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How to live in the face of fear: Lessons from a Duke U. cancer survivor

Posted April 5, 2020 1:40 p.m. EDT
Updated April 5, 2020 2:50 p.m. EDT

Coronavirus research

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, the normal touchstones of everyday life have vanished without so much as a warning. In their place are terrifying thoughts about the future, about loss and about mortality.

For Kate Bowler, a historian at Duke Divinity School, this is familiar terrain. In 2015, when she was 35 and a new mother, Bowler was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and uncertainty became a way of life. She explores what it is to be human in dark times in her best-selling memoir, “Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved),” and her podcast of the same name.

During the pandemic — which has intensified during the Christian season of Lent — Bowler has been offering daily reflections on social media about living in fear. In a conversation with The New York Times, which has been edited for length, Bowler reflected on why forcing yourself to stay positive is not always best, the human longing to love and be loved and why living in constant fear makes it important to have two different routines: one for day and one for night.

Q: How are you feeling your way through this new moment of mass fear and uncertainty?

A: It feels so familiar. That feeling of waking up in the morning, and for a moment you don’t believe it’s real — I remember that feeling of not remembering I had cancer, and then remembering all over again, every day. I think so many people are waking up each day and forgetting that they are scared that they can’t hold their mom’s hand in the residential care facility they’re at. Or their sister is about to have a baby, and there are concerns that people can’t even have their partners in the room with them as they have what they hope will be a perfectly healthy birth.

On the other hand, this situation is totally new to me. It’s very bizarre to share that feeling with everyone and realize: Wow, we are all feeling especially delicate at the same time.

Q: What is that revealing about the collective soul of the country, or the world, right now?

A: I think it’s painful for everyone to know that there’s just not a lot of room between anybody and the very edge. It really does run counter to the whole American story. It’s a story about how scrappy individuals will always make it, and it’s a story about how Americans’ collective self-understanding will always build something that will save the nation. And currently both things are not true. Everyone else in the world will suffer too, but I don’t think they will suffer nearly the same cultural disillusionment because they didn’t have that account of exceptionalism.

Q: What do you make of the idea that we should all just “stay positive” through this?

A: The idea that we’re all supposed to be positive all the time has become an American obsession. It gives us momentum and purpose to feel like the best is yet to come. But the problem is when it becomes a kind of poison, in which it expects that people who are suffering — which is pretty much everyone right now — are somehow always supposed to find the silver lining or not speak realistically about their circumstances.

The main problem is that it adds shame to suffering by just requiring everyone to be prescriptively joyful. If I see one more millionaire on Instagram yell that she is choosing joy while selling journals in which stay-a-home moms are supposed to write joy mantras, I am going to lose my mind!

Q: You’ve been sharing daily wisdom in your Instagram stories, giving people permission to feel and just be. In one post you say, “Today it is OK to be limited.” Tell us about that.

A: You mean when I’m lightly crying and sitting in my pajamas?

Especially when you’ve drunk too deeply from the wells of invincibility, you get in a time like this, and I think we feel confused. Like, it’s 8 a.m. — why am I still tired?

There was a rhythm I got into with cancer that has served me well right now. Every day sort of has an arc to it. There’s a limited amount that you’re going to be able to face as you stare into the abyss. Being able, over the course of the day, to track your own resources will help you know how to spend them.

There’s just a minute where you know, OK, I’m starting to hit the wall. Time to turn the boat around. There’s only so much we can do, and in the face of unlimited need, we have to not just wildly oscillate between sort of intense action and then narcolepsy.

How do we how feel the day and allow ourselves to be human inside of it? I think that’s really tricky work.

Q: You’ve said people who live with a lot of fear have taught you to have two routines: daytime and nighttime. What are they?

A: Daytime: My eyes open. There is a 6-year-old boy (in) pajamas. I feed him cereal, then we snuggle. Then I decide there’s only a couple things I can do in the day. Then I launch myself toward them. Then I get overwhelmed midway through the afternoon. You just take a minute. You see who’s left to care about. Then at some point you’ll realize that you’re about to hit the wall.

Nighttime: What’s most important, at least in my little routine, is you pick a time, and then you call it. So like 7 p.m., no more new information. No more starting sentences with, “Did you hear about the … .” And then start this sort of gentleness. I have positive music and cheeseball movies and more snuggles, and then go to bed earlier than it seems socially acceptable. Because if you violate that rule, then you’ll break the next day.

Q: What are other practical survival tips for living in fear?

A: If the days are really full and heavy, to focus on the absurdity is so great. Small delight is really fun. I’ve been in onesie Star Wars pajamas so much more this week. Get really into a reality show that people would lose respect for you if they knew that you watched it. Make a commitment to something unbelievably dumb right now — now’s the time.

Q: How do you find meaning amid all the terrible?

A: The trick is to find meaning without being taught a lesson. A pandemic is not a judgment, and it will not discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving. I think moments like this reveal to me God’s unbelievable love for us.

The second I see all these nurses and doctors going out there trying to save somebody else’s life, I realized it’s such a window into how gorgeous it is to be a human being. And the more we see fragility, sometimes the more we understand what an incredible miracle it is to have been created at all. So I think just having a higher and higher view of our gorgeous and terrible humanity.

We’re learning right now in isolation what interdependence feels like and what a gift it is, and the more we’re apart, the more we realize how much we need each other. We’re allowed to be like beautifully, stupidly needy right now. We’re allowed to FaceTime people and be like, “I feel like a mess, and all I want to do is be loved.”

Q: I’ve been thinking about how this is happening in an increasingly secular America, and how there are people who have these deep resources in their religious communities and there are others who don’t. What if you are someone right now who doesn’t pray?

A: For me part of the joy of prayer is having abandoned the formula. I have no expectation that prayer works in a direct way. But I do hope that every person, religious or not, feels the permission to say, “I’m at the edge of what I know. And in the face of the sea of abyss, someone out there please show me love.” Because that’s to me the only thing that fills up the darkness. It’s somehow in there, the feeling that I am not for no reason. And that doesn’t mean anything better is going to happen to me, but in the meantime that I will know that we all are deeply and profoundly loved. That’s my hope for everybody.

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