No Cure for Being Human | Kate Bowler

Summary of: No Cure for Being Human: And Other Truths I Need to Hear
By: Kate Bowler


Welcome to the summary of Kate Bowler’s book ‘No Cure for Being Human: And Other Truths I Need to Hear’. Here, we follow Kate’s journey with stage four colon cancer and her struggle against the societal pressures of living her ‘best life’. This summary navigates the challenges of trying to perfect and control our lives in the face of unavoidable pain, suffering, and misfortune. We’ll delve into the history of the ‘best life’ concept, tracing its lineage to the New Age movement and the prosperity gospel. Finally, we will explore how Kate’s experience with her illness leads her to reevaluate her priorities and redefine what it means to live a meaningful life, all while grappling with the complexities of being human.

The Fallacy of the Prosperity Gospel

Kate Bowler, a Christian and a professor of the history of Christianity, finds the teachings of the prosperity gospel offensive as she battles stage four colon cancer. The prosperity gospel suggests that suffering and misfortune result from a lack of faith, which Kate finds antithetical to her open-hearted view of Christianity. She critiques the broader industries of wellness and self-help that confront people with the illusion of control over their lives.

The Elusive Search for the “Best Life”

In contemporary society, the phrase “living your best life” has become ubiquitous, with self-help books, wellness gurus, and social media influencers espousing the idea that we can achieve perfection in life. However, this concept has its roots in the New Age movement of the ’70s and became popularized through the self-help movement of the ’80s. From the self-help movement, the belief emerged that achieving success, love or weight loss is within our control. Joel Osteen’s 2004 coinage of “best life” only catalyzed the obsession further. The paradoxical catch-22 of pursuing “best life” is that the more we try to control and perfect our lives, the more we miss out on the messiness and unpredictability that makes us human. In Kate’s story, we see how her cancer diagnosis has made her confront her own obsession with controlling her life, and how she has come to understand that the pursuit of “best life” is not only futile but robs us of the beauty of being human.

Surrendering to Time

Kate’s carefully cultivated choices are undermined by the realization that they were underpinned by sheer luck and random chance. Now, faced with cancer, she grapples with society’s expectations to “fight” the disease and the pressure to make every moment productive. As Kate strives for control, she realizes the only choice left to her is to surrender to the flow of time.

Kate’s life had been a series of carefully cultivated choices, all designed to add value to her existence. She had a happy marriage, a loving family, and a successful career. But when she is diagnosed with cancer, the foundations of her life begin to crumble. Kate realizes that her choices were also underpinned by sheer luck and random chance.

Despite this, society still expects Kate to “fight” the disease. Friends send cards that frame cancer as a battle that can be won, leaving Kate to wonder whether those who lost the battle simply didn’t fight hard enough. Cheery memes exhort her to “kick cancer’s butt!” As if that were something she could choose to do.

Kate, frustrated with the idea that she can control the course of her deadly illness, still finds herself trying to control her existence. As an academic, she treats cancer like just another subject she can master. And she thinks positively, determined not to let any happy moment or meaningful interaction pass her by.

But as she strives to capture these ephemeral things, she realizes the more she tries to control them, the less she enjoys them. And it slowly dawns on her that she is treating this time the way she did pre-cancer – as if every hour presents an opportunity for productivity. As if piling productive hour on productive hour were a pathway to her own best life.

Kate grapples with society’s expectations to make every moment productive but realizes controlling time is impossible. Surrendering to the flow of time and letting go of control is the only choice left to her.

Living Beyond a Bucket List

Kate, a colon cancer patient, is offered an opportunity to participate in an immunotherapy trial. As part of the trial, she receives mental health support, prompting her to consider creating a bucket list. However, the origin of the term “bucket list” is rooted in the dark euphemism of death. The obsession with making lists to tick off before dying dates back to ancient times, where the Greeks had Seven Wonders, and medieval pilgrimages were essentially bucket lists. While the idea of making a bucket list may be popular, Kate realizes that imposing order on life may be fundamentally wrong. In realizing this, she decides to live life without obsessing over a checklist.

Calculating Life and Work

Kate, a humanities scholar, faces a dilemma as her life revolves around complex calculations, from medical decisions involving her cancer diagnosis to her academic pursuit of achieving tenure. Despite her achievements, the diagnosis forces her to question her priorities and the value of her work. Kate’s journey of self-reflection leads her to realize that having a calling gives life meaning, and her calling lies in writing scholarly books. However, a plot twist in her diagnosis challenges everything she’s fought for.

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