal. Then he transmits a secret: Don’t skip to the end.
Which sums up so much. Our brains hate narrative gaps. We want to know what happens next. We invent fictions to momentarily satisfy our impossible desire of security. When Bowler says she wants to live until at least fifty to raise her son, it is an illusory voice affixing a number to an unforeseeable future. Science, not faith, has extended her an opportunity for doing so, but that mystic pull is strong.
Not that faith is meaningless. Depression is defined, in part, by not being able to foresee hope. That’s no way to live. Such a mindset aids in destroying your immune system, allowing diseases to proliferate. If there’s a single takeaway from Bowler’s intimate book, it’s that faith sustained her throughout the most challenging period of her life. If not for that, those magical drugs that destroyed and rebuilt her immune system might not have had the same effect.
My cancer diagnosis was not nearly as severe as Bowler’s, and I didn’t receive hundreds of “reasons," but I was told a few. Each time I reminded myself it was the speaker’s insecurities (and good intentions) talking, not an apparent truth I hadn’t realized. We do well by remembering to stay silent when topics we don’t understand are presented. Sometimes others simply need your presence, not your words. Showing up does not always require speaking up.