Ever since I read her article in the New York Times, “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party,” I have wanted to read Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Several friends have strongly recommended the book to me, with the caveat that I should read it in parts, with sufficient tissues on hand. Truth be told, though intrigued, I was reluctant to actually pick it up. I was afraid of what I might find within the pages. Bowler tells the story of her stage IV colon cancer diagnosis at age 35, when she had a two year old son. How her life, perfect in that wonderfully fulfilling, yet imperfect, way, came crashing down around her, immeasurably wrecked by a diagnosis so similar to mine – metastatic cancer.
Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School, and utilizes her area of research – the prosperity gospel – as a background upon which she paints her narrative. She tells the story of her diagnosis, her treatment, and her fears, emotions, and gradual understanding of both her life and her cancer. She parses out the truths of the prosperity gospel: that abundant riches are available on earth and reach far beyond our understanding of those available in heaven. She faces the idea that her riches – her husband and young son, her family and friends, career, her life, would no longer be available to her after her death in their present states, and she struggles to find understanding of this aspect of her faith in the wake of her cancer diagnosis. Through her writing, I felt the frantic, pieced-together gestalt of someone grappling with mortality, trying to make sense of the nonsensical. I saw myself in her story, and in too many instances, felt myself cry-nodding, knowing full well the cliff she stood on, because I stand there too.
The central theme of the book hinges on the dichotomy between the realities of cancer and the well-meaning but banal aphorisms that cancer patients often receive. Bowler’s story is a series of snapshots that depict her unique situation in a way that those also facing terminal diagnoses can fully relate. She grapples to understand our misplaced entitlement at a future – any future – and how to reconcile that with the hand she had been dealt. Bowler states, “I am stuck in present tense. With a scan around every corner, I have lost the ability to make extended plans, to reach into the future and speak its language.” She further writes “my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others, a world of those, who, like me, are stumbling in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.” Here, her understanding of the prosperity gospel movement dovetails with the vast, oceanic uncertainty of stage IV. Bowler identifies early on that we all live out our versions of the prosperity gospel, through personal, societal, and cultural mores that clash, strikingly, with the diagnosis of Unknown Future. However, she also touches on the beauty of cancer, the joy that we can find only when we acknowledge the pain; “The horror of cancer has made everything seems like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.“
Bowler is a planner, someone who can usually work, organize, or push their way through most things (I can relate). I see so much of myself in Bowler’s story, so much of my cancer self, but also the deeper cuts, the personality traits that have made both of us who we are, as women, mothers, wives, friends, and professionals. I will admit having to read quickly through some of the passages detailing her pain when thinking of her young son. I am living that life too closely to find comfort in those words. Near the end of the book, a close friend of Bowler’s reminded her, “Don’t skip to the end.” This adage, specifically, resonated with me deeply. I had only the day before gotten into a late-bight conversation with my husband Christian about that such topic, about how to make peace with, or at least make sense of, our current limbo. He expressed trepidation about living in such a way, but feared knowing what “the end” held for us. I had no words to reassure him, no platitudes to ease his mind, because there are none available to us. How do we find a way to live this life when the blinders have been stripped away? I often feel like he and I are privy to a beautiful, terrible secret: life is not ours to dictate, and even if we could, we do not want to skip to the end. Bowler does not prostlytize this revelation, instead, giving us a feature-length cogitation on cancer’s conundrum. As her book’s title gives away, she offers no deeper, larger meaning to her diagnosis, but instead, sharpens the lens for those both inside and outside of life with cancer, in different way.