It’s January — that dreaded season when the wellness, diet, and personal improvement industries kick into high gear to convince us that we can be perfected. Yes, we may have slipped over the holidays, but the new year promises that if we only “organize ourselves, heal ourselves, budget ourselves, love ourselves, and eat well enough” we can make ourselves whole.
Oh, and did I mention that pigs can fly?
In America, it isn’t only the secular con men you have to avoid. Many of the successful megachurches are led by proponents of the “prosperity gospel” who suggest that virtue and success go hand-in-hand.
In the midst of all this deceit, we need a reminder that it is much easier to count items — calories, experiences on a bucket list, acquisitions, college degrees, church memberships — than to know what counts.
Here’s a good reminder: No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) (2021) by Kate Bowler explores how to handle the life you’re given instead of something from an unattainable dream. The toxic positivity of the current advice and prosperity industry — which encourages us to “seize the day, live in the present, work on a bucket list” — asks us to ignore our humanness. Bowler makes the direct, honest, and humorous case that this is bunk.
An associate professor of the history of American Christianity at Duke Divinity School whose personal field of study is the prosperity gospel, Bowler writes that the sustaining myth of the American Dream “rests on a hearty can-do spirit surmounting all obstacles.” But not all problems can be overcome.
Her journey begins in this memoir with the discovery of stage-four colon cancer and her immediate thought that she can’t die, because she’s only thirty-five, has just had a son, and has her dream academic job. Her extended family — where there are a number of Mennonites bringing their propensity for overwork, pacifism, simplicity, “and the foreboding sense that God is very disappointed by naps” — comes to help. There are months-and-months of painful clinical trials, which she later comes to realize puts her and others — who want to live as desperately as she does but are unknowingly added to the control group that isn’t treated — in the position of lab rats. She gets a misdiagnosis and fumes at the impersonal nature of what Natalie Goldberg calls the “cancer-industrial complex.”
While on a visit to the Grand Canyon, she comes upon a small, rural chapel, where she sees walls covered with words.
I miss you every day.
Please let my daughter be the way she was before.
Did you make it to heaven, my love?
Helen, I am weak. But you already knew that.
There are hundreds of slips of paper stuffed into the rafters and seams in the wall written by people undone by life’s tragedies. “People just like me,” Bowler says in a Ted Talk, “who were stumbling around in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.” Her husband, Toban, comes into the space and together they take in the enormity of the need and hurt.
Finally Toban says, “I used to think we were the only ones.”
“Me too,” she agrees.
Bowler’s honest, courageous, and humorous take on what it means to be human is deeply spiritual without being overtly religious. She is examining in a very accessible way how she’s come to terms with her new reality, its limitations, and the knowledge that, actually, not all things are possible.
“Nothing,” she writes, “will exempt me from the pain of being human.”
“Behind a lot of her work is a prophetic critique of American consumerist culture, of American fantasies and our sense of exceptionalism,” her friend, the retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, told the Washington Post. “She’s a well-formed Christian in the Mennonite tradition who responds to pain and difficulty and challenges differently than others and she’s so successful at communicating that.”
There are wonderful echoes of, and links to, Natalie Goldberg’s story of surviving cancer as told in her powerful memoir-as-meditation Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home as well as Kathryn Schulz‘s tender Lost & Found. Like Goldberg, Bowler ponders how even long-time friends seem to move along emotionally, either because they are busy with their routines, or, as Goldberg suggests, they don’t know (really know) that they will die. Like Schulz, she sees the balance between good and bad that makes up the world, what Schulz describes as “life is and.” Bowler says in her Ted Talk that “I see that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, gorgeous and tragic. I can’t reconcile the contradiction, except that I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out.”
Life will break your heart. Life may take everything you have and everything you’ve hoped for. But there is one gratifying truth I believe in: I believe that in the darkness, even there, there will be beauty and there will be love. And every now and then, it will feel more than enough.
At the end of this lyrical memoir, Bowler takes a trip to see the Batalha Monastery in Portugal where the Unfinished Chapels, commissioned by King Duarte in 1434, stand with ornate walls and windows, but no ceiling. The project was abandoned and never finished. Bowler meets an old man on-site who asks her excitedly,
Don’t you see? It’s us! I can’t imagine a more perfect expression of this life. We’re never done, dear. Even when we’re done, we’re never done.”
Bowler muses, “We do too much, never enough, and are done before we’ve even started.”
Then, with truths we need to hear, she ends with the observation, “It’s better this way.”
More to come…
Photo of the Unfinished Chapel by Antonio Sessa on Unsplash
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