Every problem New York Times columnist Frank Bruni faced had a simple fix. Doctors offered reasonable solutions for reasonable problems. Preventative care guaranteed future health. That is, until he woke up one morning without vision in his eye. This experience forced him to rethink how much of life is in our control and how to live fully in the face of unfixable problems.
In this conversation, Kate and Frank discuss:
Read Frank Bruni’s book, The Beauty of Dusk: On vision lost and found.
Frank suffered a stroke of the optic nerve called NAION. Learn more about it here.
Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird: Instructions on writing and life.
Learn more about the National Humanities Medal winner E.L. Doctorow. Doctorow’s famous quote about writing and headlights can be found in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews.
Want to hear more about limited agency? Listen to Kate’s conversation with Shauna Niequist: Spread to Thin.
Discuss this episode with a book club, friends, or bible study group. Here are some conversation starters:
Kate Bowler: I used to think that life was a series of choices. You pick a college, and then a major, and then a career. You pick a spouse and then you pick when you’ll start your family. You pick vacations and friends and all your dreams and ambitions. You pick a Starbucks order because, hey, that’s who you are. But then, but then nothing ever really seems to go according to plan. You lose your job, but your marriage falls apart. You never find that partner or have that baby. You get sick or they’re gone and you realize life is no longer one that you can so easily control. This is the Everything Happens podcast. And I’m Kate Bowler, and I had this realization when I was about 35 and I was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and suddenly my life wasn’t one that I picked. It was just picked for me. And I wondered, where do you go from here? When our choices seem so limited, when our futures are hard to imagine. When you realize that life might always feel like loss after loss after loss. We don’t want to fake positivity or live in denial of what it means to get older. So how do we live like this? Today, I have the great honor of talking to someone who thinks about this so carefully. You’re going to absolutely love him. Frank Bruni is a longtime journalist and writer for The New York Times, where he’s covered everything from restaurants to politics. And all amazing things in between. And he is now my very esteemed colleague at Duke University, where he teaches journalism classes. And just by the very act of him being nearby makes me feel more cosmopolitan. And he is the author of holy crap, four New York Times Bestsellers, including his absolutely beautiful memoir, The Beauty of Dusk. Frank, hello, my friend. I’m so glad to be doing this with you today.
Frank Bruni: I’m so happy to be here. I’m honored.
Kate: I used to have this framework for my life. That was the life was a series of choices. Like you, if you just like, look at everything I can do, if I plan my days. Watch me anticipate any problem and clear any obstacle. Is that a mentality that you used to have, too?
Frank: Absolutely. Now you’ve described it very well. I used to think that if anything was wrong in my life, it was a failure of industry or failure of agency that that I could just if I just snapped to, you know, I could put everything in order. And then I had something happen to me just as you had something happen to you. And I think all the people out there have had these things happen to them learn very quickly that life is a lot more complicated than that. And there are things we do not control.
Kate: You had this wonderful description of this as a kind of you’re like, what if this is maybe like a generational problem? He said, quote, I am an inheritor of a brand of overconfidence with a kind of defiance that doesn’t make adequate allowances for the wages of aging and inevitability of affliction.
Frank: Right. Right.
Kate: I thought that was so. One time I read a study of the middle class and it’s like they smile a lot. They think that they are generally good at solving problems and they can look toward the horizon with a sense of confidence. And I was like, Oh, that’s my personality. Oh, no, wait. You’re just describing the middle, the middle class. Do you think it’s also a boomer thing, perhaps?
Frank: I think it’s a boomer thing. And I’m the last I think I’m the last year of the boom, yeah, 1964?
Kate: Yeah, your little. Yeah.
Frank: But I’m not so little and I don’t feel so little at all. But, you know, I think it is a boomer thing. And I mean, every other medical problem I’ve ever had in my life until, until my eyesight problem, there was a pill for it. There was a therapy for it. There was a shot for it. My shoulder bothered me. Someone stuck a needle in my arm and it was okay. I developed gout, right, someone gave me a prescription for allopurinol and I was okay. And I didn’t even have to change my diet. And then I woke up one morning and I couldn’t see properly. And I learned that, you know, and this is an obvious lesson, but I think we don’t really take it in until it happens to us. I learned there are things we can’t fix. There are things we can’t change. And the work I had to do was more on the inside than on the outside.
