No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear)

Kate Bowler
Random House, 224 pages 

I never thought I would be smitten with a Duke Divinity School professor, but after reading Kate Bowler’s “Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved),” I felt like I had found a new best friend.

Happily married, parenting an adorable toddler and on the fast path to tenure at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 35.  Ironically, she had literally written the book on the prosperity gospel — the brand of Christianity that promises your “best life now” as the reward for following God. So much for #blessed.

In her new book, “No Cure for Being Human,” Bowler continues to resist easy platitudes in favor of hard-earned wisdom, sharing these truths to help readers build a faith deep and honest enough to withstand life’s inevitable storms.  Bowler researches and rereads medical reports with the ruthless efficiency of a professor of church history, and then laughs at herself for doing so.  Her self-deprecating wit becomes her armor against the painful (and often experimental) treatments that both save and dehumanize her.  She alternatively invites us to walk with her through the early days of her diagnosis and reflects back on her struggle with a seemingly hopeless illness as well as the absurdity of insurance bureaucracies and callous doctors.

Bowler’s ability to tackle dark subjects with humor draws you in.  But it is her raw honesty that makes you stop, reread and reflect. She reveals the chinks in her armor as she recalls the painful moments with her nearest and dearest.  While tucking in her toddler after explaining the death of his great grandmother, he both insists and asks, “But moms do not get buried,” forcing her to reassure him, despite her own uncertainty.

And in all of this, there is God.  She writes: “I was becoming less and less, but I was not reduced to nothing.  God’s love was everywhere, sticking to everything.”  Her poignant descriptions of parents, husband, friends and even a famous colleague who she coyly names “Bishop Will” who know her needs and care for her tenderly witness to a faith community at its best.  Yet, as she enters into a tentative remission, she finds herself missing the powerful experiences of God — the “moments of transcendence” scattered like breadcrumbs.  And so once again Bowler offers guidance — the “work” of living is never finished, and it’s better this way.

This book is ideal for well-meaning friends (and pastors) seeking the right words to support someone through illness. It would also be an outstanding resource for small groups; a colleague and I used Bowler’s earlier work in a women’s retreat, and it led to rich conversations.  However, six years after being given two years to live, Bowler is thriving, and has the privilege of looking back with winsome grace at deeply hurtful events.  Readers who struggle with their own painful diagnoses or the loss of a loved one may not be ready to mine the depths of terminal cancer — or they might welcome the message that, in the end, there is truly no cure for being human.

Amy Pagliarella is the book review editor for the Outlook.  She lives in Chicago.