kate bowler

Life After Certainty - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Life After Certainty.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.


Listen to the episode here.


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Hello, everybody. This is Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking”... as recorded no longer in our studio. If you’re listening to this in the future, this was recorded in the age of COVID-19, during the pandemic of 2020 when we were all working remotely, and we were all very stressed about our uncertain futures. Working from home, working from our cars, doing our best. 

So with that in mind, let’s do our show.

I’m Nora McInerny (I already said that), and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” (I already said that also). And this is Kate Bowler, telling me about growing up in Manitoba, Canada.

Kate: It was very wintery. It was really, kinda, lower middle class everywhere. I love the Canadian spirit which is that, like, “Oh, it probably won’t get any better but… it’s pretty good, right?” I grew up around Mennonites, and Mennonites are... they're a group that grew out of the 1500s reformation and they pride themselves on simplicity and being unbelievably cheap and later perfected the art of the Jello salad, with like a little hidden deli meat in there somewhere. And they are a wonderful place to find a boyfriend in high school and go to summer camp and to ask people about chicken catching, which they're all super good at. And —

Nora: How do you catch a chicken? 

Kate: It's actually a very scratchy... it's a super scratchy thing. So, you better get, you better get ready. 

Now, we all know that in polite society we don’t talk about religion, politics, sex or money. And we all know that I am not very impolite, and some of you also dabble in this same impoliteness. We’re not really talking about religion in this episode. Not really. We’re just talking about life. Which… aren’t we always?

Kate is religious. But Kate is also a garbage-sledding, chicken-catching Canadian Mennonite who grew up believing in a God that showed up in the suffering. 

Kate: I went to a Mennonite church and a Mennonite camp, and I was mostly surrounded by Christians that were Mennonites, and it really infused my sense of a very collective faith. That God was… ah... the kind of entity that would show up when lots of people were around with casseroles on ping pong tables. And suffering was never something you should do by yourself, because there was always somebody else who was gonna be there to try to fill in the holes and paper up the difference. And that was… that was something I always really admired. It has wonderfully low expectations. I was never imagining that like, God wanted you to have the McMansion with the Barbie Dream Home. There was no Barbie Dream Home in Mennonite world. There was just a lot of very goodhearted people who believed in a God who prided himself on closeness. And you certainly felt it. 

Their church was a little run down, filled with imperfect people who lived imperfectly. It was the only church that Kate had ever known.

Until a new church came to town.

Kate: And I honestly thought that it was a warehouse until I saw all the people pouring out of it on a Sunday morning, and I discovered that, no, it was in fact an enormous congregation, Canada's largest megachurch. And it had a pastor with fabulous hair and that he had begun a new holiday called Pastors Appreciation Day. And he had insisted that his congregation donate funds for a motorcycle, which he then rode around on stage. And I was… ah… I remember telling everyone I could meet like, no, that is for Americans. We don't do that. And it turns out that, um, all kinds of Mennonite friends I had actually went there and, ah, it began a kind of mystery puzzle in me, like, what is it? What is that faith? Number one. Number two, how could it promise such very different things than the Mennonite faith I grew up with? And, um, how is it that it could grow up here amidst the cheese eaters of southern Manitoba? And so that became a kind of historical obsession that would last me the next 10 years. 

Kate was just a teenager, and while many teenagers in this same era were obsessed with, say, The Backstreet Boys or NSync or Britney vs. Christina, Kate — as you heard — was obsessed with… a church.

Kate: I discovered that there was this whole religious movement called the Prosperity Gospel for its very bold belief that God wants you to prosper. It had a language of faith that wasn't about hope or trust. It was that faith was like a spiritual power that you unleash with your words and your positive thoughts that could make incredible things come to pass. So I met people who believed that God had brought them the Mercedes in their driveway and their absolutely gorgeous wife, Tina, and the happiness and success of their kids. And they really believed that God would give them everything and more within the course of their life. So that was, that was very different than the very humble, um, modest faith that I was used to. 

This was fascinating to Kate. Not just that ONE church, but this entire movement. And she gets… real weird about it. It’s her area of focus in college. Whereas many of us — and I won’t name names — spent our weekends blacking out in disgusting basements, Kate spent her weekends heading into the megachurches that surrounded her American college. Sometimes, she takes her boyfriend, Tobin, along with her. 

