There Is No Going Back to Before
Some fragmented thoughts on "No Cure for Being Human," the new book by church historian and beautiful human Kate Bowler
Sunday, September 26
East Sandwich, Massachusetts
Hello, dear reader.
I was still in the part of Kate Bowler’s new book, No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), when Roman numerals are being used to count the pages, which is to say, near the very beginning, before the real book with real page numbers has even started, when I felt deep and profound annoyance. Amidst a brief but deft skewering of the American vision of success—commodified, commercialized, embodied “in the stack of self-help books on the bedside table,” which remind you that “there are oceans to plumb and mountains to climb and planes to exit mid-air”—Kate playfully trotted out one of my least favorite phrases: “Carpe diem!”
Seize the freaking day.
I hate that saying so much. I’d like to carpe it and banish it permanently. So when I called Kate recently to talk with her about No Cure for Being Human, which comes out on Tuesday (order it now!), of course I started with a rant about seizing the day.
Sometimes I don’t want to seize the day, I said. Sometimes I want to rebuke the day. Sometimes I just want to hold onto it limply, because the day doesn’t deserve even the tiniest bit of energy. And am I the only one who wonders: Do I have the power to seize a day? Anyway, is every day worth seizing? I asked. Shouldn’t I—shouldn’t we—question the underlying premises of that question?
Eventually Kate stopped laughing at me. “No one else will ever start an interview there, ever,“ she said. Then she added: “The place where people want to go is: Just tell me how to make the present more meaningful. Tell me how to squeeze every minute for its last existential drop. Tell me the formula for making the now solve all the problems that every day brings.”
Kate’s greatest gift to us—in No Cure for Being Human but also in her other work—might be her refusal to offer any such formula. She knows it would be an utter lie. And anyway, she wants us to regard more beautiful, if more difficult, truths, including the irreconcilable, complicated entanglement of what she calls “our pain and our joy and our not-quite-enoughness.”
Kate Bowler’s professional biography would suggest that she does not suffer from the not-quite-enoughness that so many of the rest of us feel. An alumna of Macalester, Yale, and Duke, she serves as an associate professor of North American church history at Duke Divinity School. She hosts the podcast Everything Happens (in the most recent episode, she chatted with Tony Hale of Veep and Arrested Development). She’s also one of the most versatile writers in the craft today. Her best-selling 2018 memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), has been praised by readers as wildly different as Glennon Doyle and Bill Gates. She pens gorgeous prayers, which you can find on Instagram and Twitter. With collaborator Jessica Richie, she’s working on Good Enough, a book of “devotionals for a life of imperfection” that will be published next year. And she’s fluent in the footnote-laden prose of the academic world; she followed up Blessed (2013), her history of the American prosperity gospel, with The Preacher’s Wife (2019), an incisive study of female power and fame in American evangelicalism.
I also know Kate would roll her eyes at the fact that I just trotted out her biography, because it says relatively little about who she is. The CV will tell you that she is a historian, for instance, but it can’t telegraph what a fiercely unrepentant church-history geek she really is. “I just enjoy the doing,” Kate told me. “It’s the opposite of that lottery question: ‘What would you do if you had a million dollars?’ Instead, it’s, ‘What would you do if you had nothing and then what little you had was taken away?’ I would still want to write history books.” To her, the excavation and analysis matters. “History helps bear up the weight of having the right conversations—and it’s valuable to civilization to do that,” she said. “Really, in the bottom of my heart, I believe that. And I don’t necessarily mean that my book on the history of Christian women will bear up the weight of civilization, but in general.”
Though Kate insists that she’d do this work even if a book sold only 500 library copies, one truth about being a writer is that you write not just to write but also to be read. So it strikes me that Kate fulfills the office of “professor” in another way: The title derives from the Latin profiteri, which means “to declare publicly,” “to acknowledge,” or “to claim.” I don’t know anyone else who so consistently declares publicly a message of hope, who so compellingly and hilariously acknowledges the complications of life, and who so beautifully claims a place for us in a narrative of love.
It’s too easy to hypothesize that Kate is so invested in finding hope because she feels unusual urgency to do so: She was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer six years ago, at age 35. I don’t want to sugarcoat this: I feel nervous writing about her hope, her hilarity, and her storytelling about love, because on the day I called her, she wasn’t feeling hopeful or hilarious or even loving. Her body was letting her down, her spirit was flagging, and she wasn’t in the seize-the-day mood. “Today is hard,” she said.
She thought back to her own “before” times, especially one specific instant: “the moment I saw my kid’s giant baby fish eyes.” She’d had a difficult pregnancy, one uncushioned by any romantic notions about motherhood. Then she gave birth to Zach. “All of a sudden, there was this magical creature, and I just knew: We were going to love each other for the rest of our dumb lives,” Kate told me. “We just had lasers of love that looked at each other, and that was it for me. I was like: Oh! There you are! What the hell?”