Kate: That does. I mean, the re-imagining of what doctors do, what medicine is for. I remember having that box under my parent’s sink, just this really garbagey cardboard box. And I thought, everything that I need to fix my life is probably in there.
Kate: And your uh, the sense of helplessness you had when you. Would you mind Frank taking me back to the the moment of realization. Your before and after is something you could genuinely see.
Frank: Well, I in a nutshell, I woke up one morning about five years ago, and I couldn’t see properly. There was a weird dappled fog over my vision. Things felt a little bit kind of tilted. It’s very difficult to describe. Something seemed to be wrong. And at first, you know, talk about denial. I thought, oh, you know, I just drank too much last night. I’ve been known to do that, right. And I had extra coffee. And then I thought, wait, maybe there’s some gunk in my eye. And so I took a shower, you know, kind of let the water run over my eyes. And that didn’t change it. And then I thought, you know what? It’s just I don’t know. I just thought, okay, I need to go take a run. You know, this is that attitude. This is easily fixable. And it wasn’t really I mean, this is crazy, but it wasn’t until 24 hours later that I thought, wait a second, something is seriously wrong. And I realized by opening and closing my eyes that it was located in my right eye and that I essentially couldn’t see properly out of my right eye. It was just a big mess, too big fog. And that began a medical odyssey in which I learned that I’d had a stroke of sorts. It’s a stroke of the optic nerve. It’s called NAION. And in in that in the in those days when I learned that, I also was told rather kind of bluntly, yes, and the literature shows that there’s a 20% chance that when this happens in one eye, it will happen in the other. And I said, wait a second. So you’re you’re telling me I have a 20% chance of going blind? And the doctor said, yes, essentially. And then I remember her saying, and I’m afraid I have nothing to offer you. And I mean, it almost sounded like someone coming by with a cart, you know, a flight attendant wheeling a cart down the aisle. And you’re saying, you know, I’d really like, you know, a bourbon. Oh, I have nothing to offer you. You know, I can give you white wine instead. Doctor didn’t even have white wine for me. She did say there was a clinical trial going on right then that I might not want to do it. And I said, well, why wouldn’t I want to do it? And she said, because it’s a series of injections into your eye. So that was my first week of my new life.
Kate: Was the first bit just alternating between the impossibility of it and then the maybe. You’re like, okay, that’s it. And you just like, click in to the feeling that this is another obstacle course to navigate.
Frank: I had to. It was clear to me that the first thing I had to do was find a way not to feel sorry for myself. It somehow was very clear to me that the greatest danger, the greatest trap, was going to be self-pity. And at first that was not an issue because it was all so surreal and my adrenaline was pumping. And I almost kind of let myself enjoy the narrative of calling people and telling them what was going on. I thought, this is going to be brutal to deal with, so let’s at least enjoy having the microphone right. I kind of instinctively took a really careful survey of the people around me, people I knew well, people I knew a little less well. And I looked at them through the lens and the question of what are they dealing with that I that I usually don’t focus on? What are they dealing with that’s not visible to the naked eye. What have they dealt with and come out the other side of? And if you do that with the people in your life, if you do that period, you quickly have a different context and realize that that the bad fortune that you’ve been dealt or what feels like that, the struggle you’re going through is much more universal than it is exceptional. It has a different name for everybody. It’s not the same thing, but it is a very similar challenge. Nobody gets a hand of all aces. We’re all holding out, holding a hand of cards that’s mixed. And when you see yourself in that context, self-pity becomes impossible and you also kind of feel a weird sense of community. And that helped me enormously.
Kate: Yeah. I can see how it could cut both ways, right? Like, if we don’t, the the person who doesn’t feel sorry for themselves say, trying to think of a different word than like. Self-abnegation, but like the nothingness because I felt indignant. It was the one little glimmer of having a certain kind of self-esteem that I don’t normally have because I needed somebody to say, I’m so sorry this happened to you.
Kate: And if they didn’t, then I would assume that it should have. I would just, like, go down this terrible path where I accepted it. I accepted it too wholly as being. I wouldn’t have said deserve, but like I would have kept it and maybe a way that self-pity kind of helped me be pushed out, like be a little more angry. But I, I can see, too, how that would also it also creates its own loneliness that you did such a beautiful job in undoing. Like, if we look around and don’t just notice everybody’s stupid Christmas cards, but we know whats raw, you know, we see what you saw.
Frank: But we we live in a really interesting moment, Kate, because there are it’s not just the Christmas card anymore. It’s it’s the Instagram stories. It’s people’s Facebook presences. There are all these new ways in the era of social media to present a lacquered version of your life. Right. And it and there’s a lot that’s been written about this by psychologists concerned about it. It can it can give people who are beholding all these lacquered lives, these falsely lacquered lives. It can it can make them feel like they’re missing out on something. It can shatter their self-esteem. It can completely pervert their notion of what people do and don’t have, and do and don’t struggle with. And I actually found myself and still find myself doing something different, which is I like a, like a homing mechanism. I key in on stories, in the news about people who we thought had it all and didn’t. Right. So I remember, I remember reading one day not long ago a profile The Times had run of Molly Shannon, and it was coincident with the release of a memoir by her. And there was a whole long section of the piece about this horrible car accident. I’m going to forget the details right now as you and I are talking, but about this horrible car accident that I think killed one or both of her parents when she was quite young. And it was something you know, she is such an effervescent spirit in her performances, her comic persona. You would never know that. But it’s there. So I sort of becoming a collector, not of all of those sunsets, and wedding cruises and stuff people. And I don’t mean this in a macabre way, but I kind of noticed if you look for them, you realize there are a lot of other, more complicated, truer portraits of people. That we should look at with equal wrabness, because that gives us a fuller picture of life and a more accurate sense of of the complexity of people’s lives. And thus it allows us to deal with our own in a truer way. Does that make sense?
Kate: I like it so much. You describing that, it reminds me of the first time someone talked to me that way. She said, oh, you’re part of the Fellowship of the Afflicted. And I thought. Oh, yeah. Right. I guess the and then you have something and I have something, and they’re not the same. And they’re all horrible. But, like, that’s a, but otherwise, I would have felt, maybe like singled out in pain, which is such a lie of depression. And all of it is that the the intensity of the no one will understand this pain, no one wants, no one wants to hear about it. You know, that just builds the walls up so high around the terrible thing.
Frank: Yeah, yeah. And no one will understand the precise contours of it, right? Each of us, because of our strengths, our weaknesses, our circumstances, we come armed with certain weapons and we come lacking certain weapons. So your struggle. My struggle. Someone else’s struggle. They’re not the same. But struggle is what we have in common. And there are some tools, you know, some strategies, some emotions that that are bridges between us.
Kate: I really like the way that you describe that feeling as traversing a new planet. Nobody’s going to speak the language, exactly. Your emergency is apparently shockingly not other people’s emergency. Maybe when it should be tap, tap, tap on watch, insert frustrated face in waiting room. It can be very easy to take that personally. I think I have taken it personally. I have personally. Right. But I do. I do like that you’re, you’re still validating the intensity of the ache and simultaneously taking on the fact that you’re like, okay, well, that means I also ought to be my own advocate.
Frank: But when you were just saying that, I’m realizing like you had the experience, no doubt that I had, where as you see so many different medical professionals, it’s astonishing how cool collected and almost blank some of them can be. And you want to say hello. A big melodrama is unfolding in front of you like a person in front of you is scared and could come apart at any moment. How can you not like how can you not recognize that in your affect? And it’s a very reasonable question. But they see eight of us a day, right?
Kate: That’s right. You know, and anyone who has eye stuff might want to skip this little question. But like, it wasn’t that you were like, Oh, I Frank, we’ll have to just, you know, take a slightly different pill and then go on a walk every day. You’re like, No, no, no, I have to if I’m going to try what you’re suggesting, comma a medical professional comma. I’m going to have to inject something into my eyeball just to see. Just to try. I mean, what are some of the things that you had to just try with an apparently openness of hands and spirit?
Frank: Well, I mean, I mean, the injections are one, and that was only the first round of injections. And you know, what’s a blessing? What’s not? I qualified my particular manifestation of this condition my age, the rest of my medical profile, I qualified not just for that first trial, which was abandoned mid trial before they reached full enrollment because they were not getting promising enough results for the pharmaceutical company to want to go on. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere. So the second trial was injections, the kind that that a woman trying to get pregnant, giving yourself hormones might get. It was injections that you had to self administer into your stomach or your thigh twice a week for six months. I had I had serum in my fridge, I had, you know, all these needles and sharps containers. And I’m telling you, like if anyone was not qualified to learn how to inject themselves and prepare the syringe, and get the air bubbles out, I mean, I was convinced this was going to be the end of me. And, you know, damned if by week three I wasn’t doing this practically with my eyes closed in 30 seconds. We are. I don’t mean to sound too sunny, but we are all more elastic. We are all more pliant or pliable or whatever the right word. I mean, the things that you can adjust to and adapt to and teach yourself when you have to. It’s not everything. And it’s not everyone. But you, but you have abilities.
Kate: It engenders a less homicidal response in me when you describe people as adaptable. Because I almost. My sweet, sweet Mennonite father-in-law, I mean, it was almost the last day of his life by my hand when he said life is a series of losses. But he was talking about racquetball. And that was like, Ken, like dad, if you say that one more time. But you your life is about adjusting to loss. I find that to be very realistic and kind of, sort of a loving way of looking at the fact that we just keep changing and not always for the better.
Frank: Well, life is a series of losses and and I think it’s inevitable and necessary that we grieve those losses. But I think if we have the ability to and I want to get back to that, if if if if you are built if you are wired in a way where you can once you have noted and grieved and acknowledge that loss, found a way to devote your energies to adapting to it, to seeing it in a different light. If you can do that, why not? Because to dwell in the loss is to, is to is to. Is to have a kind of sentence of permanent sadness. Now, I said if because I feel very lucky in a million ways beyond what I’m about to say. But I was able, based by some blessing of neurochemistry, or attitude, or whatever. This isn’t some triumph of character. It’s luck of the way I’m I’m built, right. I was able to find a different way to think about a lot of things that if I thought about them in the first blush way, might have undone me. Not everyone can do that, but it’s worth trying because if there is something you can do, it’s a better strategy for optimizing happiness.
Kate: Yeah. Ken Frank, you’re the only person I’m going to hear the words optimizing happiness from and not kill because I cherish you.
Frank: Well, I can’t. I can’t. But I can’t believe I just said that because it’s so jargony. And I don’t you know, when when when students hand me papers with words like optimize it, you know, I get out my red pen or whatever the digital equivalent of that is, and I say jargon academic speak. And here I am. I’m like, I’m like a widely listened to podcast creator committing the very sins that I inveigh against. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Kate: I think that’s what’s so funny to me about wisdom, though, is is that there’s a quarter turn away that is just back to the shellacked self-help worry that we were having. And then if we set the dial right there, there is a there is a deep and abiding truth there. And and you’re and you’re living it. I had this fear when I got sick that I was a like one of those ringing ring the bell end times profits. Where I was sort of walking into every party being like, hey guys, guess what? Everybody’s going to die. But you had kind of a lovelier version of.
Frank: The Grim Reaper has arrived.
Kate: Hey, hey, hey. Apparently.
Frank: You carry around this sickle and, you know, places like Death in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh SEAL, you know?
Kate: Exactly. Just ask me about it. But you have kind of a kinder sandwich board analogy, but I wanted to hear about.
Frank: Yeah, So I. I had this phrase that kept on going around in my head in this idea, which I call the Sandwich Board Theory of Life. And it goes back to what we were talking about before, about seeing what you’re struggling with in context. And I realized that if we all like for a day a month, walked around wearing a sandwich board that just listed the bullet points of the biggest struggles that we were facing in that moment or had faced. We would see everybody around us much differently. And I hope more empathetically and empathetically is not a word I ban. I would I would accept that on a student’s paper.