Kate: And so I wrote my little senior thesis on that. And ah, and then by the time I was, ah, in my master's program, I was full bananas about it. I was like, “Where is it? How can I ruin family vacations? Where can you drop me off?” And like, poor sweet Tobin, who had signed on to teen marriage by then, was always getting, like, dropped off in the Starbucks lobby of the megachurch while I went inside with my clipboard, terrorizing kindly strangers. 

Even if you aren’t a Christian, or aren’t Christian-adjacent, you’re probably familiar with some of what we’re talking about. Think of Joel Osteen, Oprah’s friend. Or the HBO Show “The Righteous Gemstones,” which is very funny. Think about certain phrases you’ve heard when things get hard. Phrases like...

Kate: “Everything happens for a reason.” There's a lot of, “God has a plan.” Ah, “God is opening, ah, closing doors, but there's, like, a whole window opening somewhere.”

Nora: You're like ah, you're gonna need to work on upper body strength, is my advice for you. 

Kate: God is just out there building obstacle courses. Um, it's always a hidden lesson. Ah, there's always, yea, there's always some kind of lesson in there. “The best is yet to come,” so you don't know what it is. Sometimes when people die, they reach right for “God needed an angel” because God is an evil sadist or just like building a choir of angels at all times. 

Kate’s fascination with this brand of Christianity began as a personal interest, and then developed into an academic focus… and then into a professional focus, as Kate becomes a professional academic. Specifically, a professor at the Divinity School at Duke University.  And Kate has spent that professional life digging into the history of the prosperity gospel and its evolution into mainstream society. She’s a walking Wikipedia entry, with great hair and great teeth.  

Nora: For the listeners who don't know, give me a lesson in what prosperity gospel is and where it came from. 

Kate: So it's a, it's a language of faith. Faith as a power. Faith that you release with your words and your mind. So, the whole idea of positive thinking is really brought together in this movement where every thought has to be a good one. Every word out of your mouth cannot be sarcastic, Nora McInerny. It has to be ah, so if you say, um, “I'm believing God for,” or “I have faith for,” you really think that your words are like magic that go out and then make it come to pass.

Those things come to pass in a few key areas: In wealth. In health. In miracles in general. In life going well for them, and the people they love. So as Kate slips into these spaces, with her clipboard and her academic point of view… what exactly is she looking at? What is she looking for? 

Kate: So I, I saw Prosperity Gospel all the time at healing rallies that I went to, in which they were looking for miracles of all kinds — so financial, physical, emotional, being released also from… they would lump any kind of mental illness under there. So I looked for faith. I looked for wealth. I looked for health. And there was kind of a thing I began to think of as, as, as victory. So the overall sense that all things could be made right within the course of their life. And you see that even in, like, megachurch titles called like “Victory Church” or um... “Overcoming Faith” there's a lot of exclamation marks. Or like soaring eagles as logos. It's a very cheerful, infectious kind of faith that demands an enthusiasm that you can feel the second you walk through the door. 

Nora: And it’s like... it's appealing for that reason. I have to say like... as a person for whom... I mean, I grew up Catholic, and the churches are beautiful, but the service is a real snooze. Just a, (pretending to sing) "na hana mana hana.”

Kate: Yea, but in the ‘70s, they did “Eagle's Wings.”

Nora: That's true. (both singing): “And I will raise you up on eagle's wings.” 

By the way, “Eagle’s Wings” is a jam and also very hard to sing in a key where you can hit ALL the notes. Our church cantor was always WAAAAY TOO HIGH on eaaaaagle’s wings. I needed her to bring it down to a register that we could all sing.

Back to the topic — health, wealth, blessings, miracles. These aren’t really that different from the same things that you’ll see highlighted in secular or very vaguely religious books that exist in the positivity economy. Books and podcasts and webinars and rallies about how if you think the right thoughts, your life will be good. It will be better. Thoughts become THINGS! It’s IN YOUR CONTROL! 

And because Kate IS a walking Wikipedia entry, she can talk about that for a long time.

