Bonus Episode: Debunking “Everything Happens for a Reason” with Kelly Corrigan
Kelly Corrigan has written four New York Times bestselling memoirs in the last decade, earning her the title of “The Poet Laureate of the ordinary” from the Huffington Post and the “voice of a generation” from O Magazine. She is the host of the podcast Kelly Corrigan Wonders, a Public Radio series, originating from WHYY in Philadelphia, that ponders “the big questions”. Kelly is curious and funny and eager to go well past the superficial in every conversation.
You can also follow Kelly on her podcast, Kelly Corrigan Wonders, and on her website, linked here. Kelly also has a moving PBS show called Tell Me More, learn more about it here. Kelly has also written several beautiful memoirs including Tell Me More, Glitter and Glue, and the Middle Place.
Have you ever browsed Medium for ideas? Kelly and I both highly advocate this as a pastime.
Speaking of my TedTalk, if you haven’t seen it you, find it here or listen to series finale podcast which featured the talk.
I absolutely adore Dorothy Day, here is just one video (of many) where I talk about her. Enjoy.
Kate Bowler: Hello my dears, Kate here, our team is taking a little summer break and we’ll be back with new episodes in August. Until then, I thought it might be fun to drop in a bonus episode for you all. This is a conversation with someone you will just love. The hilarious and honest Kelly Corrigan. You may remember her when I had her on my podcast, we talked about the back to back grief of losing her dad and her dear friend and how to live a little more gratefully. Kelly is a gorgeous writer, hosts her own show on PBS and has a beautiful podcast you’ll love called Kelly Corrigan Wonders. In this episode, we talk about the platitudes that drive us absolutely bananas and all the reasons people give to explain why other people are suffering and why they don’t work. Alright. I hope you like it. Enjoy.
Kelly Corrigan: Hi, this is Kelly Corrigan. I’m a writer who is woefully overdue on book number five, but I’ve discovered that talking to smart, funny people about big ideas is way more fun than being alone with another manuscript. So forgive me, Random House, I couldn’t help myself. The question we’re wondering about this month is what conventional wisdom turns out to be not that wise, after all, and maybe even a little dangerous. So I started by snooping around on Medium, my go to production partner for this series, and I was reading pieces about how all manner of things can be hampered by following conventional wisdom, anything from tech innovations to true love. And then I asked my newsletter pen pals, what platitudes make you nuts? From this list, I landed on what I think might be the foremost problematic maxims circulating today, which we’ll cover one at a time, week by week. First up, the truly maddening everything happens for a reason. There could be no better thought partner on this one than Kate Bowler. If you haven’t read her books or listened to her podcast or watched her TED talk, Kate is a best selling author, a divinity professor at Duke, the mother of a very cute guy named Zach. And since twenty fifteen is stage four colon cancer patient, she’s also my friend and I love her and you’ll see why. Kate made quite a stir with a New York Times op ed a few years ago in which she dared to ask if there is a reason some people suffer, while others are spared. Before I welcome Kate. So, you know, I take serious notes during these conversations and I give them back to you in a convenient list form at the end of each episode, as well as in a post on medium dotcom slash at Kelly. One more note. Kate and I talk a lot about having cancer. I have had it myself, but having had a potentially fatal disease is hardly a prerequisite for this conversation. I mean, honestly, who among us hasn’t had a few wicked surprises at this point? A lost job, chronic pain, adult acne, everything counts. You are more than qualified to be here. If you have ever had some lovely, well-meaning friend look you in the eye in your time of need and say everything happens for a reason. You are also welcome here if you have been that well-meaning friend. OK, so here we go. Hi, Kate.
Kate: Oh, hey, friend. Nice to see you.
Kelly: It’s great to see you. I can see your little face on my computer. So this is a thing people say in all kinds of situations. For instance, in your case, you’re thirty five years old. You have this new baby, Zach. After a lot of infertility, you lose 30 pounds and you start going to doctors for months and months and months. And what happens?
