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.
Kate Bowler: Oh, hello, lovelies. Hi, it’s me, Kate. Hi. This is my podcast, I suppose, and today is a very exciting day. Today, my new memoir releases into the world, which means that you beautiful people will finally get a chance to read it. It’s called No Cure for Being Human and Other Truths I Need to Hear and you can find it wherever books are sold in hardback or ebook or as an audiobook read by me where you can hear me lately crying and then laughing at my own jokes privately and then being a little embarrassed that I find myself sort of funny sometimes. We all wish we could boil our life down to these kinds of simple formulas. Easy to grab mantras that tell us how to live. Things like you only live once or what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or just think positively. I guess I’ll just have to make lemonade out of all those lemons I’ve been given. But what about when you realize life isn’t a series of choices more often than we’d like to imagine, things come apart and what we thought was in our control just isn’t anymore. And we have to learn to live here. Outside of formulas, outside of cliches, outside of easy steps, still living our best life now. I guess I mean, we all have to learn to be human again today. No Cure for Being Human mines these formulas to find something in there, some little gem, but I hope to pull out something that is truer, gentler, and maybe a little bit more honest. So I thought today I might read you a little excerpt, it’s from a chapter where I’m wrestling with how to really be present as every neo Buddhist and modern day stoic tries to tell you to do. It seems so simple, right? Be present. In response to all that is out of our control, we just zero in on what is in our control. But the consequences of only living in the present is that we might ignore the past or put a wall around the future and tell ourselves all we have is now. And there is so much wisdom in that. Until, of course, it forces us to put too much of our lives on hold in the suspended animation of now, so that’s what I thought I might talk to you about today.
Kate Bowler: All right, here goes.
Kate Bowler: How long can we put our futures on hold? In high school, I spent a luxurious amount of time crying in the hallway after math class about how terrible I was at algebra and how my grades would never qualify me for a scholarship to go to the Canadian University that Anne of Green Gables attended, that she was a fictional character, never deterred me. Mr. Buth, the math teacher, would pop his head out the door and yell something like that, B minus is not the death of your dreams, Bowler. I did not believe him, but I loved him nonetheless. He wore a long white lab coat every single day of his working life so he could use the entire length of his arms to wipe off the chalkboard, sighing heavily at our unwillingness to stop being teenagers. This graph rises and falls like a wave crossing the horizontal axis like this, he’d say, drawing a series of smooth curves. But this graph is a torrent of undulating lines crisscrossing, making it the sexiest graph of them all. He’d draw quick lines across the board, arms flailing before he’d stop and spin around to fix us with a leveling stare. You are not ready he’d conclude with obvious disappointment using most of his arms and torso to erase the chalkboard. We weren’t. Years later, I wrote him a postcard from college admitting that despite all evidence, his work in the service of my education and the scores of undeserved letters of recommendation he penned had propelled me toward a greater future. Despite long bouts of mediocrity, I was attending a dreamboat college. A few months later, I received in my campus mailbox a cheerful reply that he had decided to teach math overseas on his own grand adventure and had used my postcard as his own letter of recommendation. He died soon after. He was 56. I used to think that adulthood was a stretch of eternity that began shortly after college. In college, you learned what profession you were going to be and that was the end of it. I would only learn later that adulthood contains many lives that you can dream and reach for more, but that you will be kept busy managing kids who roll their eyes when you use your body like a human Kleenex, as if you don’t know how funny that is. I imagine that adults were people who ate and breathed and worked in the world they had inherited from centuries before. It never occurred to me that every life must be constantly reinvented by adventurers and private jokes and that it might suddenly end. The ancient Stoics knew this, they knew that life is as fragile as a soap bubble. They lived in a world of invasions and sieges, cholera and smallpox, husbands buried wives and mothers buried children and only prophets dared to speak about the future with a measure of certainty. In their world, it made sense to live each day as if it was their last. But the world I thought I knew before the diagnosis was hygenic, predictable and safe. Kids got vaccinations, people grow old and everything else just required anesthetic, antiseptics or whatever else my mom kept in the cardboard box under the bathroom sink. Now, the only moment that makes any sense happens in the predawn hours when I hear a small boy stirring. I pull him to my chest as if we were magnets kept apart by an unfeeling law of nature. The terrible gift of a terrible illness is that it has, in fact, taught me to live in the moment. Nothing but this day matters. The warmth of his crib, the sound of his hysterical giggling. And when I look closely at my life, I realize that I’m not just learning to seize the day. In my finite life, the mundane has begun to sparkle. The things I love, the things I should love, become clearer. Brighter. Burdened by the past, preoccupied by the present or worried about the future, I had failed to appreciate the inestimable gift of a single minute. I didn’t realize that one second you can feel like chaff and the next you can be at a wedding reception and your friend Ali is gliding across the dance floor on a drink cart push by her husband, who’s yelling “we’re never going to die!” He started out saying it ironically, but by the end of the night, we are starting to believe. When I was first hospitalized with cancer, my friends sent me a photo taken of us that night. We are in party dresses, arms around one another, mousse hair, tears streaking mascara down our cheeks from a night gone a little wild. Maybe for a second there, I could have sworn that the universe slowed and stopped just long enough to watch me catch my breath. Moments like these feel transcendent, the past and the future experience together in moments where I can see a flicker of eternity. Time is not an arrow anymore, and heaven is not tomorrow, it’s here for a second when I could drown in the beauty of what I have, but also what may never be. Hope for the future feels like a kind of arsenic that needs to be carefully administered or it can poison the sacred work of living in the present. Taking my medication, asking about my friend’s terrible boyfriend and inhaling the smell of my son’s skin as he sleeps next to me. I want to be alive until I’m not. There will never be enough of these moments for me, enough anniversaries with the man who still thinks that late adolescence was an acceptable time to get married. Enough pages of history books, I scribble and then immediately send to my father, who will put on his glasses and squint at the screen impassively until he loudly declares it to be quite acceptable. Enough early mornings feeding spoonfuls of glop into my son’s mouth between our fits of giggling. And if those are the measures of time. I am bankrupt. Once every few hours, I pause what I’m doing because I can’t take a breath. I have caught a glimpse of the terrible someday when even though I am his mom and he is my son, and those words keep the birds in the sky, I may not be able to hold him. I prepare for these moments each night wide awake, imagining a time when I will be gone even from his memory. When he will not know the weight of my hand on his blond head. He will wonder which of his features are mine, his mouth, and what traits started with me, his evil laugh. He will be at a party and someone will say, you remind me of your mom and he will feel a pain that a stranger knew me and he did not. I canvas everyone I know who has lost a parent to find out what stories they cherish, and I incessantly Google articles about long term memory in children. Exactly how old does he have to be to find me in his memory? And what work do I need to do to be remembered? I put this question to my psychologist who shakes his head. Kate, you’re laying the foundation, it’s there, but yes, you might not get to see what he builds on top of it. The foundation is the part that doesn’t show.