Kate: The idea that your mind is really powerful is an idea that really developed in the late 19th century. And it began this American, I would say, obsession with the idea that the most important thing about a person is their well-ordered mind. And so you see it develop at the same time as the rise of the discipline of psychology and all kinds of analogous religious movements that said, like, what we need most is right thought. And if we have good thought, then we will... it sort of, like, orders all other parts of your life. And so, we end up seeing all kinds of versions of that across the 20th century. And the prosperity gospel really takes off full force after World War II, where people, for the most part, especially white Americans, become middle class. And we see already there that a message like the prosperity gospel works for different groups in different ways. So, if you are extremely wealthy, then the prosperity gospel will explain what you already have. And if you're middle class, it will explain part of what you have and then give you still a language of aspiration for more. And if you're lower class, I mean, one of the great promises of the prosperity gospel is, is that somehow in America there will be enough for you. And all you need is the right kind of attitude and the right kind of faith. And so for people who don't have a lot to start with, it can be very inspirational. So, I mean, that's why we see it in... I mean, there's, in Toronto, for example, most of the large Canadian megachurches there are overwhelmingly first-generation immigrant prosperity megachurches where people are like trying to figure out what more feels like. But it kind of works for everybody in different ways.

I mean, the prosperity gospel for all of its inspiration — like “God can give you more… tomorrow is better… the best is yet to come” — all of that really seems very encouraging, but it has a very sharp edge, which is that, well, what happens if those things don't come true? Then who's to blame? And the answer is always you. If there's something wrong with your life, then no matter what, it's your responsibility to fix it. And so while that can be somewhat encouraging for something like “try harder and the boss will notice you,” it's debilitating for people with, you know, for instance, terrible illnesses or the death of a child or, you know, the suicide of a parent, things that can't be solved through sheer grit. 

And um, this was… this was a hard thing for me, especially in that season, to be studying, because I had this really, ah, I had this terrible undiagnosed arm pain, which started off, ah, mild... like I was typing and then all of a sudden my fingers just kind of slowed. And it graduated into a raging, ah, disability, where at some point I was in double arm casts at a prosperity healing crusade, being like, stop looking at me, stop looking at me. It was not only just, like, hard to hold the pen and take the notes I wanted to, it always felt like an indictment, because the second the like healing time came around, ah, everyone would look at me like I was suddenly a test case for their faith and my own, and that I should somehow make sure that my body was fitting in with their theology of good, better, best. And that felt like a… it felt like a huge burden because, you know, I spent almost a decade searching for a diagnosis. And so I was already tired and scared at a time when then I also then had to feel like a failure. 

Now that we know Kate is a failure… we’re gonna take a quick break.

We’re back. Kate is studying the prosperity gospel. And even though she is simply OBSERVING this idea that if good things happen it’s thanks to God and if bad things happen, well, you must not have been good enough for God… when life is GOOD, it’s hard not to think you deserve it. And in 2015, once her doctors figure out why Kate’s arms weren’t working and get them back to normal-ish… Kate’s life IS pretty good.

And that FEELS good.

She is married to the boy who sat in Megachurch lobbies while she did her research.

She has her dream job. 

LIFE. IS. GOOD.

KATE IS GOOD!

Kate: Like, I was awesome for a second there. I really was just, like, temporarily pretty awesome. (laughter) I, like, had this super kick ass job I'd just gotten… academia is the land of a thousand crushed dreams. And I had somehow managed to get a job at a very fancy university. And so I'm working at Duke. I know how hard all of this is because my parents were both academics who really knew what the struggle was like. And I thought, “I've arrived.” I have a job. I have this book about the prosperity gospel. And I wrote it. Like, all of it. And I've got this husband I married a bajillion years ago, who somehow still finds me mildly amusing. And I have this dreamboat kid after years of infertility. 

Nora: Are there times when it seems, I don't know, are like... are there times when you're like, “Yeah, I kind of get this like,” yeah, I mean “maybe God does want this for me?” Like, maybe this is because like... because I said the right things, and.... 

Kate: Oh, but I for sure deserve it.

Nora: YES!

Kate: I mean, there's all kinds of, you know, wonderful study of cognitive bias about how this works. But like, when good things are happening, you just sort of accidentally, no matter how sophisticated you think you are, hope that it has something to do with how great you might be. Like, as much as... I am not American, but man, I can be such a little boot-straper. So from day one I'm like, “OK, well, what's next? How do I climb this ladder? Where do I go? What school should I go into? A great A? How could I go for the A plus? Just like chipper, perky, on to the next…”

That works for her until it doesn’t. Until she’s feeling things that are the opposite of blessed. Kate finds herself dealing with a debilitating, intense stomach pain. She sees doctor after doctor, and they can’t figure it out. It’s three or four months of stabbing pain, the kind which could double her over in pain, which she’d then stand up and shake off like “No big deal, guys!”