Kate: Yeah, well, no one believed me, really, that my pain was as significant as I said. And then one day I used my healthy outdoor voice and said I was not going to leave this doctor’s office until they gave me another scan. And I figured it was something just weird with my gallbladder. And then the next day they called me at my office to tell me that I had stage four colon cancer and that I’d have to go to the hospital right away. I mean, there’s no history of cancer in my family. I don’t really think I had any familiarity with it, honestly. It was like the meteor in my life that blew everything up.
Kelly: And this was about four or five years ago?
Kate: It was four years ago.
Kelly: And how are you doing right now?
Kate: I always think of my health is like, if you ever go into a park and you see the Smokey the Bear threat level with green, yellow, orange, red. And I used to be red all the time, you know, they thought I would die that first year. I have been through a series of very intense attempts to try to cure me of cancer, which meant that they took out a lot of no longer necessary organs I guess. I’m grateful that through immunotherapy and chemotherapy, sometimes I’m threat level yellow and sometimes I’m threat level orange. So I’m always just sort of inherently dramatic.
Kelly: How many surgeries have you had?
Kate: Only a couple of big ones, but lots of little ones.
Kelly: How many bellybuttons have you had?
Kate: I am on my sixth bellybutton.
Kelly: How does it compare to the other five? Is it one of your favorites?
Kate: No, I’m disappointed in this one. I’m not gonna lie to you. I woke up with the the last one. I was like, Really? This is what we’re going with? Thanks for saving my life and everything.
Kelly: Right. But I’m not wearing a bikini with this thing. So I too have had cancer. I had stage three cancer when I was thirty six, I had a one year old and a two year old. So I’m very familiar with this deep need of the people in the circles that surround you to have something positive to say, to put a little spin on it and also to soothe themselves for their own personal reasons, their own anxiety about mortality, illness and disaster. To have something that explains why do things happen? And more specifically, why do bad things happen? And most specifically, why do bad things happen to good people who believe in God? So when you talk about what you’ve come to over these past four years of listening to people tell you that things happen for a reason and also insisting.
Kate: Yes, absolutely. Actually, Kelly, I think you’re the one that said that when you talk to a friend that in trying to attempt an explanation that you notice that people are rushing to the fastest reason why it could be you and not them, that really landed with me. I had never had the experience of having to be explained all the time. Right. Like you’re suddenly the person with stage four cancer and you used to be a normal person. And now all of a sudden you’re this, you’re the terrible thing. You’re the person that nobody really knows what to say to at parties with
Kelly: with a baby on your hip.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah, it’s just too sad. I think we have these cultural scripts that make it harder and harder for people with really significant and often chronic problems to have the language to help people live in reality with us, because there’s too many reasons not to. You know, I had colon cancer and so it must be something I ate. And so then desperate attempts to, like, feed me kale or find me essential oils from somebodies cousin’s very thriving business.
Kelly: Right, crystal’s. You find out immediately what people believe in.
Kate: Yes, I think one of the big surprises, because you mentioned specifically what does the problem of evil say to those who explicitly believe in God? And it is certainly one of the great challenges of faith to say, God, if you are good and also you are fair and you are powerful, how could you possibly let this happen to me? How could you let this happen to anybody?
Kelly: Right. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that like the big three?
Kate: Are you not powerful enough? Do you not love me enough? If you really love me, why would you see me in this much pain losing everything? It requires a lot of honesty. When you say, like, you know, I’m pretty disappointed, like in whatever this is, this kind of seems like a little bit of a garbage deal. I was kind of great, to be honest. I know you’re not supposed to say that as a Christian. You’re supposed to be like, well, I tried hard and then I was like, oh, OK. I guess that doesn’t matter. And I guess pain comes to everybody. And I guess I could just die at thirty five and all the particularities of all the things I’ve ever loved, mostly all the people I’ve ever loved. Don’t count enough to you to make a little exception for me.
Kelly: Right, I feel like I could picture you holding Zach up and saying hello?
