How Then Should We Live?

An interview with Kate Bowler on living with the specter of death

This is the mid-week issue of Men Yell at Me. A newsletter that is opinions, essays, and journalism about politics and gender in the middle of America. You can read past issues here. If you like it, you can subscribe. If you don’t like it, you can still subscribe.

I first met Kate Bowler in 2017 at a retreat in New Mexico for women who write about faith and religion. The retreat happened just one month after I had asked my husband for a divorce from my 12-year marriage, and I felt as if everything in my life was falling apart.

The first morning of the retreat, we sat around in a group and were asked to introduce ourselves and say something about our work. “Lyz, why don’t you start us off?” the retreat organizer, Amy Sullivan, said. And did I start them off. I immediately started crying and I told this circle of strangers all about my broken mess of a life. This was not what the retreat organizers expected. This was supposed to be a simple ice-breaker.

When I was done, there was an awkward pause. I knew immediately that I’d said too much. But then, Kate Bowler spoke. I don’t remember exactly what she said. I just remember her empathy and generosity and then she, too, began crying and told us all about her cancer diagnosis. By the time we finished going around the circle, we were all crying and oversharing. That weekend, I got to know Kate. A professor of religion at Duke, Kate is an intellectual force, who has examined the prosperity gospel and the cult of preachers’ wives, and at the time had just finished a memoir about living with cancer. 

The next year, Kate’s memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, was published, and it was everyone else’s turn to fall in love with Kate’s beautiful, generous heart and brilliant analytical brain. In all her work, Kate grapples with the cultural scripts we are given and that organize our lives and shows us that to live with humanity and empathy, means being a walking wound. There is no easy way around life.

This month, she came out with a new book, There Is No Cure for Being Human. Kate’s book is a mixture of optimism rooted in our difficult reality. And I interviewed her about how to live with the specter of death and how to have empathy and kindness in a world without it. 

Kate’s book offers no easy answers. No pat solutions. Life, after all, as she knows, is cruel and unfair. But life is also so beautiful. And sometimes the only way through is to overshare and cry.

This interview was edited for length and clarity and to take out the parts where I cried.

Lyz: Kate, another book?

Kate: Yes, I will bring that gentle despair to all people. I will continue to be that person at the party that whispers, “We are going to die.” I am memento mori. Who doesn’t want that friend?

Lyz: That’s a mood though that we’re experiencing, I would say, worldwide.

Kate: I guess before, when I was writing about cancer and my crisis of faith and that sense of unfairness when the terrible thing happens to you and you feel you are the one with the tragedy. And I had really been caught up in the why of it. And then once I got used to the fact that it was me and some people are just unlucky, and we can’t always know why things happen to us, I’ve just been trying to think about how do we move forward, now that we know? Now that we know that most of the things in our lives that determine our lives are going to be the things we can’t pick. And so living in chronic fear has been something that I just, I don’t know, I find very interesting.

Lyz: You said you’re living in chronic fear, living with the specter of death hanging over you. And now I feel like everybody’s there, except not really. Do you know what I mean?

The thing that I keep thinking about was when a mom texted me to say her kid was sick. And I replied, “So did you get her tested?” And she responded, “For what?”

I don’t know, Sheila? Pregnancy?

Kate: HPV? Exactly.

Lyz: So, while I do think many people are trying to come to grips with the specter of death. Many people are just in denial. And you write about this.

Kate: I think at some point I just got tired of cancer. I got tired of being people’s reminder that we are fragile and that we’re finite. That’s just been a very lonely place, while everybody else is pretending that they are invincible, everybody else pretending that they, for one, will live forever and they can Walt Disney themselves and do a cryogenically frozen future. And it’s been really lonely to live here with my diagnosis. But I realized, oh wait, I don’t even really want people to talk just about grief.

Though, of course, we should all increase our language for grief. But I want us to be able to talk about being finite, not having enough time, resources, or anything to necessarily always be okay or to guarantee that it’s going to be okay. Being scared for our kids and ourselves and then still wanting to live lives of truth and meaning and purpose. That’s why I think I became so interested in cultural scripts about how we’re supposed to really live because they all have a little gem of wisdom, but then they’re also simultaneously wildly delusional for what we can accomplish.

Lyz: So how do we live, Kate? Tell us.

Kate: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I figured it out.

Lyz: Give me that. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.

Kate: Oh my gosh. Isn’t that the most, isn’t that exactly how I feel when I’m like, “Just give me the formula and I’ll crush it. Tell me the plan and I’ll do it.”

I think our culture’s language of exhausting control and hyper-agency and everything is always possible, and I am the master of my something, something and the captain of something else. And then they refuse to see that they are in a web connected to hundreds of all of their most precious things. I do think this is a very strange time to recognize that we are delicate. The language I love is precarity. The word just… We’re dangling over the edge and we feel the upward draft. And when we’re playing right, and we’re praying, “God, let me see the world as it is,” then that’s what we’re seeing clearly. Yet somehow we have to make a home here, even though it is not safe and it’s not just not safe, the people are in danger enough.

