Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved

A divinity professor and young mother with a Stage IV cancer diagnosis explores the pain and joy of living without certainty.Thirty-five-year-old Kate Bowler was a professor at the school of divinity at Duke, and had finally had a baby with her childhood sweetheart after years of trying, when she began to feel jabbing pains in her stomach. She lost thirty pounds, chugged a...

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Title:Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved
Author:Kate Bowler
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Edition Language:English

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved Reviews

  • Davita

    I started this book in the waiting room at the dentist, which was a mistake, in part because I’m always about to cry at the dentist and also because the dentist does not deserve to witness my deep wonder.

    So I did what any reasonable person should and finished this book at home in bed on a slow morning. And gosh. I’m glad my roommates weren’t home because I oscillated between an ugly cry and a full belly laugh in the course of like three pages.

    Kate’s voice is incisive and thoughtful and honest

    I started this book in the waiting room at the dentist, which was a mistake, in part because I’m always about to cry at the dentist and also because the dentist does not deserve to witness my deep wonder.

    So I did what any reasonable person should and finished this book at home in bed on a slow morning. And gosh. I’m glad my roommates weren’t home because I oscillated between an ugly cry and a full belly laugh in the course of like three pages.

    Kate’s voice is incisive and thoughtful and honest and also breaks your heart open (I know that’s not an adjective, but I’m so impressed I’ve given up on parallelism). Also, a good chunk of this book is dedicated to her community of Canadian Mennonites, who are consistently the best people I’ve ever met, so between that and a shout-out to Mindy Lahiri, we are clearly kindred.

    This isn’t about me, though, so please just read the damn thing.

  • Michael

    Prior to reading this book, it was recommended to me by one of my good friends. We were discussing how we love to believe all the cliches such as: "Everything happens for a reason." Needless to say, I was very excited to read this, and by doing so, this has become my favorite book I read so far. Before I start my review, I am going to start of with some of my favorites quotes from the book.

    "I wanted to make God to make me good and make me faithful,with just a few shining accolades along the way.

    Prior to reading this book, it was recommended to me by one of my good friends. We were discussing how we love to believe all the cliches such as: "Everything happens for a reason." Needless to say, I was very excited to read this, and by doing so, this has become my favorite book I read so far. Before I start my review, I am going to start of with some of my favorites quotes from the book.

    "I wanted to make God to make me good and make me faithful,with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do do if hardship were only detours on my long way life's journey. I believed God would make a way. I don't believe that anymore. "

    "What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, "You are limitless."? Everything is not possible. The mighty Kingdom of God is not yet here. What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of the "the gospel" meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough."

    "When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason."

    Kate Bowler believed in a lot of cliches and religious sayings,until she was diagnosed with cancer. Now she tells her story of the prosperity gospel and how detrimental it is to people who believe in teaching that does not reflect the true nature of God. I can relate to this book so much, not only the quotes that she used but I grew up with this religious nonsense!

    I too was taught that you had to have just a little faith to be healed, command money to come down from heaven in order to receive a blessing. That the reason why you were not healed is because you lacked faith. Either that or you need to tithe your money in order to receive a breakthrough from God..WHAT?? Now that I think about it, that is a load of Bullshi....SHUT YOUR MOUTH!

    I admire Bowler for sharing her story, it was eye-opening, quirky and provocative.

    Highly recommend to anyone, it exceeded my expectations!

  • Rebecca Foster

    This was the 2018 title I was most looking forward to reading, and it didn’t disappoint. I devoured it in one day. It combines two of my niche interests: medical (especially cancer) memoirs, and the prosperity gospel, a dubious theology I grew up with in the Pentecostal church my parents still attend in America. Indeed, Bowler’s previous book is a history of the prosperity gospel in America. Though she grew up surrounded by the Canadian Mennonite tradition, as she made progress towards becoming

    This was the 2018 title I was most looking forward to reading, and it didn’t disappoint. I devoured it in one day. It combines two of my niche interests: medical (especially cancer) memoirs, and the prosperity gospel, a dubious theology I grew up with in the Pentecostal church my parents still attend in America. Indeed, Bowler’s previous book is a history of the prosperity gospel in America. Though she grew up surrounded by the Canadian Mennonite tradition, as she made progress towards becoming an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School she was fascinated by prosperity theology: the idea that you can claim God’s blessings, financial and otherwise, as a reward for righteous behavior and generous giving to the church.

    If she’d ever been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. “In a spiritual world in which healing is a divine right, illness is a symptom of unconfessed sin,” that way of thinking went. Having incurable cancer forced her to acknowledge that nothing is actually that simple; that there is no direct correlation between the quality of your faith and the outcomes you experience. “Control is a drug and we are all hooked,” she realized, when really life, with all its beauty and awfulness, is down to luck. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, and about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future she faces. I especially liked the appendix entitled “Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times” (followed by some alternative lines to try).

    Bowler’s writing reminds me of Anne Lamott’s and Nina Riggs’s, and I highly recommend her book to memoir fans.