Kate: Yeah, fine, if not for me, but then at least for them. In what world is it OK that this kid grows up without a mom? And I was really angry. I was angry at the unfairness of my own life. And then immediately you then realize that this is the unfairness of everyone’s life, right? So it cracks you open to everybody’s pain. And also, I was mad that it seemed like everybody else had super cruel answers, like other people were determined to answer that for me and be like, oh, OK. Well, because I Kate Bowler, made the mistake of writing my very sad feelings about this in my very first ever op ed, which I did not fully think through, because historians, we just write crap and no one reads it. So I didn’t expect that when you write it, then people will email you because your email address is at the bottom, apparently. And so I got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people writing me with their reasons and their reasons were. That because God is good and just that this must be God’s sovereign plan for me, that it must have been something that I’d done. And Gary from Indiana would very much like to explain what. There was a lot from atheists and more insistent agnostics about how I live in an uncaring universe and that I am delusional. And it is their job to dissuade me of beliefs that might bring me comfort and a lot from very new agey thoughts have power, believe and you will achieve. It’s the entire self-help and wellness industry.
Kelly: A total bee in my butt is the secret. That book, The Secret just makes me crazy. It sold 19 million copies. And it was really heralded as like, if you just believe this, you can incubate your own life just thinking it, just thinking. And I was thinking about my friend who was single and I was thinking about my friend who went through infertility for seven years and was never able to have a baby. And it’s like, what are you talking about? You wouldn’t say that to their face. You wouldn’t look at them and say, just think harder, just incubate faster.
Kelly: Let’s take a short break and we’ll be right back with Kate Bowler and our deconstruction of the iconic phrase. Everything happens for a reason.
Kelly: Welcome back. I mentioned at the top that Kate made her name with this spirited op ed, and I just want to let you know the link is on my medium page. But what she was worrying about was not just what Preachers’ might be saying on alter’s. She was worrying about self-help gurus and even Oprah, where there is this idea that we may have become overly enthusiastic about cause and effect and a little dismissive of the undeniable randomness where things definitely do not happen for a reason.
Kelly: You said, which I thought was really nervy, I must say, if Oprah could eliminate a single word, this is in your op ed in The New York Times, if Oprah could eliminate a single word, it would be luck. Nothing about my life is lucky, she argued on her cable show. Nothing. A lot of grace, a lot of blessings, a lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck. For me, luck is preparation, meeting the moment of opportunity. This is America you say, where there are no setbacks, just set ups. Tragedies are simply tests of character. What an awful way to think about it. I mean, so you know that I had this great friend, Liz, who had ovarian cancer and she fought mightily for seven years. At the time, and I’m sure you do this all the time. I’m sure we’ve done the same events. I got asked a ton to go and give speeches at cancer related events, and many times the person who was driving me around town, would say something that I’m sure it was intended to be a sweet kind of complimentary remark like, well, I’ll tell you, you must have had a lot of people praying for you. And I think, well, I’ve been praying for my friend Liz forever. And I just eulogized her in front of her eight year old and her 10 year old and her 12 year old. In front of seven hundred people. So I’m not sure that’s the difference.
Kate: No, I think everybody I mean, people of faith and otherwise, they want the lever to pull that says this will make the difference and there’s no magic lever. I am grateful for the role prayer has played in my life, but there is no special formula that exempts some people. There is no escape hatch out of pain and tragedy. One of the things I see most often to myself is there’s no cure to being human, there’s just no cure to being human. I’m not going to get out of this. I’m not going to like graduate to invulnerability. I’m stuck with precarity. I’m stuck with genuine uncertainty. I’m stuck with a really glitchy body. And I have to learn to live inside of that. Or else I’m always going to be either angry with myself or my circumstances for not providing the ladder out. There’s no ladder.
Kelly: So talk a little bit about Dorothy Day and Precarity. It’s such an interesting idea.
Kate: Well, thank you. I like when you ask me historical questions, Kelly. Dorothy Day was a Catholic activist, her work in slum housing in the 1920s and 30s. She was really committed to living with people who are really suffering in the midst of the Great Depression. And one of the things I really admire about the way that she accounted for uncertainty is she used the word precarity to describe the intense contingency of our lives that, like things could be taken away at any second. It could be, you know, money or health or relationships, that everything is inherently fragile. And what I love about her is she described it not as like the thing that has to be overcome, like, oh, thank God we got out of precarity. But that is the drama of life. That’s the theater. You live inside of it. And then once you realize, like, oh, that’s the building I’m in, then you can start to see the needs of your neighbor, your own desperate desires. That begins the work of being a person to her. And I just thought that was really badass.