There were other moments—“moments when I couldn’t even approximate self-sufficiency, moments where the past was this gift. The feeling of being loved and prayed for when I’ve been sick. The feeling of people sending me presents and loving me especially when I was undone,” she said. “Man. The past. What a beautiful place to live. I don’t want to live in this day all the time. I want to live in the yesterday, which was great.”
She began to tear up. I thought I might have to say something comforting—not my forte!—and my mind raced, not in any attempt to seize the day so much as to summon some coherent, mildly soothing sentiment for this one moment. Really, I just wanted to sit and cry with my friend, not interview her about her new book. But then Kate kept talking: “I think we are also supposed to live in the future, in the story that God is telling about us,” she said. “I don’t think anyone who works for justice could remain sane if they thought that the present was the only story that could be.”
One thing that Kate offers in No Cure for Being Human is a reevaluation of how we understand time—not just past, present, and future, which sit not in a tidy line but enmeshed with one another, but also the layers within each of those. Her friend and Duke colleague Luke Bretherton, a theological ethicist, shared with Kate the idea that, even in a single day, we experience different kinds of time. There’s pastoral time, which is the quotidian stuff of getting on with things like washing the dishes and brushing one’s teeth. There’s tragic time, which reckons with loss and suffering and what is and has been. And there’s apocalyptic time, which pivots toward the revelatory and shows things for what they are and will be. (My sketch is a crude reduction of Bretherton’s framework, which he applies to political theology in his book Christ and the Common Life.) “Each is able to show me a different part of the truth,” Kate said. “Sometimes I feel like a bomb about to explode. Other times, I feel like an armchair philosopher: Guys, everyone needs to understand that... And other times, I’m just super-pissed.”
Kate has had to reexamine her constructs of time because she can no longer speak about the future as so many of us do. “I honestly don’t know anything that was as jarring to me than to not be able to speak in future tense,” she said. “Cosmically, we’re all finite—blah blah blah. But it is truly jarring to no longer have a long-term horizon, not even in your casual speech. That causes a cliff every couple of sentences. We’re all like that hypothetically, but when it’s you literally, it’s living inside a certain trauma. The world has an enduringness to it—and it will exclude you specifically.”
She offered a half-smile. “I want to live for yesterday, and I want to live for tomorrow, and I think we do that for wonderful reasons. Because in that version, there is love everywhere we look. But if I just took at today, today is really hard.”
“Beautiful,” I said. “I’m with you... 90%.”
She narrowed her eyes playfully. “Fight me, Jeff,” she said.
“Aren’t you editing the past to choose to focus on those beautiful moments?” I asked. “How do you keep it from becoming nostalgic?”
“Having scrapbooked in the 1990s like every white American evangelical girl, of course I’ve edited the past. I’ve even added bubble font,” Kate replied. “You’re right: We have to tell the truth about the present, which is that we don’t always want to be here. And we have to tell the truth about the past, which is that it is also full of ugliness, and our mistakes, and other people’s mistakes.”
How do we do this well? I don’t know. Kate rightly urges us away from toxic positivity, which addresses symptoms—our discomfort with uncertainty, say, or our inability to deal with grief—but never the underlying syndrome. While it might make us feel better temporarily, we aren’t actually better at all. So often, it refuses to look at what might have happened in the past, a gross erasure that bodes ill for the future.
If we need to repent of toxic positivity, though, I wonder if we also need to resist toxic candor, which unleashes the facts yet accepts little responsibility for the repercussions of “just sayin’.” If toxic positivity can lack candor, toxic candor can lack care. Without empathy or tenderheartedness, telling the truth might be honest, but it can also be cruel. (See: Twitter.)
“I’m always scared that there’s not going to be enough,” Kate said to me at one point.
“Enough what?” I asked.
“Time, for sure. Meaning. Like, have I loved the wrong things?” she said. “I’m not someone who has a strong fear of missing out, and I don’t do that revisionist ‘I should have’ work in my head very much. But I am scared of missing the point. And for me, the point usually is just something unbelievably obvious about love. Like, if I missed out on the person in front of me, then I was probably choosing the wrong thing.”
“But a lot of what you identify in the book is that the sense of not-enoughness is often very individualistic,” I said. So are the solutions. She writes in passing, for instance, about the idea of the Four-Hour Workweek, the brainchild of a man named Tim Ferriss, who happened to be in my class at college. “If you’re only working four hours and somehow you’re still managing to pay the bills, I’m convinced someone else must be bearing the cost,” I said. “It can’t just be you.”
“It can’t just be you,” in multiple and less-self-centered modes, might be one fitting summary of No Cure for Being Human. Within each of us, there isn’t going to be enough—but together, with one another, there might just be.
One of my favorite sentences in the book: “We live and we are loved and we are gone.” When I happened upon that line, I immediately re-read it. Then I read it again. I got stuck on the middle part. Kate didn’t write, “We live and we love and we are gone.” She wrote: “We live and we are loved and we are gone.” For some reason, she chose to position us as recipients of love, not as agents of it.
