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29 April 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 2:55pm

An anti-self-help true believer

Kate Bowler, the religious historian with a tough message about suffering.

By Sophie McBain

The religious historian Kate Bowler was 35 years old and had just published her first book, Blessed, a history of the American prosperity gospel, when she was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Forced to confront her deepest fear that she might not live to see her infant son grow up, and navigating an uncertain and terrifying new world of emergency surgery and agonising scans, chemotherapy, medical trials, and six-figure hospital bills, Bowler became acutely aware of how society struggles to understand stories such as hers.

The televangelists she researched promised their followers that if they worship in the right way God will grant them everything they wish; the US’s modern self-help culture promises that with the right attitude and work ethic, anything is possible. Both share the fundamental belief that life is ordered and fair, happiness is earned and suffering is at minimum a teachable opportunity. “At least…” we say to a friend on hearing their bad news, grasping for the silver lining. You may not see it now, but it’ll work out for the best. Bowler’s 2018 memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, a reflection on confronting death in a society that insists on positive thinking, became a New York Times bestseller.

Almost five years after her diagnosis, Bowler is witnessing how this insistent optimism is shaping how we talk about Covid-19. “This is a culture of lessons. People want to learn the lesson of quarantine, the lesson of the pandemic. And we can find beautiful new things: people are gardening, other people are learning that their gifts as a nurse are the thing that will define a generation’s health. But none of those things will ever be the answer to the problem of pain,” she told me when we spoke via the video-calling software Zoom. She observed how culturally we struggle to abandon the idea of progress. Many people believe that in the long run the pandemic will somehow make life better: we’ll be kinder, perhaps, or more grateful, or better prepared for the next public health crisis. “After always has to be as good as before, or else you’ve lost, or you’ve failed to learn the lesson. And it’s very pernicious to all the people who right now would have done anything to go back, because they’ve lost things that are irreplaceable,” she said.

The Duke University professor hosts a podcast, Everything Happens, and has started posting daily reflections on Instagram. Her messages are framed by her Christian faith, but they have a broader resonance. As a historian she’s interested in how cultural scripts – the stories we tell ourselves – make it harder for us to manage fear and uncertainty. Many of her Instagram videos have been viewed more than 10,000 times. “I have openly struggled with how to communicate an anti-self-help message without people feeling they’re just supposed to go home and give up,” she said. “And then, all of a sudden, a global pandemic makes people realise: wait, maybe I don’t need to be sold journals that have me writing endless positives, I don’t need a water bottle that says: ‘You are the answer to your own problem.’”

Bowler has a warm, self-deprecating demeanour and a gift for talking about morality without moralising. On the wall behind her, dozens of coloured Post-it notes mapped out her next book, The Anti-Bucket List, which will explore how to spend time when you realise it is finite. “It’s very A Beautiful Mind in here, because that’s the only way I can have thoughts,” she joked. She was social distancing with her son, now six, and her husband in North Carolina. More than 1,000 miles away, in Minnesota, her sister, with whom she is very close, was about to have a caesarean. “I would do anything to hold her hand right now,” Bowler said. She was thinking a lot about the importance of finding new ways to foster intimacy when the pandemic robs us of physical closeness, of human touch.

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When Bowler fell sick, she noticed how many people struggled to talk to her. They wanted to know medical facts – how long had the tumour been growing undetected? Had she read this research paper? – but were less curious about her emotional experiences. She was noticing similar patterns now, as Americans grapple with the devastating human cost of a virus that has already killed more than 50,000 people in their country.

“Sometimes we don’t even mean to rank people’s pain, but it comes out when we say, how old were they? Did they have any pre-existing conditions? Because we’re trying to decide how much their pain is worth. And we’re also secretly trying to answer the question: why is it you not me?” she said. “The answer is there will never be a satisfactory response to the problem of why one person suffers and another doesn’t.

“This is part of the problem with an airborne illness, we’re heat-seeking causal missiles. We want to figure out the invisible causality that runs everything. And for most terrible things in our lives, if there is a reason, we don’t get to know it, at least not in time to make different choices,” she said. If that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t be. It liberates us from some of the shame we feel when life is upended. “We realise that bad things just sort of happen, period. And when they do what we will need is a whole group of people who are not treating us as problems to be solved. They’re just trying to figure out how to love us.”

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This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave