Kate Bowler is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the podcast Everything Happens, and Duke University professor. After being unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35, she wrote Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), which tells the story of her struggle to understand the personal and intellectual dimensions of the American belief that all tragedies are tests of character. Her latest book, No Cure For Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear), grapples with her diagnosis, her ambition, and her faith as she tries to come to terms with limitations in a culture that says anything is possible.
If you’ve missed any of our 32 podcasts from the season, you can find them here.
Speaking of watching Hallmark Christmas movies, you can start a 7-day free trial here to bring you all the comfort and rest during this particularly weird holiday season.
A HUGE thank you to everyone who sent in questions. I wish we had time to answer them all–this was so much fun. Thank you to Lora from Oregon, Thressa from New Jersey, Scott in Orlando, Christie from Cedar Park, Texas, Kristen from Alabama, Amber from Seattle, Bethany from Sacramento, Heather Lanier from New Jersey, Kathy from Salisbury, North Carolina, and Christine from Vancouver Island. Plus, the rapid fire questions were from Emmy, Anna, Beth, Casey, Savannah, Erika, Helene, Kate, and Trisha.
Thressa mentions the Advent Devotional which you can download for free by clicking here.
Heather Lanier not only asked a question, but she also was a guest this season. Find Heather’s episode, here. And check out her gorgeous memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, which was one of our book club picks this year.
If you don’t know your Enneagram number but want to figure it out, or even if you do know your Enneagram number but want to know more, the Enneagram Institute has amazing resources. There are also some great books about the Enneagram such as The Road Back to You and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.
Kate Bowler: Hello, my dears. When we launched this season of the podcast, we had no idea what was coming, it was March and we thought it was only going to be a few weeks of chaos and isolation and fear. But then we began to understand the scope of what pandemic meant, and it was far worse than we could have guessed. This show was originally born out of my own experience of living in uncertainty after I was diagnosed with stage four cancer at thirty five. Frankly, I was lonely. I could tell I was losing the ability to feel like myself anymore and I just didn’t know how to get it back. I began to wonder if maybe I didn’t have the words for it and maybe that the right words might be something I could find in other people’s stories and not just my own. The more I dug into other people’s lives and experiences, the more I gained a kind of freedom. I realized that I didn’t need to be an expert on having cancer, you didn’t need my perspective or quick tips or my gratitude, but that we all needed to learn to live here with this without the illusion that everything was always going to be OK. Not without fear, but with it, beside it, just here. Which is the biggest thing that has brought all of us together now, because now the whole world understands what it feels like to live with chronic uncertainty. When people say we’re all in this together, they should mean this: that life is only something we can do together.
Kate: I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. It’s probably obvious by now that the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling like you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always living the plotline of our favorite Hallmark Christmas movie. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick, lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely, believe with your whole heart and God will provide keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t, and it’s OK that life isn’t always getting better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey, let’s be human together.
Kate: So we honestly surprised ourselves this season. It was supposed to be, I don’t know, six episodes, honestly, that’s what we had money for. But we decided, you know, this is what we can do. This is what good work feels like right now. So we made 32 instead. And just to be clear, my team is three people, me, my producer, Jess, and my logistics coordinator, Harriet, which and I’m sure you can hear this in what I’m describing, we just did everything at every hour, day and night. It’s not clear to me that anyone working with me understands what the word weekend means anymore. Sometimes when you might have heard like a shift in the sound quality or some noise in the background, that was because life was happening. Children, someone vacuuming, the leaf blowers of the world, my Internet not working, my guest trying to get their kids back on Zoom. I know we try to use NPR Voices on this thing, but friends, what was happening this year? But this is what it felt like was the task for now: to figure out what it means to be human right now, not despite covid, but because of it. So we did. I’ve spoken with experts on the human experience, people who raised themselves into beautiful people, transformed their lives in middle age, left bad marriages and found deeper love. I have been blown away by the conversations we had with front line workers, doctors and nurses, palliative care and emergency room physicians, people who rushed toward Covid instead of protecting their own. People who through their own lives, showed us how to live with existential courage against racism, human trafficking, incurable diseases, wrongful imprisonment and sexual assault. People who have welcomed people into their homes, learn to lean on their communities, lost too much, left a church and figured out how to return, moms raising kids with special needs, husbands and wives, learning how to live as widows, people with careers realizing that maybe this career took too much after all. I spoke to those who taught us that you can be afraid and brave all at once. We have learned that it is OK to grieve all that we’ve lost this year, whether it’s in grief groups, poetry, abstract art or just sitting with the emptiness of it all. We were taught to live beautifully inside our limitations. People whose miracles never came, people who taught us to serve others like it matters. People who taught us to listen to our bodies and laugh despite it all. Thank you for that one Timothy Omundson and Joel McHale. I still can’t believe how that interview got away from me like it did. What beautiful guests we’ve had, what meaningful conversations. But today, I thought it might be fun to have a conversation with you, dear listener. Many of you sent in such thoughtful questions and I wanted to answer a few now. Look, I promise nothing but candor, so let’s give it a try. What do you want to know?
Lora: Hi, Kate, this is Lora from Oregon. This year has been a beast for obvious reasons and given that preexisting life conditions didn’t come to a halt when the pandemic struck and then overlay on top of that, all of the new roles and positions we find ourselves in, the confinement, the disappointments, the home schooling of the kids. Some days just feel really hard, like unbearably hard. The weight on my chest feels so heavy that sometimes I feel like I can’t even catch my breath. My question to you is, how do you get through a day like that?
Kate : Oh, Lora, that is so rough. That is such a painful and honest and perfect question when it sounds like you’re toggling through so many kinds of responsibilities and managing so many forms of love in the midst of shouldering your own pain. I find in moments like that, days like that, where the future just feels impossible, that it’s OK. It’s OK not to be able to look ahead right now that like maybe tomorrow can be its own problem. Today is going to, it’s going to need some work. I don’t know, when I found that I had like an impossible day, sometimes I like to make like a few rules. Like one was that I was going to check in with myself partway through the day to figure out if I was pretending that I was invincible, probably. And whether there was just like any, like, half breath there I could take. So even if it was just like five minutes sitting in the bathroom with my back against the door so that nobody could come in and just turning the lights off, sometimes just to take a second to check in with your with your spirit, just to say, like, am I OK? Is there anything that I can like, take it down a notch? Then I’d make a rule where I’d have to shut it down early. So I knew I didn’t have to get through like until 11 p.m. I could just get through until like after dinner. So I would make like a no sad thoughts rule. So no important existential decisions or conversations after seven p.m. things that just feel gentle. I guess maybe the last thing, too, is that when it feels like there’s there’s nothing to do but the next hard thing, just looking for a little completely stupid things that bring you joy. Like right now, for me, it’s Hallmark Christmas movies. So much joy. I remember sometimes for a bit there, it was like weird office supplies, erasers that were silly or little dumb sayings I could put up on a bulletin board in front of me that made me laugh almost like a picture of Kermit the Frog, just like things that remind you that you’re not just a series of tasks that feel impossible. You’re still you and you need shelter and care and like a little joy in the midst of all this.
Thressa: Hey, Kate, my name is Thressa and I’m from New Jersey. First, I just wanted to say thank you so much for your Advent devotionals. Me and my husband are reading through them together and they are so honest and encouraging and everything needed in this season of Advent. My question is: in regards to friendship, how do you approach deciphering which friendships to pursue?
Kate : Oh, man, the friendship question. That’s like one of the more tricky, maybe more important ones. If it sounds like you’re in a season where you really need the right people around you. I kind of tried to figure out who my friends were in my more vulnerable seasons, kind of like rings of a tree, like who should be the inner inner circle, who can sort of be the next bit and the next rung out. And it’s sometimes hard to separate that from the people who just have been in your life, as if you owe everybody the same access always because, you know, because you love them or you have history. But I just found, too, that sometimes the more tender moments, I needed to be really honest about what that season required. And usually for me, it required someone really gentle, someone who wasn’t going to force me to report on my life when I just didn’t have it in me, someone who is really protective, who wanted good things for me, even if I couldn’t always want them for myself and someone who kind of gave me a little momentum in my life, maybe they helped me make plans, helped me look forward when I wasn’t always able to. Yeah, I think I was always looking for that combination of gentleness and agency that we need. And sometimes that person is not yet in your life. So feel free if you think like this is the kind of person I need, hold the space open for them and make sure that if you see them, you, like, pursue it like a loving stalker, or you, I think you need to be in my life. I have stalked all my friends. Truly, I don’t think I have I don’t think there’s a single person in my life that I didn’t stalk at some point.
Scott: This is Scott Hall in Orlando, Florida. In Kate’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason, she included a list of things you shouldn’t say to someone with cancer. I said all of them before reading the book. Are there any new additions to the list?
Kate : Oh, my gosh, Scott, I love that you said that. You’re so humble. That’s really sweet. I guess some of the new additions to the please don’t search for the causality of other people’s pain would include things like it’s probably something you ate. That’s that’s something I got at my last colonoscopy, as if I’m just willing cancer constantly into being when I forget to eat my arugula. I think maybe one thing, and this is just sort of in the broad category of being to meaning hungry is you know, it sounds like cancer is really taught you a lot like something that sort of assumes that we always have to be learning lessons. I think it’s just part of the the desire to want everybody’s life story to count. Sometimes we accidentally assign a bright side to people’s deepest pain, and we don’t give them a minute to allow there to be a lot of ambiguity around it. But hey, Scott, it sounds like you’ve become a very intuitive listener, so your friends seem lucky.
Christie: Hi, this is Christie from Cedar Park, Texas. I have a husband who’s brain tumor has recurred and he does not have a great prognosis. I have trouble knowing what to say and what will help. So I’m wondering, as someone who’s facing death, what do you need most from your spouse?
Kate : Christie, I’m sorry. That sounds like an absolutely impossible place to be because you’re not just describing how to be, you know, beautiful and loving as a wife, but you must have so many of your own feelings and fears that you’re having to sort of keep to yourself at the same time. There’s something of a permission in that too Christy that like, you don’t always have to be you don’t just even as a reflex to know exactly what to say, because as the person that loves him most, what you want to say is: this is impossible, don’t leave me. I don’t want to do this without you. So just the fact that you’re trying so hard to reach beyond your own experience, just bravo you. It feels like the biggest, hardest, most ridiculous thing that’s being asked of someone who’s the partner of someone who’s suffering so much is just the the courage that it requires, the ability to be there, to stay there. And I know that must be an absolute marathon. I think what I just wanted most from my spouse was just to feel like, even if it was too hard for them just to just to hear him say this is not too hard for me, I’ll be here. Because there’s always the fear that, like, you’re too much, your pain is too much and the guilt that comes alongside that. So just your willingness to be there with such love and courage. And also, Christy, just the permission that when you don’t feel that way, that you’re allowed to go to absolutely anyone else and tell them that. That you’re allowed to be as scared as you need to be. It’s a, it’s a hard, impossible thing you’re doing. And really, really, truly bless you for doing it.
Kristen: Hi, my name is Kristen, and I’m from Alabama by way of Louisiana. My question to Kate is from one PhD to another, how are you managing to write words? I struggle to even look at the blinking cursor. And so how in this moment are you able to put down cohesive thoughts?