Kate Bowler: So there it is, a little preview of my medium sad new book and something I’m still discovering, learning how to live between uncertainty and hope. There are fears and disappointments and failures every day. The future is not guaranteed, and sometimes the present isn’t always as delicious as we’d like. It takes great courage to live, period. So, my dear, here is a blessing for being human again today. Blessed are we living in this small space, in these bodies we now inhabit within the walls of circumstance in these short years and finite strength and with these eyes that only see so far. We are fragile, contingent beings. Yet, blessed are we recognizing that it is our limits as well as our gifts that can shape the natural contours of what is possible. That guide us to do what is ours to do. Blessed are we when it’s not our greatness that speaks, but our littleness for it is our vulnerability that is the truest thing about us. The place where our mutual connection is possible, where competition ends and community begins. And oh, how blessed are we in our fragility and dependance and brokenness? Knowing that there is no cure for being human, but we are all good medicine.
Kate Bowler: Hey, friends, a quick interruption to let you know that we have some very fun events happening that I just want you to miss. I have a really fun event coming up in Washington, D.C. So if you’re in the D.C. area, I’m going to be speaking with David Brooks, unbelievably smart and interesting, David Brooks on Wednesday, September 29th. So right away. And you can join us in person. Masks and vaccination required to keep us all safe. There’s also virtual tickets, if you’d like to join. David Brooks is such a fun, engaging person to talk to. So I’m really excited about that event. It’s at a gorgeous synagogue called 6th and I and it’s going to be a really special evening. Or if you’re in my hometown of Durham, North Carolina, I’m going to be having an event with the indomitable Kelly Corrigan. You might remember her as a previous guest on the podcast and Professor Tracy McMillan Cottom. And we’re going to be getting together on Tuesday, October 12th. So that’s going to be the Carolina theater. It’s such a beautiful venue. We’re going to be talking about faith, hope and love. And I’m really, really looking forward to that. Plus, we have some really fun parties happening virtually with some of your very favorite all time, I think, special podcast guests. I’m going to be doing something with Anne Lamott, I’m going to be doing something with Jim Hatmaker, with Samantha Irby, and Lori Gottlieb. Holy cow. Those are all separate conversations. So you can join us. They’re going to be coming up lickety split. So what are you waiting for? Come join us. Come visit KateBowler.com/Booktour to learn more and to register. That’s KateBowler.com/booktour and I really hope to see you there.
Kate Bowler: Hey, well. Thanks so much for being with me and sharing this really weird, very kind of vulnerable feeling season of saying hi, here are all my inmost thoughts and feelings. So thank you so much for supporting me, for supporting the podcast, for our team here at the Everything Happens project. We feel so special that we get to do this with you, for you together. So if you’d like to support this endeavor, you can get your copy of No Cure for Being Human wherever books are sold, or you can visit NoCureBook.com to learn more. I have so many people to thank, and it’s because all of this is a group project. Thank you so much for my team at Random House, Hilary and Rachel and Stacey and Ayelet, Madison and Emani, Dan and Emma at Random House Canada and Lucy, Anna and Jess at Penguin UK. Christine, my lovely agent, thank you for all the work you do. Thank you to everyone for making this little book an actual life event, for me, a reason to tell the truth and to practice doing it. Thank you so much to my launch team who signed up for this, not really knowing what they were getting into just because they were good and kind and began to pray for one another and support each other. You all embodied the very message of this book. And thank you so much to my podcast and Everything Happens team Jessica and Harriet, Gwen, Katie, A.J., Keith, Katherine, J.J. and Jeb and Sammi. Everybody does this not just because it feels fun to work, but because they are all true believers in the, yeah, I feel like a Mandalorian when I’m like this is the way, the way of vulnerability. So thanks so much, my dears. This has been Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler, see you next week.