And so I wish we had more of that widened aperture. Where we can, by letting the truth of this moment sink in, that we can see things with the shades of light and dark and be able to live between these ridiculous binaries of either everything is possible or nothing is possible. Because right now what is available to us is small, hard choices and a desperate need for us to be, to understand ourselves as interdependent as we are. Example, I really prefer hustle. I really prefer a rabid non-Canadian individual. I really prefer doing things on my own because I’m stubborn. And I like to work hard and run my own lane because if I do that, I don’t have to need anybody.

Lyz: And the pandemic is literally the worst group project ever.

Kate: Yes. Exactly. Nine out of 10 people decided not to do their homework, but we still have to turn it in.

I think our culture’s language of exhausting control and hyper-agency and everything is always possible, and I am the master of my something, something and the captain of something else. And then they refuse to see that they are in a web connected to hundreds of all of their most precious things.

Lyz: So, how did this happen?

Kate: I guess I’m always a big fan of thinking about the cultural scripts we’re told and why we accidentally became these monsters. And one of them is of course the gospel of hustle: But if you just master your inbox and find a passion that’s also work, and somehow get paid for 40 hours, while really just only working four. I think the more delicate that I’ve become, the more I’m forced into that interdependence that we both hate. And the more I am having to realize that independence was a wonderful delusion, but we really only get seasons of being that way when we’re young, when we’re old, when we’re chronically sick in between, or a relationship ends or something comes apart. And I want us all to feel a little bit more permission to live in that non-conquered self.

I’m not gunning for living our worst life now, but I do think it’d be okay if we gave up on living our best lives. We are surviving.

Lyz: But are we? We aren’t truly surviving. Not everyone will. 

Kate: Here’s why I think people with a greater sense of reality may or may not survive, a short thesis: Now that we live here in this liminal place, I think it is going to always be painful to be a person. I think we’re going to be able to look around and see individual and structural inequality. We’re going to be able to see how the price of freedom is that it crushes most of the people without the resources to guarantee their own independence. And none of that will be fun. But I do think reality is a wonderful place because it will make us tenderhearted and it will make us crave beauty and each other. And it will give us an overwhelming desire for the absurdity of… the perfect old-fashioned or re-watching the new Cruella movie, which is really good, and just cherishing the crap out of each other.

I’m not gunning for living our worst life now, but I do think it’d be okay if we gave up on living our best lives. We are surviving.

Lyz: You talk about being in that liminal space of definitely not your best life, but that’s the hardest place to be, isn’t it?

Kate: Yes. We have an entire health and wellness industry with billions of dollars being pumped into it to tell us that we are a perfectibility project and that every day we are a disappointment, if we can’t have a skincare routine and impress our bosses, and master motherhood and, and, and, and. But really, of course, this was a phrase, “best life now,” coined in 2004 by a televangelist, who I’ve spent a lot of time studying. And the paradigm of good, better, best is not designed for us. It’s designed to sell us a story. It tells us a story about a finish line we’re never going to get to. So in the meantime, I just don’t want to miss it. I just don’t want to miss this part where I was too worried about not becoming better, that I missed out on the beauty of all this garbage imperfection.

Lyz: People love an easy answer. These are no easy answers.

Kate: Oh, totally. I think that’s why, for both books, I’ve made an appendix to have like, you want an aphorism? I’ll give you an aphorism. Because some of them are nice. But others? There is “Everyone is doing their best.” And I am like, “The jury is still out on that.” 

Lyz: I’ve heard them called thought-terminating clichés. Phrases designed to make us stop thinking. What’s your least favorite one?

Kate: I really hate, for instance, people, when they’re scared about the future, one pleasant aphorism is to “live in the moment.” And that has a lot of wisdom to it. We can find tremendous meaning and joy in small things. Wonderful. But also people need to live either in the past or in the future in order to make their lives meaningful and also get through horrible situations. When I’m getting a surgery, I don’t want to live in the moment. I’d like to live somewhere else. And so I skip it. It’s a wonderful physical response where you’re like, “And I blocked that out. We’re done.” And the body and the mind are tremendously powerful and they’re… And so just being able to move past the pleasantness of the idea that all of us just have to narrow our horizon down to a single moment. It’s wonderful sometimes, and frequently, genuinely a terrible idea the rest of the time.

But of course, always top of the list is “Everything happens for a reason.”

Because hyper-causality means that then they’re going to explain to me why I have cancer. Okay. I think my second favorite is, as least favorite, is probably “Let go and let God,” because God is just, yeah, going to do my taxes? And that assumes that the problems of my life are because of control, whereas the problems in my life are because there’s an environmental and an epidemiological apocalypse. And also I have cancer. 

Lyz: Being able to say you have cancer is a huge flex. You immediately win every conversation.

Kate: I will try it at my next department meeting when no one is listening to me.

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, sent on Wednesdays, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.