It’s September 15th, and the pain is so bad that she has told the doctor that she won’t leave the room until he gives her another scan and figures out what the hell hurts so bad. She gets the scan, and they all think it’s her gallbladder, a dumb little organ. No big deal. 

Kate: And then I was, um, just working in my office at Duke, conveniently very close to the hospital, and I got a call from the physician's assistant. And she told me, um... in a very flat voice that I had stage four cancer and that I was going to have to come to the hospital right away. And... I.... I don't even remember calling Tobin. I just remember when he was there. And he was like suddenly in my office and I said all of the things that you need to say. I said, “I have loved you forever. I have loved you forever, and I am so sorry. And please take care of our kid.” And then we made the, ah, glacial walk over to the hospital to start what I expected would be my... the rest of my new life. 

The rest of her life… which is what, when you have stage IV cancer? 

Which is what, exactly, when you’ve just said your goodbyes to your husband?

It’s easy to believe in God, or the Universe, or Karma, or ANYTHING when life is good. But what the fuck do we do in moments like this? Where do we go and what do we do with this kind of pain?

If we deserve all those good things, then do we deserve this?

Kate — who was studying the prosperity gospel, not worshipping at its altar — has a moment.

Kate:I was maybe 30 seconds into having a cancer life and I thought, “Oh, great, how ironic. I've just written a book called Blessed. I'm the historian of the prosperity gospel.” And I have to admit, I think I thought this was going to work out differently for me (laughter). I really did. I was like, I felt outrage. And part of that, I think, is just like the regular outrage you feel about, like, how dare you, whoever you are, take my beautiful life away from me. And then simultaneously, like, didn't I sort of think this whole time that I was earning my way out of this? Like this, this pain, this life, this, this whole thing where sometimes people fall all the way down. And I thought, “Not me. I am super scrappy. I'm from Winnipeg!” (laughter)

Nora: I sled on garbage! Okay? 

Kate: You don't understand how hard I worked. How hard I worked and how much this has just begun. And like, I'd finally felt like I had actually gotten somewhere. And then right in that moment, it all got ripped away. 

Kate’s position here is so common. A person receives a diagnosis or has an experience that is out of line with what they expected from life, from faith, from the world. And it’s so, so unique, because Kate is a person whose study of a specific brand of faith has permeated her academic exterior in ways she didn’t expect.

Kate has this realization that as objective an observer as she thought she was, she is also, like all the rest of us, just looking for some certainty in this world.

Kate: We all think, “If I could just wrap my hands around the thing that's gonna make up the difference in my life, like, my kid'll love me, husband will never leave me, I will finally feel meaning in my job…” whatever it is, like we want to figure out the mechanism that guarantees that this and this time it's going to work out. And when it doesn't, it is really hard to understand how hope should feel because you still have to get up. Like the day after the diagnosis, you still have to get up again the next day and try. And you have to figure out what trying feels like, even if you know that this might not or probably won't work out.

It probably won’t work out. But still, somewhere inside her, is a little secret prosperity gospel of her own. One that tells her if she is GOOD, then good things will happen. So even though she is, in her words, “not thrilled” by the diagnosis…

Kate: I switched immediately into a good and faithful cancer patient, where I was going to out-work and out-cheerful all of cancer and audition for the part of someone who deserved to be saved. And it was really... it was really sad, when I look back on that. But I was really struggling with the fact that all of a sudden it felt like I didn't know how to say anything anymore that was honest. 

Nora: How do you become the best cancer patient? Who is that Kate who is like, “Save me, I'm worth it.” What do you do? 

Kate: Well, she's super cheerful. She knows everything that she can ask for from the nurse and doctor, but doesn't push. She's um, she's grateful, like sooo grateful, but also informed but not too informed. She really wants, also, the doctor to know that she also has a child, her doctor’s child's age. And that they're making a human connection. And that when he goes home and thinks about his charts, like he really remembers, there was that really awesome, smart, cool person. Oh, does she also work at Duke? Oh, she's a colleague. She's basically a colleague. So I should probably save, I should probably save my colleague. 

That’s not how it works. She knows. We all know. But still — what if it does? What if the doctors ARE like God, and doing and saying the rights things will make their countenance shine upon you? 

It’s hard to shake the feeling that if we are on our very best behavior, something good will happen. It has to. The fear that if we don’t follow all rules written or even vaguely implied, we will not be rewarded.

