Kate Bowler is an author, podcast host, and professor at Duke University. At age 35, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, prompting her to write the New York Times bestselling memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved). On her popular podcast, Everything Happens, Kate speaks with accomplished people about the wisdom they’ve gained through difficult life events.
Below, Kate shares 5 key insights from her new book, No Cure for Being Human: (And Other Truths I Need to Hear). Listen to the audio version—read by Kate herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Life is not a series of choices.
When I was naïve and sweetly dumb and lucky, I thought that life was just about all the choices you make in the hopes that everything is going to add up. I thought that I was largely in control of my life, and imagined there was a ladder I needed to climb and a world I needed to master. That mentality served me well in some things—it helped me learn to reach for things that seemed scary and big.
But when I was very suddenly diagnosed with cancer, I realized life was not going to be a series of choices that were going to change much of anything. I was diagnosed with something that I couldn’t change, receiving drugs that I could not invent myself, and it became clear that most of the things that would change my life would be the things I didn’t choose.
“I had to accept that I’m a lot more fragile than I want to be.”
Letting go of the idea that life is about choice was painful for me because it meant that I had to accept the fact that I am not invincible. I had to accept that I’m a lot more fragile than I want to be. Giving up on the idea that life is a series of choices felt like the first step in understanding what it’s like to live with an uncertain future.
2. You won’t be able to carry it all.
At the beginning of my illness, realizing that I had limited time made me feel really panicked. I felt like I had to live all of my life but compressed into a much smaller number of minutes, days, and weeks. It felt claustrophobic and scary. It was overwhelming to feel like I had to decide what really mattered in life, while also trying to figure out how to get cancer care and be a mom and a wife.
My psychologist recommended an approach he learned from people who hiked the Appalachian Trail. Most of them stock up with lots of gear and food, but by the time they get to their first campsite, they realize they’re carrying too much. That’s when smart hikers ask themselves, “Is there anything that you can set down? Is there any extra weight that you can strip off so that you can make this journey?”
I realized I would have to give up on stories that I was telling myself—the story that it was always going to be okay, or that I was going to be able to out-hustle and outwork my problems.
I needed to get my brain around the fact that I was not going to be able to do everything, and that I would have to practice letting some things go.
“It is often much easier to count things than to know what counts.”
3. Your life is not a checklist.
As my illness progressed, I got a lot of advice from mental health professionals to consider making a “bucket list”—a checklist of experiences I might want to have before I die, like
soaring in a hot air balloon, reading all the classics, or finally seeing Citizen Kane.
I understand that some people get a lot of meaning out of lists; it is often much easier to count things than to know what counts. But knowing my time was limited, I realized it would be impossible to complete everything I wanted to do. And doing those things would not mean my life was “wrapped up.”
In our culture, the “bucket list” mentality mostly appears as a kind of experiential capitalism, an endless Instagram feed of people surfing in Bali or marrying their soulmates. But the idea that if we just collect the right experiences our lives will be complete is an unhelpful lie. Bucket lists may be a beautiful dream, but it’s a mistake to think your life is a checklist.
4. Our lives never feel finished.
I’ve sometimes wished I were the kind of person who could feel a sense of fullness and completeness in my life. But I find that I never do, that I’m always wanting more.
“We will never somehow make this human project easy—but we can make it true, and we can make it absolutely saturated with love.”
On a trip to the Grand Canyon, I saw a tiny chapel by the side of the road. I pulled over and walked in to find a very rough room with a loose gravel floor and beautiful light pouring in. I looked around and realized—in complete horror at first—that it was totally covered in graffiti. People had carved things into the wood, and there were little bits of stuffed paper everywhere.
But as my eyes adjusted, I realized these were devotional messages. They said things like, “John, I miss you. I can’t be the same without you,” or “God, will my daughter ever be the same?” The chapel was full of prayers and hopes and questions. I had an incredible feeling of being surrounded by people who, like me, were yelling into the void, wondering how much of this life would work out. I sat a bit with that feeling of incompleteness, of “not enough-ness,” and then I put my own little piece of paper into the rafters that just said, “While I breathe, I hope.”
5. The more you’re doing it right, the more it might hurt.
I love how wonderfully depressing that sounds, because this is a truth I feel every moment I look at my kid, or when I’m having a wonderful moment with friends, or when I’m seeing something really beautiful that I might never see again.
Living well, “doing it right,” means being loving and open to others, being caught up in these gorgeous tangly webs of love. And if that is the measure, there’s really never going to be enough. There’s never going to be enough time, beauty, or love, and that makes life sweetly painful. If we’re doing it right, we will never somehow make this human project easy—but we can make it true, and we can make it absolutely saturated with love.
To listen to the audio version read by Kate Bowler, download the Next Big Idea App today: