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“No Cure for Being Human” With Kate Bowler - TTFA Premium - Transcript

This is a transcript of a snippet of the “TTFA Premium” episode entitled, ““No Cure for Being Human” With Kate Bowler.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

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Nora: Hello everybody, this is Nora McInerny. This is an episode of our podcast that is available in its entirety over at TTFA Premium. 

TTFA Premium is our subscribers-only feed where we put bonus content, where we put ad-free episodes, where we put some full-length guest interviews. It is a way to financially support our show, and if that is something you are interested in doing and able to do, it is a couple bucks a month, and you can sign up at TTFA dot org slash Premium. That’s TTFA dot org slash Premium. 

Thank you! And enjoy.

Hello, Terribles. It’s Nora McInerny and this is TTFA Premium. I’m a person with a complicated relationship to self-help. On the one hand, I’ve participated in it. I’ve purchased many books. I’ve attended many, many events that have promised me that a better version of myself and my life are right around the corner. And what it comes down to is me. Do I want it, will I change my habits, will I change my mind? Will I life hack my way into an optimized version of myself? 

And I’m also a person who has lived a life where, yeah, some good things have happened because I’ve focused and put my mind to it. And plenty of things have happened that were completely out of my control — good and bad.

My friend Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity. She’s also a person who has studied the prosperity gospel, a person who has studied self-help, and a person who has written a book that just came out called No Cure for Being Human and Other Things I Need to Hear. Every chapter of this book is an astute and compassionate rebuttal of the promises of self-help and a reassurance that your life is not your fault — which is actually a meme that I saw on a very self-help-y Instagram post that made me just want to launch my computer into the sun. That your life is not your fault and that, you know, being human just happens to be an incurable, chronic condition. 

So, I wanted to talk with Kate Bowler because … she’s fascinating, she’s got such a sharp brain. And I wanted to talk with her mostly about how did we get here? How did we become a culture of people who truly, without irony, are like “Good vibes only! Good vibes only, good vibes only, good vibes onlyyyy. Your only limit is your mind!” How did we get like this, and what is the path forward? So, with that, here is my conversation with Kate Bowler. 

Kate Bowler: And I really wanted to be Anne of Green Gables' friend, even though she is fictitious, and no one can be her friend on Prince Edward Island, where the other export is potatoes. It's potatoes and Anne of Green Gables is what that province is offering, which I love. And I think at first I didn't realize that I was just dreaming — was trying all these different identities on that I thought I might have. And that that in and of itself is- is both the, you know, absurdity and gift of being young. You just get to imagine yourself being different people, but that depending on your circumstance, like that, that is going to shrink down to the choices that happen to you and then the ones you made. And that math is weird, right? That is painful, strange math. And I think what I realized I needed to set aside was that one, most of the things that were going to make my life really beautiful were never going to make the list. Like, the slope of my son's fuzzy little neck and, you know, the dumb way my husband smiles on a trampoline, hoping everyone will look at him, like his "still got it" face. It's just absolutely insufferable and— 


Nora McInerny: Eating out of a dog bowl because Zach has asked you to. 


Kate Bowler: Yeah, he's like, “We're going to need our cereal on the ground here.” And I was like, well, I guess this is my week, this way down here. And then I guess the other bit was ... I guess was realizing that, like, even if I did all those things, that if I did everything right, life was really just going to get more painful. Like, I'm just going to be more and more in love with this stupid world, and my stupid friends, my stupid family, and I'm never going to not want to try new things. Who- who's like on their one thousandth wine, is like, “That's it! I had it! I tasted it, it's called grapes.” Every hunger makes some other beautiful curiosity, and that's why we are so absurd, you know? Just never satisfied. And that's the best and the worst thing about us. 


Nora McInerny: It's true. It's true, and there's no- there's nothing that will make up for, like, those waning sands of time. There's nothing that will and, and especially when it's happening too soon, is the thing. I think that you can come to that peace when you are, you know, as my- as my ... my cousins' grandma said at Aaron's funeral, like her husband was, you know, so deep in dementia and she just said like, like, “It's so unfair because, look, he's all used up, like he's all used up.” Like, I just- like praying for mercy for him, right? Like wanting so badly for this to be over for him, knowing, like, he did it, right, like, he got the thing. He had four children and he did all the things that he needed to. Like, there are times when people can say, like, “I did it.” And guess what they're not aching for at the end of their life? My dad wasn't like, “Oh, man, if only I would have golfed Kioa one more time,” you know? Like... no, no. And Aaron died at 35, which will never not make me sad and... 


Kate Bowler: Oh, lovey. Yeah. 


Nora McInerny: He wasn't like, “Wow, I really wish I'd been to- been to Europe. You know? Like…” [crying]


Kate Bowler: Yeah. Yeah. 


