I spend my days asking “Why?” Why do people get stuck in poverty? Why do mosquitoes spread malaria? Being curious and trying to explain the world around us is part of what makes life interesting. It’s also good for the world—scientific discoveries happen because someone insisted on solving some mystery. And it’s human nature, as anyone who’s fielded an endless series of questions from an inquisitive 5-year-old can tell you.
But as Kate Bowler shows in her wonderful new memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, some “why” questions can’t be answered satisfactorily with facts. Bowler was 35 years old, married to her high-school sweetheart, and raising their young son when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. When she got sick, she didn’t want to know what was making her body’s cells mutate and multiply out of control. She had deeper questions: Why me? Is this a test of my character?
The book is about her search for answers that align with her deeply held religious beliefs. A professor at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, she grew up in a family of Mennonites and wrote a history of the prosperity gospel, the idea popular among some Christians that God rewards the faithful with health and wealth. Before she got sick, Bowler didn’t subscribe to the prosperity gospel, but she didn’t exactly reject it either. “I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest,” she writes. “I believed God would make a way.” Then came her diagnosis. “I don’t believe that anymore.”
Given the topic, I wasn’t surprised to find that Bowler’s book is heartbreaking at times. But I didn’t expect it to be funny too. Sometimes it’s both in the same passage. In one scene, Bowler learns there’s a 3 percent chance that her cancer might be susceptible to an experimental treatment. A few weeks later, her doctor’s office calls with good news: She’s among the 3 percent. “I start to yell. I have the magic cancer! I have the magic cancer!” She turns to her husband: “ ‘I might have a chance,’ I manage to say between sobs…. He hugs me tightly, resting his chin on my head. And then he releases me to let me sing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and do a lot of punching the air, because it is in my nature to do so.”
The central questions in this book really resonated with me. On one hand, it’s nihilistic to think that every outcome is simply random. I have to believe that the world is better when we act morally, and that people who do good things deserve a somewhat better fate on average than those who don’t.
But if you take it to extremes, that cause-and-effect view can be hurtful. Bowler recounts some of the unintentionally painful things that well-meaning people told her, like: “This is a test and it will make you stronger.” I have also seen how this line of thinking affected members of my own extended family. All four of my grandparents were deeply devout members of a Christian sect who believed that if you got sick, it must be because you did something to deserve it. When one of my grandfathers became seriously ill, he struggled to figure out what he might have done wrong. He couldn’t think of anything, so he blamed his wife. He died thinking she had caused his illness by committing some unknown sin.
Bowler answers the “why” question in a compelling way: by refusing to accept the premise. As the title suggests, she rejects the idea that we need a reason for everything that happens. But she also rejects the nihilist alternative. As she said in one TV interview: “If I could pick one thing, it would be that everyone simmers down on the explanations for other people’s suffering, and just steps in with love.” She even includes an appendix with six ways you can support a friend or loved one who’s sick. It’s worth dog-earing for future reference.
Everything Happens belongs on the shelf alongside other terrific books about this difficult subject, like Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Bowler’s writing is direct and unsentimental. She's not saying her life is unfair or that she deserved better. She’s just telling you what happened.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that Bowler has too much integrity as a writer to offer pat answers or magic solutions. When I was done with the book, I went online to see how she was doing. I was happy to find that she was still keeping a blog about faith, morality, and mortality. It’s inspiring to see this thoughtful woman face such weighty topics with honesty and humor.