It is very hard not to harbor our own personal little prosperity gospels. A secret, invisible, I’ll-deny-it-if-you-ask-me belief that there is some kind of code to crack that will give us the right things that will save us, somehow.

We do our own versions of thinking the right things, of blowing on the dice. Every one of us has our own ritual, our own form of prayer. In something. In the process. In God. The Universe. Medicine. In ourselves, even.

Kate is contemplating faith. Not religious faith, but faith in GENERAL. Down to the word itself — what the heck is it? What does it mean? And she lands in a really interesting place.

Kate: I don't have anyone that I have faith in or trust that I don't have some expectation for. It's like, what does it mean in that context when I might die? Like, have faith in what? Like trust God to do what? That always seems like a very contractual way of thinking and speaking. And I just immediately felt like I lost access to what… what that line of argumentation was for. But simultaneously... well, two very weird spiritual things, I suppose. One is, because the hospital is right next to the divinity school, I was absolutely flooded with my completely beautiful colleagues who are all pastors, since we're all training pastors. And so, you know, people are — I'd wake up and someone is just there with, ah... I'm covered in like a blanket with beautiful, encouraging words that my friend and colleague stayed up all night sewing for me. And I'm wearing adorable socks that someone else obviously put on me in a simultaneously not creepy way. And my forehead is glistening with anointing oil because someone had obviously prayed for me before I went into surgery. And just the sense that like they were the... we talk a lot in faith stuff like the hands and feet of Christ, but like truly were... just felt like the weight of their hands were remaking how it felt to be a person again, when I, it felt immediately taken apart. So there was their love and this very intense feeling of the love of God, which I found very weird, because I was like, look, I am a Thanksgiving turkey at this point, carved open by surgery, and I am filled with a deep and abiding anger that I might lose everything that ever mattered to me. So why do I feel loved? 

Of course she is angry. And of course, she IS loved. And those feelings are not at odds with one another, but the expression of those feelings are. Because there is a kind of oppressive optimism that seeps its way into these hard times… and then takes over. 

An optimism occupation, where the only thing that matters is the upside, the silver lining, the sunny side… where does that leave the other stuff? It doesn’t disappear. It doesn’t go away just because we aren’t thinking about it. It goes… inward.

Kate: Well, I thought I could be honest. I thought there was gonna be some place where I get to say, “I'm completely terrified. I don't want to die. Like, I really, really don't want to die…” Where do I go to say that? And it turns out that you don't get to say that in the doctor's office. You're busy talking about outcomes and statistical probabilities and drug levels and you think you're gonna say it at home, but you actually love your parents and your spouse and everybody else so much that you immediately begin to lie. And I was like, “Oh, no, it'll definitely probably work out.” Like, who could bear to hear me say, “I don't want to die?” So I didn't. And then I was immediately crushed under the weight of everybody's explanations for either why it happened or how it'll probably be fine. And none of them seemed true anymore. Like, really? Essential oils are gonna get me out of this one? Or kale? Kale will surely be it. Or, you know, spiritually, pray harder, try harder. There was just like a treadmill of things I was supposed to do. So I got quieter and quieter and more and more super angry that I couldn't say anything real anymore. So I just started writing, like I signed up for a place to go off by myself to write. It was like a little writer's retreat, actually, in Collegeville, Minnesota. Greatest place ever. They give you like a mentor and some other people who just want to be left alone to write and an outdoor xylophone band camp, which for ten days straight, pretty much short circuited my laptop, writing almost the entirety of the book because I was a giant festering ball of sorrow and anger. And it needed to come out. 

Nora: And you're like, give me the mallet. I"m goone be tapping away at these. 

Kate: I still remember they did the same scale for like all 10 days, “dong-a-dong-a-dong-a-dong-a-dong." It was very macabre. And that became the book, because I was just... it was pretty much... it was pretty much a wholesale thought, which was... why am I so surprised that I'm sick? Why am I so angry? Why did I think I was gonna get out of this? Like, what got me here? What secret prosperity gospel did I have all along? 

What secret prosperity gospel do we ALL have? We will get into that, after this little break.

We’re back. Kate is at a writer’s retreat, trying to write her way through all of this rage. She went there to hopefully write an uplifting memoir about life after a stage IV cancer diagnosis. But instead of squeezing those cancer lemons into answers and anecdotes and gratitude phrases… what comes out is sadness and anger and more and more questions.

And a realization that the prosperity gospel she was studying so academically wasn’t that different from her own internal prosperity gospel. The one that told her to look nice for chemo, and to swallow up her terror.