Kelly: Yeah, she’s unbelievable. If we both agree that people are not going to pray themselves out of cancer and many other things, what can be the role of prayer?
Kate: For me, the role of prayer is because and this is the slightly embarrassing part for cosmopolitan audiences, I do believe that people can be supernaturally healed. I do believe that sometimes God interrupts the universe. It could just be a Tuesday, but that hasn’t happened to me. In my life, prayer has been opening myself up to the love of God, the feeling of still being made, of not being a mistake, even if my body is coming apart. And also the intense feeling of other people lifting me up because my hospital, where I got most of my care, was attached to my place of work, which is mostly populated by academics who are pastors. People blessed the crap out of me my entire time there. It was just like anointing oils, hands on shoulders, hands on head. Well, I’ve never felt more loved and put together as a person when I felt really fragile. And so, yeah, prayer to me is a lifeline to God and to each other. It’s just not a formula.
Kelly: I don’t think I’m a prayer, but my parents went to church every single day, my dad church every day and until he died and he was blessed, ironically, by four priests. They don’t have good communications at St. Thomas of Villanova. So a priest would come in the first one come in. Right. And it’s a super serious moment. And my mom and I happened to be there at that moment. And we bowed our heads and said the nice things and, you know, had a few tears and then about 10 minutes later, another priest came in and my mom sort of gave me the hand wave, just let him do it, let’s not upset him, so we did it. And then it happened two more times, just like that. I’ll tell you what, Greenie, they are just paving the way for you, my friend. You’re going to take the Concord.
Kate: That last priest is like, he seems really ungrateful for our two hour prayer.
Kelly: I am so incredibly empathetic to the need to believe. And when people come up with reasons, I feel, of course you want to. And I remember vividly talking to my kids about this, and that’s kind of a grim story to have to tell a child, and that gets me to the idea of narratives, when you’re raising kids and you’re reading all these stories to them and then they learn how to write their own stories and they have to have a beginning and a middle and an end at an arc and a hero and a villain and all those component pieces. There is a very honed development of expectation that things will have some kind of logic. And it’s, very unsettling to say, sometimes you don’t know. You’ll never know why the guy didn’t like, you’ll never know why you didn’t get that job. You’ll never know why.
Kate: No, that’s right. You want to instill all the beliefs like your actions matter, your kindness matters, your effort matters like all the parts of who you are still amount to something. That is such a powerful thing to tell a kid and to just be formed. We hope in character and love of neighbor, but we don’t get to run the math on whether our lives work out. There’s no predictive math, as far as I can tell, terrible people have most of the money. Terrible people make my health care decisions and run my insurance company.
Kelly: A lot of good things happen to bad people.
Kate: Oh, every day. And we’re so happy for them. Just you and I. Happy for them all the time
Kelly: Power to you.
Kate: Grateful, grateful.
Kelly: Keep the power. You’re killing it. All those moves you’re making.
Kate: It’s hard to do that mental jujitsu where you’re trying to say that the particularities of who you are is beautiful and truthful and meaningful that you matter to other people, you matter to God like you are good and simultaneously, there is nothing particular to who you are that is going to earn you out of possibly terrible outcomes. It took me a long time to realize that I’m not special. And the people who love me like you don’t know you are special. We love you. And I’m like, no, no. But I get it now. I’m not special. Things happen to all of us.
Kelly: Do you know that beautiful idea, I heard it at a bar mitzvah where you’re supposed to keep these two things in your pockets. In one pocket, you’re supposed to keep this idea that you are a speck of dust in the universe and there is no meaning. And in the other pocket you’re supposed to hold that you are unique in all the world. The goal of adulthood is to know what situations call for which pocket. So are you this special and unique and never to be repeated. That should stand up right now and do your thing. Or are you this speck of dust who’s supposed to be small and humble and see your place in the order of things?