She returned to her son, a curious and funny kid who asks questions like, “Mom, do you think anyone has love like us?” She showed me a photograph of Zach as an infant, from the moment she’d mentioned earlier, when he stared at her with his disproportionately gigantic newborn eyes. “What is happening here?” she said. “I really don’t have a bigger experience than being surprised by other people’s love. I really don’t. When I went to a Michelin-starred restaurant for the first time, that was amazing. But nothing lands like the shock of being genuinely loved by somebody.”
Do you see how our conversation kept coming back to love? Love was the through-line: Love that surprises us. Love that has endured. Love that fuels love. Love that points us to a better story. Love expressed through cupcakes and absurdity, the openhearted questions of a child and the well-placed, carefully chosen expletives uttered by the dearest of friends. Love that empowers us not to run away from what’s inexplicable or what’s irreconcilable or what’s hard. Love that can help us laugh through our tears.
Love is ultimately No Cure for Being Human’s gorgeous heart. It reminds us: You’re not the only one who is in some pain. You’re not the only one who’s scared. You’re not the only one who wants a hand to hold. “Especially now, in the pandemic, in this never-ending pandemic, in this there-is-no-going-back-to-before feeling that we all have, I want us all to have a little more language and generosity for the fact that we’re finite,” Kate said. “We’re all in this position of grappling with our limits—and I want to be there with everybody else.”
Lately, Kate has been reminded again and again of her limits; physical pain has been a steady but unwanted companion. I asked her whether, as a person in pain, there was something she wishes someone would say to her but nobody really does, so she has had to say it to herself. “Or I just pay my friends to say it,” she said with a laugh.
“I love it when my friends tell me I’m loved or that I’m valuable to them. But...” She seemed to sense that she wasn’t answering my question. She paused, looking down and to her right, as she does whenever she’s searching for the right thought or attempting to construct the right sentence. “I’m not alone. That’s my favorite right now. I’m not alone. I think that’s it.”
To tell someone that they are not alone can be a way of saying that you love them. “The thing I really appreciate most is just the feeling of togetherness,” Kate said. “Whatever it is, we will figure it out together. It doesn’t have to be just you.”
Was she telling me this? Was she telling herself? I guess it doesn’t matter. Reading Kate’s words, I found myself returned repeatedly to the togetherness she so craves herself—a togetherness bound up inextricably with utter reality and ridiculous hope.
If not for reality, I suppose we wouldn’t really need hope—and if not for hope, I suppose I wouldn’t really care so much about reality. Sometimes it can seem so overwhelming, so huge an endeavor, to try to capture reality and cultivate hope. Yet in Kate’s company, somehow the geometry changes. “Trying again. Getting back up. Trusting someone new. Loving extravagantly inside these numbered days,” she writes. “These are such small decisions, really. But aren’t they all?”
Kate can see as rightly small what others of us blow up to be ridiculously big, and this must also have something to do with her ability to hope. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to try to suss out which comes first, the perspective or the hope, because they need each other. Yet I also wouldn’t want you to imagine that Kate has access to some secret reservoir of hope. It’s a struggle for her too. When I asked her what it means to her to hope right now, she looked away again and shook her head. It took her some time to begin to answer.
“That has been a big question for me,” she said finally. “I’ve tried to disentangle hope from certainty, feeling like hope had to be certainty. I wasn’t liking the word ‘hope,’ and I wasn’t liking the word ‘faith’ either. Hope in what? Faith in God to do what?” Eventually, she landed on a conviction: “Hope for me is the belief that I am in a story that is about love—God’s love for me and our love for each other. And that feels very hopeful to me.”
In one of the book’s most moving reflections, Kate writes: “Someday we won’t need to hope. Someday we won’t need courage. Time itself will be wrapped up with a bow, and God will draw us all into the eternal moment where there will be no suffering, no disease, no email. In the meantime, we are stuck with our beautiful and terrible finitude.... We are cobbled together by the softest material, laughter and pets and long talks with old friends. By God’s unscrupulous love and by communities who give us a place to belong.”
No Cure for Being Human gives us one place to belong. Redolent with hope and radiant with courage, it shouts of the extravagant love that we can find inside these numbered days, if only we stopped lusting after sunny weather forecasts or repented of our insatiable longing for the dissonant chord to resolve. “We are not failing. We are not problems to be solved,” Kate writes. “We can have meaning and beauty and love, but nothing even close to resolution.”
What a benediction. What a good, wise word she offers for our times and for our circumstances. And while there might be no cure for being human, here at least we find a beautiful and much-needed balm.
Well, that was kind of long. The writing and editing muscles are feeling a little rusty. But I hope this much is clear: I love Kate, and I love her book, and I hope you will read it, and love it, and love her, too.
Someone wrote to me the other day to ask whether I’d removed them from my email list, because they hadn’t received a letter lately. Not at all! My apologies for my recent silence. While I do try to write to you most weeks, I decided to take some time just for Tristan and me, ahead of what is going to be an intense and intensely busy autumn. We hiked, and we ate, and we explored, and we ate some more, and it was good.
As always, I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.