The book that comes out is titled, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.”

Kate: I really thought I was like... pretty sophisticated, you know. I'm way too nuanced for that kind of, that kind of crass thinking. But, yeah, no, I was, ah, I thought I was going to outwork and outsmart pain. And then it turns out that no one gets to outwork or outsmart pain. It just, it, it... sorry to sound terrible, but like it comes for us all. So, that was horrifying. 

It comes for all of us, and sometimes it just keeps coming. Which is the reality of Kate’s life. That her treatments worked. Kate is still alive, 5 years later. And that she still has a regular interval of MRIs, to monitor her. 

This means a few things: that she looks okay. She appears okay. AND that she lives on that knife’s edge… where at any point she could be giving her husband that same goodbye speech. Where it could all crumble underneath her feet again.  

But in the meantime? She has to get back to work. Because...

Kate: Well… if I don't die, I should probably keep my job. And so in order to keep my job, I had to write another book. And so I wrote a book about, um, celebrity religious women and their public brands. And so it was a weird way of looking especially about how women, um, are not asked frequently to lead with their expertise, but with their experience. And so then the vulnerability that's demanded of women that is not always demanded of men. And so it ended up feeling like a very strange test case of my own historical theories. 

Here is what Kate found in that research: a group of women whose platforms are built not on their expertise, but on their experience. That experience all follows a certain pattern. I’m actually quoting Kate in a New York Times opinion piece here: “The most successful careers transform the course of a human life into a long string of revelations. I once joked with an ambitious young speaker about how many tragedies she could hope for in her career. And she answered quickly, without irony: Four."  

Kate: Yea, she was totally serious. She was like, okay, early young life, especially pre-Christian, probably had some dalliances and then like oh ‘20s, disorientation, possible mild anxiety disorder. Three some kind of marital setback. But, you know, never, never destruction. And then four, I don't know, maybe memories of the past. There's lots of things that a woman, a speaking, famous speaking woman in her ‘50s can hope for. But it's always like, “it's dawn and God brought me through. Praise the Lord…”

Kate’s memoir came out when she’d wrapped up her research on the history book about female christian pastor ladies. Her memoir, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” was not positioned as a Christian memoir  — and it’s not — but because Kate’s a Christian and a professor of divinity, she ended up on the same stages they typically graced. Speaking from her own experience amidst the people who were her area of expertise. It’s wild, right?

Imagine: Right alongside the women whose work heralded their own happy endings, Kate was there with her sad, uncertain middle. 

Kate: I thought I was trying to write something that said, like, life doesn't always have to get better to be beautiful. And instead, I found myself on a women's speaker circuit in which women are typically prided for having sort of temporary, temporary feelings, like “I yelled at my kid in a bank one time,” and then restored to full perfection and glory. And I was like, “Well, sorry, I am still like a complete physical mess and I don't know if my life is gonna work out. Um, and ah, I really hope that we don't glamorize suffering, especially in women, to, to brand and sell books.” And so when this woman came up to me and was like, um, so you're only famous cause you're dying. And it took me like a hot minute to realize that she was completely jealous that my cancer had provided a — hope you can hear the quotation marks — "platform" for me, um, that I thought, wow, we've entered like a really terrible space in which, in which all of our pain is competitive. Like what an, what an awful way to think about just trying to be fragile in a world that demands perfection. 

Then I punched her right in the jaw. Just joking. I do find it very disheartening that one of the responses to writing or talking about pain is, ah, one, people's overwhelming desire to decide openly whether your pain counts. And, ah, and two their ability to evaluate whether they think that you deserve their pity. Like, man, I hope we all deserve compassion. Like, life is really hard. I don't, I don't know if anyone's just, like, fully put that in skywriting yet, but like, life is too hard to have to compete for compassion. 

We expect a lot from the sick. From the suffering. We expect them to look a certain way. To act a certain way. To show their suffering enough that we can validate it, believe it. But not in a way that makes us too sad. We want them to walk on the sunny side of the street but also, why are they walking? They said they were too sick to come to work. We want them to inspire us. To show us that it’s mind over matter! Don’t dwell on what you LOST, focus on what you HAVE!

For every person who believes that if they’re good, good things will come, there is a person who believes that no matter what they do, nothing will change. Both are terrible places to be when things are hard.

Throughout our lives, we will find ourselves pushing up against the limits of other people’s empathy, and feeling our own compassion wear thin. That is the clumsy, oafish dance of being human. 