Kate: Beautiful, that’s so beautiful because so much of what these questions sort of lay on us then is what is the role of our actions? What’s the meaning of our choices? And for me, there’s this little tiny space between two very bad ideas. The one very bad idea is that everything is possible if you just believe, you know, and that’s the American dream version, hard work, bootstraps. And then there’s the, you know, overtly Christian and the very new age and the just sort of target shirts I have that say good vibes only even though I don’t believe in vibes. There’s that version.
Kelly: And all the Instagram posts
Kate: And then there’s the nothing is possible, which is exhausting and hopeless and fatalistic and ultimately doesn’t leave us. It just decides we don’t have a future.
Kelly: And it’s not true.
Kate: No, they’re both very bad ideas, but trying to really find that little space in between, that seems like there’s a lot of wisdom there. What is between everything is possible and nothing’s possible? And I end up settling more on like, OK than, well, what is possible today? And like finding that the language of limited agency is more helpful to me than either invincibility or lying down on the train tracks.
Kelly: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, it goes to your relationship with yourself in some ways. Like I gave a graduation speech once where it was the number one thing I think you’re going to need to develop over the course of college is you’re going to have to get into a really honest conversation with yourself. Only you know how hard you worked for the grades. You got only, you know, if you flirted with your buddies girlfriend only, you know, if you puked when you got home. Only, you know, if you hide in the bushes in fortnight. You can get away with tons of lying in life. I bet 80 percent of lies go undetected. You know, you can, like, let everybody else do the work in your job or in your school project. Good things happen to bad people like you can advance in the world and you can be applauded and rewarded. But, you know, like, your little insides are like crumbling up and dying because you know that everybody’s responding to you in a way that is unearned. And I think that must feel so bad and you must feel so insecure. Because what you’re saying is if you knew what a ——- (bleep) I was, you’d hate me.
Kate: Yeah. I think our culture of endless perfectibility is exhausting. It doesn’t leave people any room to either fail or grow or change. I think our very gross, performative, endless Instagram theology is that things are always being lit by a ring light and that we’re never preparing for a colonoscopy and all that entails. I do think it’s really hard work figuring out what genuine vulnerability looks like and not just performative vulnerability.
Kelly: Right. Which is everywhere.
Kate: Okay. People’s confessions include and I was super nervous when I was backstage at Oprah. But that’s not a confession. Not a confession.
Kelly: Yeah, it doesn’t count.
Kate: It’s so deeply Canadian to be like if we’re anything, we’re humble. It’s like the common wisdom that you’re not supposed to buy the nicest house on the block, that it’s a bad investment. The truth is, people who live in proximity to wealth are more unhappy than those who live among sameness.
Kelly: It’s the silver medalist thing.
Kate: Go on.
Kelly: There’s no medalist who is more unhappy because the bronze medalist is like, I can’t believe I got to the podium. And the gold medalist is the gold medalist and a silver medalist just missed. And that’s torture, so. Back to narrative, the thing that’s cool about it is that once you decide that there is this kind of magnetic pull toward these kinds of stories that resolve in neat and logical ways. Then you see that actually one of the only areas of your control is how you tell the story to yourself.
Kelly: There’s a distinction, I guess, that I want to make between discovering the reason for something and deciding the meaning of something.
Kate: Yeah, I became the the holder of so many people’s reasons for why it was happening and some reason seemed to be much more meaningful than others. So some people just took on the self blame. Some people were positive it was part of a redeeming plan that either God had for them or they just had to think or believe more. A lot of people just performed optimism until the day they died.
Kelly: Which is such a burden, the burden of positivity,
Kate: It shifts the the weight of reality onto the people around the sufferer who then have to grapple with the distinction between what’s actually happening and the way the story is being told. And that’s exhausting for everybody and makes for I don’t mean this tritely like makes for terrible funerals, because if the point of storytelling is we all need a story we can live with. Right. And that’s why sometimes if we’re dying, we lie about stuff. We say, no, everyone was great. You tell the version of the family that you need to tell you tell the version of your relationships and what it meant to you. Some of the best lies we tell out of sheer love. And I’m still kind of into it, but I do think there’s a huge distinction between an attempt to make meaning and a desire to to create the architecture of lessens, the desire for lessons is so intense. And I I am over it, but I’m not over meaning. I believe that there is truth and beauty and courage and delight to be found inside of an incomplete life, but don’t make me lie and say that I’m grateful for this perspective or that I wouldn’t change a thing or no regrets. All of those things force me back into lies, and I don’t want to do it anymore.
