What's Tony Thinking

Kate Bowler to the Rescue


Kate Bowler, prof at Duke Divinity School, historian of American religion, and patient living with incurable cancer, offers some great counsel for “living in the face of fear.” I’m a big Bowler fan. Here she is on “staying positive” in this crisis.

Q. What do you make of the idea that we should all just “stay positive” through this?

A. The idea that we’re all supposed to be positive all the time has become an American obsession. It gives us momentum and purpose to feel like the best is yet to come. But the problem is when it becomes a kind of poison, in which it expects that people who are suffering — which is pretty much everyone right now — are somehow always supposed to find the silver lining or not speak realistically about their circumstances.

The main problem is that it adds shame to suffering, by just requiring everyone to be prescriptively joyful. If I see one more millionaire on Instagram yell that she is choosing joy, while selling journals in which stay-a- home moms are supposed to write joy mantras, I am going to lose my mind!”

Bowler’s scholarly work is American religion, much of it focused on the mega-church phenomenon, which gives her an acute reading of our various American myths, or as she calls them “lies I’ve loved.” See her  Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Q.What is that revealing about the collective soul of the country, or the world, right now?

A. I think it’s painful for everyone to know that there’s just not a lot of room between anybody and the very edge. It really does run counter to the whole American story. It’s a story about how scrappy individuals will always make it, and it’s a story about how Americans’ collective self-understanding will always build something that will save the nation. And currently both things are not true. Everyone else in the world will suffer too, but I don’t think they will suffer nearly the same cultural disillusionment because they didn’t have that account of exceptionalism.

Bowler’s experience of living with cancer has taught her things about living a day at a time.

Q. You’ve been sharing daily wisdom in your Instagram stories, giving people permission to feel and just be. In one post you say, “Today it is OK to be limited.” Tell us about that.

A. You mean when I’m lightly crying and sitting in my pajamas?

Especially when you’ve drunk too deeply from the wells of invincibility, you get in a time like this and I think we feel confused. Like it’s 8 a.m., why am I still tired?

There was a rhythm I got into with cancer that has served me well right now. Every day sort of has an arc to it. There’s a limited amount that you’re going to be able to face as you stare into the abyss. Being able over the course of the day to track your own resources will help you know how to spend them.

There’s just a minute where you know, OK, I’m starting to hit the wall. Time to turn the boat around. There’s only so much we can do, and in the face of unlimited need we have to not just wildly oscillate between sort of intense action and then narcolepsy.

How do we how feel the day and allow ourselves to be human inside of it? I think that’s really tricky work.

There’s more in the interview, and Bowler does a daily instagram post, is you want dailies. I’ll wrap up with her thoughts on prayer, which I find totally refreshing.

Q. I’ve been thinking about how this is happening in an increasingly secular America, and how there are people who have these deep resources in their religious communities and there are others who don’t. What if you are someone right now who doesn’t pray?

A. For me part of the joy of prayer is having abandoned the formula. I have no expectation that prayer works in a direct way. But I do hope that every person, religious or not, feels the permission to say, “I’m at the edge of what I know. And in the face of the sea of abyss, someone out there please show me love.” Because that’s to me the only thing that fills up the darkness. It’s somehow in there, the feeling that I am not for no reason. And that doesn’t mean anything better is going to happen to me, but in the meantime that I will know that we all are deeply and profoundly loved. That’s my hope for everybody.


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