The author is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. She’s a believer (I think) and has faced numerous health issues in her life. The latest and most severe is that she’s been diagnosed with a terminal form of colon cancer. This book is about her dealing with her diagnosis and reconciling her circumstances to what she knows about God. It’s also her account of how others have interacted with her – both inside and outside the medical community – and how so many people can make a bad situation worse with their thoughtless words.
I devoured this book. It’s a fairly quick read – only 178 pages – and written in a conversational style. Bowler is a good writer and does a really good job of putting the reader inside her head. The book doesn’t necessarily have an overall point and at times isn’t all that linear in its progress, but it’s fascinating to read how she works through the various stages of her sickness and what she learns as she goes through it. It also shows how something like this shakes your beliefs to the core.
One of the interesting sub-themes in the book is her take on how Christians approach adversity. She actually did her doctoral thesis (and later authored a book) on the Prosperity Gospel and so knows its tenets inside and out. She comments throughout the book on how people in that movement essentially discount adversity as something ungodly. It’s not God’s plan for someone to go through bad times, so if you do, it’s likely as a result of your lack of faith or effort. However, she also notes that people in that movement share with everyone a desire to escape from the tough parts of life and a need to find answers to its randomness. The prosperity gospel tells them that faith will always provide the way. What she admits to herself is that all of us can fall prey to that kind of thinking: I would love to report that what I found in the prosperity gospel was something so foreign and terrible to me that I was warned away. But what I discovered was both familiar and painfully sweet: the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes. And no matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creed’s outrageous certainties, I craved them just the same. I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest.
The reason I’m not sure about her belief is that she poses lots of questions and doesn’t necessarily provide definitive answers. Of course, that’s kind of the thesis of the book – things happen that can’t be explained (similar message as in Job). Along those lines, the ending is a little frustrating because it doesn’t tell us what ultimately happens to her. The book was written this year and she’s presumably still getting treatment, but as the book ends the diagnosis is still that she’s terminal. Her blog (katebowler.com), however, makes it seem as if she’s doing well (and gives instructions on how you can book her for speaking engagements). All that to say, there’s uncertainty in the book both about her beliefs and her ultimate outcome – which, I guess, is somewhat the point.
Two paragraphs in the introduction give a good sample of the book’s tone: Married in my twenties, a baby in my thirties, I won a job at my alma mater straight out of graduate school. I felt breathless with the possibilities. Actually, it’s getting harder to remember what it felt like, but I don’t think it was anything as simple as pride. It was certainty, plain and simple, that God had a worthy plan for my life in which every setback would also be a step forward. I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful, with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life’s journey. I believed God would make a way. I don’t believe that anymore.
I wish this were a different kind of story. But this is a book about befores and afters and how people in the midst of pain make up their minds about the eternal questions: Why? Why is this happening to me? What could I have done differently? Does everything actually happen for a reason? If I accept that what is happening is something I cannot change, can I learn how to let go?
The parts of the book about how people interact with her are really illuminating. It’s amazing what people will say to someone who’s dying. She has a doctor tell her straight out that it’s time to die. She has tons of people tell her that this is happening for a reason and God has a better plan for her and of course is closing doors and opening windows. She gets pretty cynical about these comments and it makes for entertaining reading. It also makes, however, for a good warning about the danger of always feeling like we have to say something or come up with excuses for God. One of the huge lessons of the book of Job is that God is WAY too big to be explained. And that goes for His actions too. Believers don’t have to have all the answers to someone’s suffering or pain and the vast majority of time the best thing to do is to not try to divine God’s purpose. Bowler actually includes an appendix listing all the things you should NOT say to someone battling a terminal illness. It might be worth getting the book just to see the list.
I’ll leave you with a few other quotes from the book. I’d definitely recommend it as it’s easy to read and will prompt a lot of thinking. And if you’ve been through something like this yourself or alongside someone else, I’m sure much of what she writes will resonate.
I used to think that grief was about looking backward, old men saddled with regrets or young ones pondering should-haves. I see now that it is about eyes squinting through tears into an unbearable future. The world cannot be remade by the sheer force of love. A brutal world demands capitulation to what seems impossible – separation. Brokenness. An end without an ending.
In those first few days after my diagnosis, when I was in the hospital, I couldn’t see my son, I couldn’t get out of bed, and I couldn’t say for certain that I would survive the year. But it felt as though I’d uncovered something like a secret about faith. Even in lucid moments, I found my feelings so difficult to explain. I kept saying the same thing: “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to go back.” At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.
Sometimes this ability to live in the moment feels like a gift. My pain feels connected to the pain of others somehow. I notice the look of exhaustion on the young mom’s face at the grocery store and help her with her cart. I stop to talk to the homeless man sitting on the corner. I give money away more freely, less begrudgingly. I can see now how hard people work to keep it together, but the walls that keep their lives from falling apart are brittle.
My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is love. [Zach is her toddler son and Toban is her husband]