Kelly: I remember so many people said to me, this must have been such a great reset, like, what a great perspective builder. And I was like, I had great perspective. Like I work for United Way for like ten years. I took people to homeless shelters five days a week from their office at Citibank in the fancy high rise down the elevator across the town to listen to people scream and cry, to smell it, to see the food slopped out on the plate. Like I know exactly how lucky I am. I know my sheets are soft and know my shower is hot. I love my husband. I can’t believe I got to have children. I am utterly aware that I’ve won the lottery 15 times and in all the ways that matter. But it just made me crazy that there was this assumption that, like, you must have been kind of bitchy, you know, you know what you needed. You need a little chemotherapy.
Kate: Absolutely. That’ll teach you. Kelly, that is a gorgeous and true thing to say. Everything you just said, the toxic positivity. And also I think that the tyranny of gratitude where people assume that if you’re suffering, there was an insufficiency of gratitude on your part for what you had. And thank God you know that now.
Kelly: Right. The other thing that people ask me a lot was, was it in your family? And you mentioned already at the top that it wasn’t in your family. People really want that to be true you know, and it reminds me of that great Andrew Solomon book that I know you love, too, because it was in your book club. Kate has a book club and it’s called Far from the Tree. And it’s really one of the best, most compassionate empathy building books I’ve ever read. It turned me around on so many things. And it’s just these stories really well researched stories. He’s a beautiful writer about kids who are very unlike their parents. And then what people do with that difference, the way they explain it away or try to explain it.
Kate: Yes, that’s exactly right. And this emphasis on narrative like Kelly, I’m going to need your cancer to fit into a story I’m going to tell about you.
Kelly: Yes. Give me your genetic. Yeah, I remember that, counselor. I could feel how desperate she was. She was just like, keep going on this family tree. Like, she was asking me, like my great, great uncle. I’m like, I don’t even know, like maybe I had one. Maybe that’s like something I’m half remembering. I don’t know what he died of, but she was so desperate to get to a branch on that tree that that she could circle with a red Sharpie and say, there it is. There it is.
Kate: Yeah, I think we are heat seeking missiles for a story like that.
Kelly: And even scientists, yes, even scientists are looking for a rationale. But the fact is that science is its own religion and it has its own sets of beliefs that are upturned all the time
Kate: Because there wasn’t a compelling family history. And I’m always being scanned and I have such a rare cancer and rare cancer cohort that there’s not enough people like me. And so there’s a really strange cruelty to the way that they need me to be a story that is actually just a data set. And I have begged people for the information that they have anecdotally about other people like me, and they won’t give it to me because they’re part of an explanation machine that has different sponsors and different beneficiaries. And it is not me. I have come to that realization in a hard way.
Kelly: It’s so hard. Haven’t you done some trials?
Kate: Yeah, I used to think that clinical research meant that you were really lucky that you were getting the new thing. It took me a while to realize that you’re not on the superhighway anymore. You’re on the side road and you’re not likely to be the primary beneficiary of what people learn.
Kelly: I remember with Liz that she didn’t qualify for a bunch of different trials with her ovarian cancer. And what she meant by didn’t qualify was she wasn’t going to prove the right point. So it wasn’t like, oh, maybe this could work for you. The agenda wasn’t let’s see what we can do for Liz Lotte’s. The agenda was I’ve got an idea and I want to prove it out and I need the right set of data that are attached to this patient such that my thing will work such that I can get the next round of funding or pass the next trial, etc..
Kate: Kelly, when you say that immediately, I need you to say, like with your two pocket thing, it does make you feel like dust and so in that moment you need the other pocket that says
Kelly: You’re one of a kind.
Kate: I am unduplicatable. I am the particularity of my life. I am not nothing. It’s really easy to feel swallowed up in a big data set where they tell a story and the story isn’t you and the particularity of who you hoped you would be is actually not going to count because we all audition, right? Like we all audition for that care. We show pictures of our kids. We try to make people care. But ultimately, that story is not about us. That is unbearable.