Nora McInerny: So. And we have kids who are like, basically the same age, Kate. So before you go pick up your kid, I just want to, like, wreck our day completely, but like, we have kids who are the same age and ... my kid is really obsessed with death. You know? Like, really, really knows that life ends, and it's unpredictable, and if the day goes too long, his- he'll get his 2 a.m. brain, but it's at like 9:00 p.m. because that's- that's as late as he can stay up. Where like, you know, the other night he's like, so emotional and he's like, you know, “My dad died and I don't have any memories of him. And, you know, my other dad could die and so could you. And then someday I have to too!” Like- and like ... yeah, yeah. 


Kate Bowler: Yes. Yeah. And just ... the limits of our ability to imagine it because it is unimaginable. Like, right in the middle of my ... major health drama, Tobin's grandma passed away. And that's the first funeral Zach had been to, and I ... and he kept just trying to explain it to me, but- but then we could go there and we could dig her up and we would find her. And the feeling that every good thing we would claw from the earth. I don't think it's possible for us to love like we're supposed to and not feel like that, honey. Because I think that's partly why I'm just- that is exactly why I can't live with bullshit formulas and explanations. It’s because if anybody tells me that there is a better version than being that kid's mom, I know they're lying. The tragedy of it is, is that it's so beautiful. If it were easy, we would be able to give it up. 


Nora McInerny: I uh …  the baby's 4. We have to stop calling him the baby. He's going to be, as you know, the worst boyfriend. He’s going to be like, “Well I’m the baby.” He’s going to be like 30. Someone’s going to be like, “I don't give a shit what your mom calls, like shut up.” So the baby's almost 5. And he's also, like, understanding permanence in that way. And part of it is watching Ralph, you know, handle things and Ralph like ... you know, talk about death and talk about loss. And my friend's baby, Sawyer, was 2, and he died, and it was a drowning accident. And that stuff just happens, and we explain that to Baby. We explain like, water’s like,  and we said, like, Sawyer died and- and he said, “And now he can't come back? He can never come back?” The other day when we were driving, he brought that up and then he brought up Aaron, Ralph's dad, and he said, “Well, what's the point of life, then?” 


Kate Bowler: Oh bud! Yeah. 


Nora McInerny: And like, the only thing I could say is, like “Some people,” and I do believe this, like, “the thing that gives life, is that it ends. Because if you had all the ice cream in the world, you wouldn't care about ice cream, right. And if you had, you know…”  why is that the only example I can think of, why do my brain just shut off? That's it, right, okay. If nothing ended, nothing would mean anything. 


Kate Bowler: Yeah. Yes, yeah. Yeah. And I think and this is the like ... lovey, I think we just agree always on these two big, wonderful, horrible anchors. One is that it takes courage, it just takes courage to live like this, knowing ... knowing that every little bit of it is limited and like a little firefly, and we are so … we are so desperate not to see it fade. And simultaneously, that hope is not just hope for us, but it's the hope of a big story in which we are pulled into something about love. And a story that gets told about us by ... by a dream of a world that is not like this, in which it is not tears and finitude and a question like that from your kid. I like to believe in a story about hope and about heaven and about God, as long as it doesn't depend on me being unbelievably cheerful about it. [laughs] And if it does, then I'm over it. 


Nora McInerny: Yeah, and I like that story too, as long as it also doesn't require just, perfection. Because when we're clawing towards something like that, it's at the expense, too, of like- when we're- when we're clawing towards like a version of heaven that requires, like, our perfection. I've never met a person who's so committed to the idea of heaven that it hasn't clouded their judgment about, like, the earth and the life they have right now. 


Kate Bowler: I think what I resent so much about, like a belief in the afterlife, which I have, is the assumption from, bless them, love them, people of faith, that imagine that it will make this less painful. I really don't believe that. I really don't. I just think that we can be people of, you know, that cherish, faith and hope and beauty and love and ... and that none of that will make it feel easier to say goodbye. I think as long as people leave me alone on that one, I’ll be OK. 


Nora McInerny: Yeah, it's, I think that's such a good point. I think that's such a good point, because if it's a way to sort of invalidate the sorrow?


Kate Bowler: Yeah, it's heaven equals one hundred percent, therefore, this plus this equals, and I'm having none of it. 


Nora McInerny: “If Earth is 10 percent, it's like, well why would you be so sad? You're about to get- you're about to gain 90 percent. So like…”


Kate Bowler: Yeah, yeah.


Nora McInerny: “And like you'll- it'll be, it'll be, you know, Aaron and Ralph reunited in like a better way. So it's like this one won't even count and like…” 


Kate Bowler: Yeah, right, right, right. 


Nora McInerny: It's- it's you'll actually get to be more of Zach's mom?  


Kate Bowler: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I feel like as long as I let God do the math, then I feel less homicidal Susan. 


Nora: Alright! So that was a preview of this TTFA Premium episode. You can get the entire thing and more, all this and more, if you subscribe to TTFA Premium. The way you do that is by going to TTFA dot org slash Premium. It’s a couple bucks a month, it’s a way to financially support our show. If you can, we appreciate you. If you can’t, we still appreciate you! What a saleswoman I am. Anyways, that’s TTFA dot org slash Premium. See you there!