Kate: Me too.
Frank: And I’m not embarrassed that I just said it, even though empathy has become sort of faddish, right. But we would see each other more empathetically and we see ourselves more clearly and in a less self-pitying way. And we would talk about things we don’t talk about. You know, I mean, I think we avoid so much of this stuff, and that’s why we have a distorted view of what people around us have and haven’t gone through, because there’s this sort of conspiracy of silence. And some of it is about politeness. Some of it it’s about shrinking from the messy stuff. No good comes from it.
Kate: Yeah. You had a great role model in your friend Dorie. I wondered if you could tell me about
Frank: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, I know. And I think about her. I think about her all the time. But I especially now that I’m back, I live in Chapel Hill. I know that’s like kind of not good if you teach at Duke in Durham.
Kate: That alright, we can edit that out. We can edit that out.
Frank: I mean it’s not good that I went to Chapel Hill, right? You know. But Dorie, Dorie was one of my best friends when I was a student at UNC Chapel Hill, and she was, you know, light itself. She was. I remember thinking even back then that if you could weigh a smile, she was very thin. She was a runner. And I thought if you could weigh a smile like, you know, three quarters of her body weight would be her smile. And she was like me, a fast talker and all those things. And I mention this because many years later, but at a very young age, I think she was about 35. She got diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And it was an aggressive and it remains a very it was an aggressive and it remains kind of a very severe, I don’t know, severe is the right word. But people people have much different experiences with Parkinson’s in terms of the severity of the symptoms, in terms of when it happens. And it often happens at a much older age. But sort of like Michael J. Fox it happened to her when she was young. And Dorie, uhh, she has had brain surgery. She has, you know, cables that go from a battery under her skin to her brains to deliver. She’s been through various kinds of medical treatments. You know, she she she doesn’t walk in a fluid fashion and she frequently falls down. She doesn’t speak in an unlabored fashion because Parkinson’s has done all of that. I wasn’t a constant companion with her through this. We lived in different areas of the country, but I lived through a bit of it with her. And I have not for a moment seen Dorie do anything but figure out, okay. How do I best manage this? Okay. How do I keep and hold on to the fullest life possible? She is so determined to be optimistic. She is so determined to miss out on as little as as as she can. And she, I guess, like me, is blessed because she has that psychological bent in her. But I look at what she has struggled with for so much longer than I struggle with this. My struggle is more one of uncertainty than of day to day hardship. You know there’s some things I can’t do as well as I used to. I read slower. I, I commit more typos when I write. I kind of suffer from some sort of like Venn diagram overlap of dyslexia that was never there before all manageable. And Dorie as a, Dorie as a role model. Dorie as a point of reference has meant everything.
Kate: Point of reference is that a good way of putting it? Like, I hate when we feel like we have to put ourselves on a lucky scale because then we’re usually just sort of being unable to be honest about our.
Kate: Sandwich board problems. So courage isn’t courage unless we’re watching it in which we’re seeing someone like just get up and do something lovely.
Frank: But if you if you are. I don’t like the word lucky like you. I know, but. But let’s just. People know what we mean by. So let’s just use it for a second. If you are lucky, in some ways, there are a number of ways. Yeah. God, I think it’s helpful. It makes a lot of sense to to to to pause occasionally, in a day, in a week, in a month. I have three siblings with whom I’m extraordinarily close and whom I, you know, I’m going to get to whom I love with all my heart. That is not something everybody has. You know, some people don’t have any siblings. Some people have strained relationships. Boy, has that been a comfort to me. And boy, is that something to focus on. You know, and I could go on and on. But I do think it is really important when when there is good in your life. And I think there is there is good and there are blessings in most people’s lives. I think it is really important not to deny the stuff you’re struggling with, not at all, but to carve out moments, to look at that other stuff. It can be such a great comfort.
Kate: Think you said it. You called it like, it’s like not a commensurate gain, I think is how you described it. It was just the bad math feeling I think is so good because when you because then when you look at certain people, especially the ones that love you, you’re like, this is adding up. It really is. I don’t know what’s adding up to, but it’s it’s really good.