Kate : Oh, Kristen, I totally hear you. It’s just such an absurd time and so the brain just endlessly toggles and fear and uncertainty makes us distracted and then makes us more scared that we still can’t do things. It does feel almost impossible to find a place for productivity inside of something like this. I can maybe only suggest something that I learned when I had nonstop, terrible cancer appointments. So I found myself sort of in an endless waiting room, which is kind of what honestly the pandemic feels like to me right now. But what I practiced doing was kind of ritualizing the moment where I wanted to just work hard. And the reason this is like, I don’t know, I give you like an argument for why I like to work hard, but, like, it gives me an opportunity to go somewhere else in my mind. It gives me sort of freedom from the confines of what terrible thing I’m in. And it also gives me that feeling of using my best gifts, which makes me feel human again. People have lots of different ways of doing that, but that’s mine. So I, I just like create little rituals. If it was at home then I would sit down and try to make it the same time. I might light a candle, I might arrange things in a familiar way. So I and then just give myself a really tight time frame to just try to do something that might last and then ritualize getting out of it so that you’re like, OK, and now it’s lunch. And even though that wasn’t very much time, now is the time in which I can’t possibly imagine I’ll do something else, because these two thousand other things require my attention. Ritualizing the on and ritualizing the off helps me with like very small expectations, really helped me get something done so I could I could just feel a little less controlled by how bad my circumstances were. Maybe that might work for you.
Amber: Hello, this is Amber from Seattle, Washington, and I would love to hear your thoughts on faith, deconstruction and reconstruction. I am in the middle of this journey of in the wilderness of discovering that the God I grew up believing is not the God I want to follow anymore. But I’m so terrified of this in-between space because I just fear that I’m getting it wrong or that people are going to respond differently. And I’m just terrified. And it’s a really hard place to be in. So I would just love to hear just what you would say to people like me who are going through the same process.
Kate : That can be such a tricky place to be, Amber. Yeah, the space in between, especially the transition away from certainties, like I thought God was going to be like this or I thought prayer was going to be able to do this or that, you know, if I did the right things or I follow the rules of my community that like this plus this was going to equal this. And letting go of a story about God like that is even harder. I think maybe just a couple of things. One is knowing that even and maybe especially if the community you were in was disappointing, that you still hold out the possibility that community is still part of the solution. You know, faith is just unfortunately one of those horrible things that has to be done together. It’s awful. The church is horrible. I love it so much. It’s designed so that we, you know, Jerry Maguire style complete each other, unfortunately. So just even if it’s like not right now, but just holding out the possibility that there are going to be people in your future, that if you feel like there are missing pieces that are there to help you put it back together and that eventually you will find them. And just knowing that even when we leave and sometimes especially when we leave our certainties, that God still follows us there. I’m just thinking of the time when right after I got sick, I was really struggling with, with feeling like I had really tried to do my life right, and then it was just worse than ever. And so kind of what was the what’s the point of being good? What was the point of following the rules? What was the point of anything if it was just going to lead me here to all this misery? And one of the great discoveries for me was just knowing that in the moments when I was trying the least, when I wasn’t pretending to be smart or capable or rule abiding or good, that God was just there. God was just this deep experience of love. So even if you feel like you’re going somewhere and you’re not there yet, that wherever you are in the middle, God is still there.
Bethany: Hi, my name is Bethany from Sacramento, California, and my question for you, Kate, was at the end of the day, above all else, what keeps you believing in God?
Kate : Mostly I’m just trying to stay out of the fires of hell. So, I mean, that that keeps me pretty busy day in and day out. No, I think what keeps me a Jesusy, God loving kind of person is just the sense that the closer I go to God, which sounds very pious, but like that it helps me see reality as it truly is. So it helps me understand a bit more about the beauty of the world and the pain of the world and how deeply connected we are, how we all need saving, how thankfully I’m not responsible for saving everyone individually. It gives me a sense of responsibility for my part in everything and at the same time kind of filled with a bizarre and intense joy that the world will keep on spinning long after me. It just it wraps me up in a story that is fundamentally about love. So, yeah, I’m kind of a big fan.
Heather: Hello, Kate Bowler, this author and Enneagram evangelist Heather Lanier, and inquiring minds would like to know, do you know your Enneagram number?