Kelly: I must have told every person who touched me. I have two daughters, I have two daughters, and I just wanted every surgeon and every infusion center staffer and all the people that were touching me to know I’m very important to at least two people.
Kate: I am indispensable in this story. And please don’t take me out of it. Yeah, yeah. You’re good at being a person though Kelly. You really are.
Kelly: You’re better. And I want to read something that I think is really interesting that you also had in your times op ed. Blessed is a loaded term because it blurs the distinction between two very different categories gift and reward. It can be a term of pure gratitude. Thank you, God. I could not have secured this for myself, but it can also imply that it was deserved. Thank you me for being the kind of person who gets it right. It’s a perfect world for an American society that says it believes the American dream is based on hard work and not luck. And then I remember my cousin Kathy, who lost her son Aaron Zengraft in a car accident this summer after freshman year in college. And she said that she probably asked herself for ten years, why did this happen?
Kate: Right. Yeah.
Kelly: And she said she couldn’t sleep through the night until she realized that it happened because it can. Cars can flip on a slippery road on a rainy night in Charlottesville, Virginia, like metal can pierce, glass can shatter, like this happens, they’re just bodies, they’re just cars. And that’s the whole of it. That’s the sum total of what happened.
Kate: Look, you’re right, is this overly synthetic story starts to haunt us. What’s the plotline? Where was this going? Because the thing that happened is so unbearable and so counter to all the other things. It’s honestly, it’s like there’s two competing truths. The big one is that this was a beautiful life and it was supposed to go somewhere that feels so true that we need a story that explains that then the other things have to equally be true, that we come apart all the time and that we live in context that are overwhelmed by factors and particularities we just can’t control. And so it’s hard to manage the truth that we are both completely contingent and that we are like deep beating hearts whose love propels us into like a desire to tell the story that who we are will always be like my kid can’t even sleep until he says, Mom, I’m so lucky that you’re my mom. Do you think anybody else loves us? Do you think anyone else has gorilla hearts that go love, love, love. I was just like, buddy, there is not a world in which we can’t love each other forever. Right. Stupid love. It makes it impossible for us to tell a different story.
Kelly: How old is he now? Six?
Kelly: Six? How’s he doing with covid? Is he going crazy or is he all right? And are you weirdly grateful to just have the every day?
Kate: I am just like learning so much about myself, um, I hate it.
Kelly: Well, that must be why this is happening. You are the reason the pandemic is happening Kate.
Kate: Kelly, I will not lie to you. I’ve run out of small joys. I’m sick of it. Honestly, I keep thinking if this were my last year, this will be the —– (bleep) last year. But there are all these people right now where this is their last everything.
Kelly: I know.
Kate: And it’s now the constraint of our lives. It shrinks the world of the very weakest. And that’s that’s just what breaks my heart.
Kelly: Like, my dad died. We were alone in the room, it was like eight o’clock on a Tuesday night. And I mean, it was. I’m sure is the most significant moment of my life and the idea that people were robbed of that moment. It’s just unthinkable to me. For both parties. And there’s no goddamn reason for it.
Kelly: So there are non life and death circumstances where people also want to defer to everything happens for a reason, which I am sort of feeling more and more over the course of this conversation, that it’s deeply understandable laziness. You know what I mean? I could totally empathize with the desire to say something, but it is sort of really simplistic. But if you think about people getting a divorce and then falling in love again or getting a job and then getting a better job and all these narratives that might seem like they’re reinforcing the idea or proving that things happen for a reason. Do you think there’s ever a harmless case where people could say that, or do you think it’s always sort of forcing a narrative?
Kate: Yeah, I love to hear when people want to say it led me to this. Look how this this terrible thing cracked open something beautiful. That’s a lovely place to get to in the story. The problem is, is that it forces us to pretend that nothing was lost, like actually lost. Right. Those stories work when they amount to something, but sometimes math, she said, having done very poorly in math class.