Frank: I mean, this is, this is maybe going to sound like a stupid or a trivial thing, but this this happening to me in a weird way was my pivot to finally kind of saying, no, it won’t be too much of an inconvenience and welcoming a dog back into my life. I’d always been a dog person. I grew up with dogs. I had a dog in my late twenties. And so I brought Regan my my Australian shepherd Siberian husky mix into my life. And I can’t describe or calculate how much joy that’s brought me.
Kate: Yeah. It is so funny though, how if we just let ourselves fall in love with things, they always sound a little stupid when we’re. I don’t know, unless you’re just. But people do this all the time to me where they’re like, You know, you’re what saved your life? Gardening. What saved your life? Getting weirdly into making Moravian cookies. What’s it for me? One thing I drive around looking at big dumb statues. I mean, really, really dumb. I went two and a half hours out of my way recently to see the world’s largest indoor candy cane. The outdoor one, not for me.
Frank: I, I Well, the outdoor one rain would be a problem for the candy cane.
Kate: Yeah, It was structurally,.
Frank: But I didn’t know there was that into there was candy cane measurement. And that’s just you know but you just said something so so so important there are these things that may we may wonder like are they geeky? Are they strange? They’re these things that bring us inordinate pleasure.
Frank: And I think many of us spend a great portion of our lives denying ourselves that pleasure because it seems so strange or geeky to whatever. I think if it brings you pleasure and doesn’t do anything destructive or hurt anybody, then run to it.
Kate: Yeah, Yeah. My best friend started adding the words for me on the end of sentences, which is I really this is absolutely wonderful for me. And I was like enough with this exhausting relativism. Chelsea. But the truth was, it was exactly right. It was, what is it that there is just certain things that light up our life? And I wondered too, if it’s especially good to be the noticer. We have a lot of people in this listening community where they thought that they’d have certain people be anchor points in their lives and then they weren’t. And you write very movingly about your long time partner being someone you thought would go through this illness with you. And then that relationship ended really abruptly. I imagine that reinventing yourself in the midst of of that kind of grief was that was a real double loss.
Frank: Yeah, that was a tough one also, because, I mean, I’m going to do it now. I’m going to again do a bad teacher thing and I’m going to miss use the word ironically. But ironically, he was a physician and that was helpful right out of the gate because, you know, we talked before about how you’re having an emergency in a crisis. And hello, look over here. I mean, I had I had woken up with the vision, gone in one eye. And after my normal eye doctor who saw me right away said, this is probably a neurological thing. It’s probably your optic nerve. And you need to see a neuro ophthalmologist, which I hadn’t even know this existed. Yeah, When I started trying to find one, I’m like, Oh, yeah, I can see you in a month. It’s like, Well, I just lost sight in one eye and you’re going to see me in a month. And, and my ex, to his credit, was able to kind of use his physician thing and get me in to see someone in a couple of days. But I did think, okay, this is going to be really helpful. This is going to be an unbelievable and unbelievably fortunate chaperon or whatever through all of this. And no, I mean, seven months later we were apart. Yeah, I lost I lost a man. I gained a dog. I like that arithmetic. I like that arithmetic Kate.
Kate: I mean, it’s redefining the pleasures and staring right at them. Sounds like it’s like a discipline that you’ve chosen that I. I really admire that, Frank. I think that’s a really beautiful stubbornness that you have.
Frank: I never thought of it as stubbornness, but it’s. It’s good stubbornness.
Kate: I remember it was in the first couple of months of my diagnosis and I was talking to a doctor and I was trying to squeeze out of him all the information that could possibly be necessary for me to make a few really hard choices fast. I was reviewing the evidence with another doctor friend. He said, all we have to do is get you to the next outcome. And it was a totally different way for me of thinking about how to manage an unmanageable life is; you let it be unmanageable and you just kind of and then you sort of vine to vine it. You sort of let you’re holding on to something. You swing off the ledge and you’re like, all right, God, let’s just I’m going to reach for the next thing. That’s umm, less to me, like a control paradigm and more like a who knows who I’ll be or what will be there the next time I’ve got to jump.
Frank: No, that’s that’s. I says, great. You know what I mean by that’s great. But but that sort of idea of increments, it’s interesting, I mentioned it in the book in terms of I’ve often gone back because there’s so many great observations about writing and read and reread portions of Anne Lamont’s collection, Bird by Bird. And the title essay Bird by Bird, that phrase is about exactly what you’re talking about. She talks. She talks about writing something long as a bird by bird process. And where that comes from is, she recalls that her brother, I think it was, was once way behind on an academic project, and it was some glossary of birds. And he couldn’t get started because he was so overwhelmed by how much work he had ahead of him. And her father said to him, Hey, buddy, just take it bird by bird. And you’re talking about bird by bird. And she and she Anne Lamont, wonderful writer in Bird by Bird talks about a related metaphor that I also think is useful, which is that E.L. Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You got headlights and they won’t show you all the road ahead of you, but they’ll show you as much of the road ahead of you as you need to see. And then the next segment. And then the next segment. And I think you’re vine to vine, bird by bird, e.L. Doctorow’s headlights, they’re all saying the same thing. And it’s a really important thing, which is you don’t have to confront and solve the enormity of it right away. You just have to get to the next stretch of road.
Kate: Frank, you’re pragmatic and kind, and you said that you don’t have a lot of knowledge, but holy crap, you really do have a lot of wisdom. And I am so glad we got to have this conversation today. Thank you so much.
Frank: Thank you. I’m selfishly good because I just I love your company. I love your voice. And as I told you earlier, I love the lipstick you’re wearing, which I wish which I wish was podcast evokable, you know, produceable. But listeners take my word for it she looks like a million bucks.
Kate: There’s this term I’ve clung to as I’ve navigated my own realizations on how little in life I can actually control and it’s the term limited agency, and I like to think about it like this. Imagine a sliding scale of what is possible, and on one end is the idea that anything is possible and it’s the end of the spectrum that so much of the toxic positivity, and the self-help monsters live in. And while it’s very inspiring, it’s not often true. And then on the way other side of the spectrum is the idea that nothing is possible. Now, this can be the place of fear and despair and gloom. And let’s be honest, we have all lived here once or twice before. Maybe that is much closer to our home address. But the place where I think a durable hope, a place that we can work from, is so often in the middle of those. And it’s what is called limited agency. It is the just few square feet where we can take a hard look at our limitations, our limited time, our limited bandwidth, our limited abilities. And then we can ask, okay, now what is possible today? It’s not looking too far ahead or too far behind. It’s just taking it bird by bird, vine by vine, headlights illuminating three feet in front of you. This is the small bit that might be in our control. The joy we can discover, the hope we can conjure, the rest that we can take, the friend we can reach out to, the dog we can snuggle with, the show that really, really makes us laugh. So here’s a little blessing for our beautiful limited days, that place of limited agency. And it’s from Jessica and I’s new book of Blessings, and it’s called The Lives We Actually Have, which is available everywhere books are sold. All right, here it is. Blessed are we who see the impossibility of solving today. It can’t be done. God, there are lists on lists and errands on errands and a taste like tin in my mouth of the unfinishedness of my life. Am I counting items instead of knowing what counts? God help me live here. Seeing the whole truth of what is. Blessed are we who walk toward the discomfort, bringing what gifts we have and our sufferings to. Whether of illness or loss, grief or betrayal, confusion or powerlessness. Blessed are we who scoot up close so we can whisper our loves, our fears. All that feels too heavy to carry alone and all that we wish we could hold onto for longer. Show me what I love. Show me what I never want to lose. And show me what I no longer need. Here in this beautiful, limited day. All right, my darlings. Bless you. And, hey, it’s not too late to join us for Lent. That’s that stretch before Easter where we can think about what we want to pick up or take down in our lives. And it should be a place of wonderful, horrible honesty. That’s why I like it and if you want something to help orient a little reflection on that, we’ve got a free guide at KateBowler.com/BlessthisLent. And I swear to you, it’s not like a pamphlet. It’s basically just like a giant, gorgeous free book. And you can get one that’s just for individuals, one for groups, or one for churches, whatever works for you. So hey Katebowler.com/BlessthisLent you can get it for free. And I’ll talk to you soon. Have a beautiful, terrible week.