Kate : Heather, hello, so nice to hear your voice. Heather was a podcast guest this season and also the author of a completely gorgeous book, Raising a Rare Girl. I am so glad to know you love the Enneagram too Heather. If anyone doesn’t know what the Enneagram is, if you’re like an evangelical lady, if you went to Bible camp at some point but then became a middle aged woman, you probably know where it’s just like a number from one to nine. I’m way into it. I am a two with three wing, which means that I will die of empathy. I’m the kind of person that is not a person, but actually a golden retriever shaped into a female body. I just want everyone to know that I am useful and I long to give you what you need. And the three wings says I’m an overachiever, which you can already tell by the number of podcasts I’ve ended up doing this season. So confession over.
Kathy: Hi, I’m Kathy from Salisbury, North Carolina. Kate, what are your alternatives to New Year’s resolutions? Especially this year when we have lost so much, how do we mark the New Year in a creative way? What rituals could we practice to breathe into an uncertain hope?
Kate : Kathy, I think you’re totally right, it is absurd to put ourselves in the same kind of regimens, the same kind of punishing ideals that say we’re always supposed to imagine that this next year will be the one in which every one of our dreams will come true. And if it doesn’t, that means that we didn’t do it right or that we didn’t reach for the stars and we’re not who we were and we’re not who we hoped we would be when we imagined a life without a pandemic. What if we just took a second to imagine some of the categories that we might have used? Like, you know, I have been not losing weight for a very long time. I have been not achieving my goal weight very, very religiously for some time. What if instead of kind of imagining something like that, like a common goal, instead I might remember that in this last year, especially because, you know, with chronic pain, normally I have to go see a lot of physical therapists and body workers and stuff. That I actually really learned how to listen to my own pain this year. And I did a really great job caring for myself, even when I basically lost all of the supports that I normally would have to, like, help me deal with my life. Just keeping the category and just reimagining it in a gentler way. And like, this is what New Years does. It gives us permission to want to try. And we all need momentum in our lives, maybe replacing some of these very exacting, punishing kinds of New Year’s resolutions with gentle, loving reminders, ways to move forward, knowing that this is a harsh world and that we need to remind ourselves that like the gentle space, a space where you can still act and move with love is a thing that still requires shelter and you’re allowed to like take a half step forward instead of leaps and bounds.
Christine: Hi, Kate. My name is Christine, and I’m sending you this question all the way from Vancouver Island. I’m curious, what are you most hopeful for?
Kate : Oh, my fellow Canadian. That’s so lovely. Uh, this year I’m most hopeful that the interdependence that we have, we have had to imagine in the pandemic is going to somehow be lasting, that we are going to have to imagine ourselves as being connected by hundreds of little filaments. So maybe, just maybe, it might be easier to convince some people, not all people, that we belong to one another, that independence and bootstrapping is not the ideal, that we were never really supposed to be invincible. I don’t know. I’m not trying to, like, undermine the American character, the story, the story of the invincible go getter. But I kind of do I kind of I want everyone to accept that we were never supposed to be alone and we can’t do it anyway.
Kate : Oh, lovies, thank you. Thank you for your kindness and gentleness and courage, this Everything Happens community is an unexpected gift to me in this dumpster fire of a year. Our team is going to take a break from podcasting for the holidays, but don’t worry, we’ll be back in the new year and in the meantime, you can head over to katebowler.com and sign up for a free advent devotional and you’ll be the first to know when the new season releases.
