I stumbled on this essay today in The New York Times: seminary professor Kate Bowler writing about how to talk to someone, like her, who’s living with a grim cancer diagnosis. She was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer two years ago, at the age of 35. She’s now written a book, “Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved.”
In her Times essay, she describes the way people approach her now and try to talk to her:
Minimizers often want to make sure that suffering people are truly deserving before doling out compassion. My sister was on a plane from Toronto to visit me in the hospital and told her seatmate why she was traveling. Then, as she wondered when she had signed up to be a contestant in the calamity Olympics, the stranger explained that my cancer was vastly preferable to life during the Iranian revolution.
Some people minimize spiritually by reminding me that cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we are here or ‘there.’ It’s all the same,” said a woman in the prime of her youth. She emailed this message to me with a lot of praying-hand emoticons. I am a professor at a Christian seminary, so a lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me. Maybe now?
Atheists can be equally bossy by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning. One told me that my faith was holding me hostage to an inscrutable God, that I should let go of this theological guesswork and realize that we are living in a neutral universe. But the message is the same: Stop complaining and accept the world as it is.
The second exhausting type of response comes from the teachers, who focus on how this experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body and spirit. “I hope you have a ‘Job’ experience,” one man said bluntly. I can’t think of anything worse to wish on someone. God allowed Satan to rob Job of everything, including his children’s lives. Do I need to lose something more to learn God’s character? Sometimes I want every know-it-all to send me a note when they face the grisly specter of death, and I’ll send them a poster of a koala that says, “Hang in there!”
Searching for more information about her, I found this Q&A with Kate Bowler this week in TIME magazine:
You are an expert in the history of health, wealth and happiness in American religion. Why do Americans see tragedies as tests of character?
It is one of the oldest stories Americans tell themselves about determination and some supernatural bootstraps. The double edge to the American Dream is that those who can’t make it have lost the test or have failed. The prosperity gospel is just a Christian version of that.
Did Christianity fail you?
Sometimes it felt like that, in part because of the stuff people said using the Christian faith to be incredibly trite. Christianity also saved the day. You really want a brave faith, one that says, in the midst of the crushing brokenness, there is the something else there, the undeniable, overwhelming love of God.
You’ve said one of the hardest things about being sick is other people trying to explain your suffering. What would you prefer?
People who hug you and give you impressive compliments that don’t feel like a eulogy. People who give you non-cancer-thematic gifts. People who just want to delight you, not try to fix you, and make you realize that it is just another beautiful day and there is usually something fun to do.
Do you believe in miracles?
I do. I like to be equally open to lovely things happening as to bad things happening.
Read more at the links. And check out her blog, wherein she describes herself thusly: “I’m a Duke professor, author and incurable optimist.”