We hurt. We hurt other people. We are small and jealous and weird and sometimes! Sometimes we are graceful and lovely.

But Kate and people like her — people who live on that edge — they feel it all the time. They toe that line all day. 

Kate: They feel like they know what weakness looks like. They feel like, you know, what vulnerability or scared looks like. And when you laugh a lot, or like, cause I have… my performative cheerfulness has been an absolute prison when it comes to this. Look, I didn't want to wear people out. I still don't want to wear people out. And so, like, humor and cheerfulness and you know, and so much of that is gendered. But, ah, it was really a desire to be like... to never stop auditioning for the role of somebody like… please still love me. Please don't. And also, just for me, please don't think I'm so different that I can't a little bit be the person I was before. 

As loved as Kate felt those first few weeks in the hospital, she’s also felt just as lonely. I think we all have. The sad truth about suffering is that even if we survive… not all of our relationships will. Not every relationship is built for that.

Kate: It took me a while to realize that there was this... that there was this shift between my illness as a crisis and my illness as a chronic condition. And I didn't fully track that there would be very different people who would manage those different stages. Most people actually were fantastic in a crisis. I mean, there were, ya know, the people who heavily explain or y'know you, there's, there's sort of outliers, but for the most part that people understood that I needed them to rally. But as it moved toward a chronic condition, I mean, I can still have a death-defying scan and I'd tell somebody, who genuinely loves me, and the look of just sheer blaseness across their faces... it's like, it's very surprising to me. But I think their brain is just like, oh, I already have that information. Thank you. How do I get back to that urgency? And I think chronic illnesses don't evoke the same skill set in people, especially the ability to, um, manage uncertainty in the long term. If you have somebody who just wants things to go back to neat and tidy, they're not gonna be your long-term chronic friend. That's for sure. 

Nora: You're like, I need friendship to be a chronic condition, so I'm going to need a chronic friendship, if you wouldn't mind a chronic, incurable friendship, would that be possible? 

It’s been almost five years since that speech to Tobin, where Kate told him that she had loved him forever. Where she told him to raise their son. Kate has been a New York Times bestseller. She’s been a TED speaker. She’s had career and personal highs… and they’ve all been experienced on that ledge she lives on. Where one step — one scan — can take it all away. 

But it’s hard for some people to see that ledge — to comprehend its presence, its height. That’s a reality that is visible and visceral mostly to Kate. To her family. To her closest friends. And to the many, many strangers who know exactly the location where she’s standing, because they’re standing on their own ledges.

Kate lives in that in between where everything happens and the reason is unknown. Where the best may NOT be yet to come, but may have already been. 

And you know what? That’s where most of us are, whether or not we want to see it.

So if you are there, on the ledge like Kate, you are not alone. Let us all understand and reinforce for all of us that sometimes… you do it all right, and it still all goes wrong. Sometimes when it looks okay, it isn’t. Sometimes when you're doing your best, things can still be the worst. And sometimes, even when you’re loved and blessed and successful, you’re also in pain, and sad, and lonely. All at once. 

Kate: I lost a lot of friends. I lost a lot of friends. I won't, yeah, I think because… there was the sense that in writing about pain and if it, if it drew people's attention that I was somehow cheating, like I was using something that I didn't deserve in order to get to the front of the line. That there's like a sense that there's a line somewhere. And if I'm ahead then somebody else is behind and I've... I mean, I'm in academia, so it has a, I call it the prestige economy. So it's just like a feeling of fanciness and, um, my stuff doesn't feel quite as fancy anymore. And some people like me more and a lot of people like me less, ah, in the fancy world. And that's… my good friends are wonderful and everybody else, ah, it just feels like there's a translation issue. Like, I'm not… um... I don't know how to be honest now that this is who I am. And I feel like when they're judging me, they're telling me I was supposed to go back to the way I was before. And that feels like such a luxury, honestly. I'm like so, I'm so hurt by the implication that I'm supposed to go back. Like I wish I could. I wish I was just like magically a professor cyborg, again. But I'm not. I'm this. And whatever this is, it is like unable to lie about pain and would rather talk about it, frankly. So I don't feel so lonely. 

CREDITS:

Nora McInerny

Marcel Malekebu

Hannah Meacock-Ross

Jordan Turgeon

Phyllis Fletcher

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina

Geoffrey Wilson - theme music