Kate : But I wanted to leave you with this: a blessing for a year that didn’t turn out like we thought it should. Blessed are you who look back in grief, you have lost so much. And no amount of perspective or gratitude will fix it. It was never supposed to be this way. Blessed are you for whom this was all the time you had left and it was spent locked inside, fearful, disappointed, lonely. The hugs, you never gave the goodbyes you never said. The clock was not on your side. Blessed are you oh tired one. The parenting, the caregiving, the worrying, it is too much. Teaching and doctoring, pastoring and nursing, you have no choice but to keep showing up. Blessed are you who are anxious for what comes next, who wait for the other shoe to drop and toss and turn until sunup. Wondering where the next paycheck will come from, what the next scan will reveal, how you’ll keep it together for the ones you love. And blessed are you who hope still. Despite all you’ve seen and all you’ve gone through, you cling to an audacious belief that this is not all there is. You trust that the dawn is coming. No, 2020 has not been the year we needed, we grieve collectively, let alone in our homes, and long for the day where we can be together again when hope isn’t just another four letter word, but something tangible, something we can taste and see, feel and touch. In the meantime, we wait. During this long stretch of advent, may our grief remind us of our capacity to love, may our courage be contagious, may we find tiny pockets of joy, and may we continue to be people of hard won hope who know how to live amidst uncertainty, inside of the limits of our bodies and minds and homes and choose to build beautiful lives here still. We are the people who know that beauty and love and truth can still grow out of the hard cold ground. And sometimes that can feel like just enough to cling to, just enough to carry us through.
Kate: This season of Everything Happens would not have been possible without the generosity of our partners, the Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, the Reynolds Foundation, Faith and Leadership an Online Learning Resource and Duke Divinity School. A huge thank you to my small but mighty team that makes all of our work at the Everything Happens project possible. Jessica Richie, I love you more than life. Harriet Putman, who jumped in the deep end with us this year and is now indispensable, never leave us. Keith Weston, who does our sound editing. Erin Lane, who writes our discussion questions for every single episode, Jeb and Sammi, for your pure hustle and enthusiasm. Mary Jo Clancy, who keeps everything on track. Our Duke Divinity School interns, J.J. Dickinson, Launa Steward and Kelly Dunlap.
Kate: This is everything happened with me, Kate Bowler. One last thing before I go, while we may be taking a little break from new podcast episodes, you can still find me online at Katecbowler or at katebowler.com. I have weekly Blessings, some hilarious commentary about dumb things people say, and a little gentle encouragement, you know, if you’re into that kind of thing. So let’s be human together.
Jess Richie: OK, Kate, are you up for a few rapid fire questions the people want to know?
Kate : Yeah.
Jess: OK, favorite RV camping meal.
Kate : It’s hot dogs because it requires one ingredient, maybe another one.
Jess: What was your favorite childhood book?
Kate : It’s about two bunnies that get married. It’s called The Rabbit’s Wedding. Bunnies are very romantic.
Jess: OK, Beth wants to know. How are you doing?
Kate : I’m OK. I’m a little dramatic sometimes, but on the whole, I am doing well. Thanks for asking.
Jess: Are you writing anything right now?
Kate : Yes, I’m writing a new memoir book and I’m very excited and I’m almost done. So yeah, that makes me super happy.
Jess: Favorite flavor of ice cream?
Kate : It’s Dulche de Leche by Haagen-Dazs. It’s so good.
Jess: Favorite Christmas tradition?
Kate : Stockings. My parents would do this thing where we had these like massive stockings and they were so large. But then my mom would keep adding extra things that it had to be so like a small garbage bag around our stockings. And that’s how much I love my stocking.
Jess: Favorite beach or lake in Manitoba?
Kate : We were told as young Manitobans that our beaches were among the best in the entire world. So were very defensive on this point. I really like yeah, I like Winnipeg Beach. It’s really pretty. It’s just it’s just like we have these giant lakes, inland oceans, OK? It’s very exciting.
Jess: This is a real question from someone named Kate. Will you adopt me?
Kate : I am terrible at paperwork, so probably legally, I would be very bad at adopting someone formally but informally, yes, totally.
Jess: And last one from Tricia. Who do you turn to when you are looking to feel inspired?
Kate : He was a carpenter who lived down the street. His name is Bob. I love carpenters. Honestly, the people who inspire me are like the old church ladies. They’re unselfish. They were always being nice to other people, despite the fact that their lives seemed very boring and they basically held up the entire world. So well done them.
Jess: Yes, that’s perfect. Thanks, Kate.