Emily from Oregon: Hi. My name’s Emily, and I live in Oregon, and I’m answering the question about what I do for a hard day. So I have a daughter with a chronic illness, so I have a lot of hard days, and I can’t always do big, go out with a friend, or see a movie kind of big event. So, I know this sounds small, but I pour myself a giant glass of sparkling water and I squeeze half of a grapefruit from the fancy grocery store into the water. And it is a game changer and it feels like a special treat. That’s not a big deal because I can’t keep doing big deals because kind of everyday is pretty hard.
Caitlin: Hello, my name is Caitlin and one of my go to tricks for getting through a hard day is just finding a quiet space, even if it’s like a bathroom stall, and taking a few deep breaths. And that typically helps me make it through until I can maybe grab a cup of coffee or something to make my day a little bit brighter. So that is one of my go to tricks.
Kat from North Carolina: Hi, this is Kat calling from Durham, North Carolina. When I have a hard day, my go to thing that I do to get through it is to try to not fix it and first save myself. It’s okay that you’re having a hard day. You don’t have to feel good all the time. But I have a hard day I like to eat KitKats. Yeah. Drink tea, eat KitKats, call a friend, go on a walk. And be ok with not being ok.
Erin from Utah: Hi, my name is Erin, I’m in Utah. A recent life hack I’ve picked up over the last year was that if you need to cry it out, pull over into the nearest cemetery and you’ll get 100% less weird looks than if you loose it in the Trader Joe’s parking lot.
Diane from Toronto: Hi, my name is Diane. I’m from Toronto. Gotta be honest. I run a warm bath and actually put on a Kate Bowler Everything Happens Podcast and post-pandemic as an educator, that seems to be a great help these days.
Kate: This episode of the Everything Happens podcast was made possible because of our generous partners Lilly Endowment, The Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And of course, nothing is possible without the wisdom and expertise of my absolutely fabulous team. Jessica Richie, My Heart. I love you. Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Jeb Burt, and Katherine Smith. This really is my very favorite kind of group project. So if you want to know what else we’re up to, head over to KateBowler.com/newsletter so you don’t miss a thing. I would really love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify? It means a ton to us when we hear what you liked or who you want to hear in conversation next. Also, we really love hearing your voice. Feel free to leave us a voicemail. We might even use it on the air. So call us at 919-322-8731. All right, Lovelies. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online at Kate C Bowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.
4 thoughts on “Adapting to Loss”
Love Frank Bruni. I’ve dug myself out of a giant hole called full replacement knee surgery. Five weeks of pain and depression. Finally began Lent with you. This discussion has put me in a better place. “Get me to the next outcome.” So much of what the two of you have said vibrates to my very core. I’m living all of it right now. You have no idea how much this has helped.
Thank you for this. I had a very similar experience, and initially, I was told they thought it was the optical nerve, but in the end, it wasn’t, although the answer was the same – there was nothing they could do. There was someone at John Hopkins, and I got in and lived with it for over ten years. Then when I had another serious episode, my doctor was at Wills Eye, and I could walk to see her. And I did. This time they could do something for me, and it included an injection. The first time I thought – can an injection be worse than blindness? It was terrifying, and after a series of injections over a period of months, I could see much better. It is a long and continuing story and after a recent serious episode, my worst complaint now is that I struggle with some reading, and the blurriness gets my way of proofreading, all of which can be resolved by asking for help. For so many years, I thought I was the only one. Thank you, Frank, for sharing your story.
And thank you Kate. Love you.
We all struggle. My struggle was acute myeloid leukemia. Some cancer is divorce, some is depression, and some is loss. Struggling through this thing called life-for me the medicine that heals is humor. Sometimes it is dark but it is always absurd. I am in remission and on a mission to challenge the medical community on how we help people heal. Help me change how we manage people needing to be far from home while receiving medical care. Space and grace for families in need of housing. I have today.
Loved this podcast.
Make a person see things in a more positive way.