No Cure for Being Human: (and Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler

No Cure for Being Human cover imageSummary: A follow-up memoir-ish book about what it is like to shift from dealing with the active grief of a cancer diagnosis to an ongoing chronic illness that may at any time be fatal. 

Kate Bowler’s earlier book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I Loved, deserves all the praise it has recieved. I had followed her podcast and story and was aware of her earlier academic book on the history of the American prosperity gospel (I bought it nearly four years ago, but I still haven’t read it yet). I read Everything Happens for a Reason in December 2018. It is such a helpful book for those of us that are around grief and death and illness but are not the one who is the immediate subject of the illness or grief. It details the cliché unhelpful advice that we are so often tempted to give. Or as Adam McHugh says in The Listening Life,

“When we try to help someone in pain, we often end up saying or doing things, subconsciously, to assuage our own anxiety. Let’s be honest: we often want others to be okay so we can feel okay. We want them to feel better and move on so our lives can return to normal. We try to control the conversation as a way of compensating for our anxiety. Our approach to people in pain can amount to self-therapy.”

In the midst of a global pandemic where many people have died, and many others have ongoing illness or harm from the economic or other ramifications of the pandemic, it is important to remember the main message of trying to put a neat Christian bow on suffering and pain. No Cure for Being Human is a follow-up to that. At some point, if you do not die, you have to go back to living life again, albeit often differently. Life feels differently because of the trauma or illness or whatever it is, but others have not had the same experience, and their world has not shifted.

I know I have had experiences when I wanted the whole world to stop because my world changed, 9/11, my father-in-law passing away, the start of covid, even minor things like being on vacation. But we are not the center of the world, and other people’s worlds continue, even if ours has shifted.

Our world is not really designed for human weakness and imperfection. Just-in-time scheduling ensures that if you stop, your work keeps going. If you get sick, bills still have to be paid, kids still have to get fed, and trash still has to be taken out. Kate Bowler may have had stage four cancer that almost no one survives from with debilitating treatments and huge bills and impacts to her life and the lives of those around her, but how does she keep going? Does she keep writing, not just these books, but her academic work as well (spoiler, she did keep writing and published this academic history of Christian Women celebrities in the midst of her cancer.)

This is a quick book; I read it in two days on Christmas break. It was engaging. And I think it is particularly timely because while we don’t all have stage four cancer, we are in a global pandemic that has entered its third year and has a cost. This quote, I think, is particularly relevant to our place in covid right now.

“Pain is simultaneously intimate and distant, intense and boring. And, according to my rough calculations, any news, no matter how terrible, seems like old hat after about three months. Your leg spontaneously exploded? The polar bears are unionizing now? Oh, I heard that already. We find it especially difficult to talk about anything chronic—meaning any kind of pain, emotional or physical, that abides and lives with us constantly. The sustaining myth of the American Dream rests on a hearty can-do spirit surmounting all obstacles, but not all problems can be overcome. So often we are defined by the troubles we live with, rather than the things we conquer. Any persistent suffering requires being afraid, but who can stay awake to fear for so long?”

I saw on Twitter yesterday someone saying that (my paraphrase to obscure the actual person saying it) that everyone that takes medicine on an ongoing basis should just exercise and cut the dosage in half. The response was predictable; people with organ transplants asking if half of the drugs they take to repress the body’s rejection of the organ was really a good idea. Or people with diabetes asking if they should take half of their needed insulin, or people on serious drugs that need to be weaned off carefully should just cut their dosages in half and disregard the problems of that. The tweet was dumb and universal in very unhelpful ways. But it was a good example of Bowler’s contention that we are bad as a society at dealing with chronic problems. We want to solve problems and move on. But life is a chronic condition that we just can’t move on from. We have bodies that fail or change in ways we do not always like.

Bowler is a good writer. Having listened to her podcast regularly, I appreciate her humor and seriousness. She has told a very open story, but no vulnerability can be complete. We are all still revealing ourselves in part, which is part of what it means to be human and communicate (as James KA Smith says). No Cure For Being Human is just as helpful as Everything Happens for a Reason. Bowler is a gift, and I hope she is around for a long time so that I can keep learning from her.

No Cure for Being Human: (and Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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