Kelly: Another thing I love about you,
Kate: You can have lost a great deal and gained it in a completely different area. There’s no way in which this equals that. And so when people say everything happens for a reason to mean it’s so much better now, I would trade this for that. It forces people who suffered more to say that there is a there’s a neat equation or that sometimes even that we’re being rewarded. We’re not rewarded. We’re just we found a new way that life was beautiful, there’s no bank of magical favors in which we get to make a deposit later.
Kelly: Well, the other thing is it totally gives away your power. I sort of want to say. You did that, you did that. It’s actually more beautiful to me. It’s a much better story to say how beautiful that you were destroyed by a wicked divorce based on a horrible betrayal. And you suffered it and you went down to the bottom of the valley and you got therapy and you took medication and you renewed yourself and you still had like a little part of your heart that believed in love. And you found it. Yeah, that’s way better than like some far away idea that it happened for some other reason that someone else is in charge of.
Kate: Yeah, because sometimes people tell me stories where they lost so much like they lost their house, they lost their job, they lost too much. And then all of a sudden there was a surprise that they couldn’t possibly have been in control of. And I love it when people are able to tell the story of their lives as one where, like, there must have been something in there. I just don’t know what it was. I think the problem with everything happens for a reason too that we’re really like circling around is that when there is no room for mystery, like, I don’t want to shrink it by saying that we are self-determined. And the best part is that we did it. I think the best part is that when you give up on too tight a narrative, you can forgive yourself. You have more generosity for other people. And who knows, you might be surprised by something delightful that you deserve or not. Who knows?
Kelly: I always say about my dad that he could look at a junkyard and find the one butterfly. That’s really this choice that we have of where are we looking and how carefully are we looking. Because as you say, like life is so beautiful and life is so hard and they don’t cancel each other out. They coexist. And so I always think about it. I’ll never forget the night that we told our kids about the Holocaust. It just came up sort of spontaneously, like what was World War Two about? And I’m looking at these beautiful, tiny faces like, oh my God, I don’t know how to tell you this. I don’t even know how much of this I can bear to tell you. And they just kept looking at us. Like that’s something that could happen. And I was sick. I can like, feel it right now remembering it. And then I remember thinking, oh, but tell them about the people who risk their lives to have a Jew in their basement, a person they’d never met before. Tell them about all the countries that came to stop it. Tell them about families who are proud to have lost their kid fighting against Hitler and the Nazis. Make sure to remind them that good beat evil, in small, tiny ways, person to person, ways and means, more enormous global ways and can again.
Kate: That’s lovely, Kelly. I like that. We need the big story. We just have to decide if the hero dies in the end, that it was still a good story. And I. I think it is.
Kelly: I love you.
Kate: Oh, my gosh, I love you too.
Kelly: I do. I’m so glad that you exist. I’m so glad that I know you. I hate it that you’re sick. I love what you do. I love how you talk. I love how you think. I love your big giant heart. I love your dimples. I love what a giggler you are. I just —– (bleep) love you.
Kate: Oh, my Gosh Kelly, that’s so kind. I was really looking forward to talking to you.
Kelly: Thanks for being a person with me.
Kate: Oh, my gosh. This was a joy.
Kelly: Boy, I took a lot of notes during that conversation. Here’s what I jotted down. Pain comes to everybody, all our specialness, all the particularities of our lives don’t exempt us from suffering. And that should make us much nicer to each other. When tragedy hits someone you love, better to listen more and talk less. May we count ourselves lucky if we have only had one belly button. There’s no cure to being human precarity is the theater of life. Assume your desperate desires are the same as your neighbors and let that knowledge teach you who they are and what they need. Prayer is not a formula, it’s a lifeline to each other. Your actions, efforts and kindness matter even if they don’t guarantee an easy life. Sometimes the very sick lie to the people who love them so we can feel OK, that positivity can be exhausting. We are heat seeking missiles for narrative as we turn chaos into story, we must be careful not to confuse reward with gift. And finally, we come apart all the time, but even an incomplete life, a story where the hero dies in the end can be beautiful. That’s it for today, I want to thank Kate Bowler, medium for production support, I want to thank my co producer, Susan George, and our sound hero, Dean Katari. Most of all, I want to thank you for Wondering with me until next time I’ll see you online. Medium dotcom slash at Kelly.