  • Canadian Reader

    is a propulsive memoir about a young woman’s sudden, dramatic diagnosis of stage-four cancer after months, possibly years (the timeline is fuzzy), of inexplicable symptoms and innumerable, pointless appointments with medical specialists. Some might frame a personal narrative like Bowler’s in terms of the uncertainty of medical science, reflecting on the imperfection and limitations of humans as diagnosticians and care-givers. Hindsight

    is a propulsive memoir about a young woman’s sudden, dramatic diagnosis of stage-four cancer after months, possibly years (the timeline is fuzzy), of inexplicable symptoms and innumerable, pointless appointments with medical specialists. Some might frame a personal narrative like Bowler’s in terms of the uncertainty of medical science, reflecting on the imperfection and limitations of humans as diagnosticians and care-givers. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, but it is evident that the many specialists Bowler saw were guilty of the biases and egregious errors in thinking that a number of medical writers, most notably oncologist Jerome Groopman (in his

    and

    ), have in recent years brought to public attention. Some of the clinicians Bowler encountered were also guilty of appalling insensitivity. A junior doctor was sent in the early morning hours to inform her about her survival odds: she had a 30 to 50 % chance of surviving two years, she was bluntly told. A physician’s assistant who checked her sutures after her surgery asked her how she was doing, then callously announced: “the sooner you get used to the idea of dying the better.”

    While Bowler tells a story that will be familiar to those who have personally lived with their own serious illness or the illness of someone close to them, as well as those who have read other memoirs about the subject, the author’s angle—a religious and academic one— is rather unusual. At the time she first experienced her inexplicable symptoms, Bowler was working on her dissertation on “the prosperity gospel”, the brand of Christianity famously exemplified by the likes of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Joel Osteen, and Kenneth Copeland—among innumerable other “televangelists”, “charismatics” and religious shysters out there. This “gospel” is premised on the idea that if one only believes enough, one is entitled to all of God’s bounty. This, importantly, is not limited to spiritual gifts; it also includes material wealth, such as money and cars, and worldly success in general. It’s basically, the evangelical “take” on the American Dream. The notion that the blessings will flow if one only works hard enough to believe is immensely attractive to those struggling with chronic or catastrophic illnesses, broken families, or troubled teenaged offspring. Often exhausted after having tried all the conventional fixes to life’s big problems, the desperate become as little children and surrender to magical thinking.

    In essence the “prosperity gospel” isn’t that far removed from another homegrown American religion: Christian Science, which is predicated on the idea that right thought leads to perfect health. Illness, therefore, is evidence of flaws in the believer. While proponents of the prosperity gospel may not eschew modern medicine with its advanced diagnostics and techno-surgical, chemical, and experimental fixes, they are like the followers of Mary Baker Eddy in that they regard sickness as an indication of failure. Perhaps the believer hasn’t acknowledged all his sins and is preventing God from bestowing His bounty.

    Bowler excels at communicating the visceral, chaotic feelings of a person faced with a sudden dire diagnosis: the fear, the panic, the pleading and bargaining, the anger at the injustice of it all (she is preparing for death while everyone else is on Instagram), the grief—the intense sorrow— at the prospect of being wrenched from her young son and her husband, Toban, whom she’s loved since their adolescence in Manitoba. She even writes of being aggrieved at slights she won’t be present to argue against, projecting a future without herself in it, imagining some well-meaning but deluded soul accosting her husband with the old pearl of wisdom that God must have wanted another angel. Bowler’s narrative reveals all this but also indicates that the author hasn’t been an entirely detached observer of and commentator on the prosperity gospel; she’s absorbed at least some of its tenets. She writes: “It is one thing to abandon vices and false starts and broken relationships.I have tried to scrounge around in my life for things to improve, things to repent of, things to give God to say,

    But it is something else entirely to surrender my family . . .”

    At the time of her sudden (late) diagnosis and surgery, Bowler was a lecturer at Duke University’s Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. She not only had an abundance of friends to rally around her, but she also had a bevy of pastors, pastors-in-training, and general do-gooders praying for her. However, all the prayers in the world could do little to assuage the threat of being cut down in her prime.

    Bowler’s memoir is an interesting and quick read, though the author’s telling is (understandably) occasionally scrambled and frustrating. The disorganized execution creates a sense of emotional immediacy, but sometimes causes confusion. Events are not presented in clear, chronological order and the language can sometimes be fuzzy. For example, we are told that some years before the cancer diagnosis, when Bowler was hospitalized, having “agreed to some kind of surgery”, she and her husband were stunned to learn—seemingly mere hours before the procedure (again, the chronology is unclear)—that she is pregnant (after years of struggling with infertility). One assumes the surgery was intended to address the mysterious loss of motor function in Bowler’s arms. Whatever the case, the operation was off, and the couple returned home to dither and fuss for a bit. “But it had begun,” Bowler writes. What “it” was is not clear. The pregnancy? The ordeal? (By this point, she had already been having symptoms for some time.) She continues: “I felt something strange and ran to the bathroom. I started to scream for Toban.” What was this strange “something”? She doesn’t say. In the shower: “I could not look down. I was nothing but blood and water.” Is this meant literally, or is it a presentiment? Again, it is not clear.

    A significant part of Bowler’s memoir is dedicated to describing the mail, both snail and electronic, she received after an essay of hers was published in the New York Times. It seems all correspondence— whether from Christians, atheists, Buddhists, or fellow cancer patients—was intended to provide Bowler with the writers’ understanding of the reason why she had been stricken. Some letters were confessional outpourings. At the end of her book, Bowler provides appendices about what to say and not to say to someone dealing with catastrophic illness—something that many readers may find useful.

    At the time of writing, Bowler was still engaged in clinical trials for which she had to fly to Atlanta on a weekly basis. A scan conducted every two months indicated whether she was eligible to continue for two months more. After half a dozen or so rounds, there were signs that Bowler’s body was having a hard time coping with the toxic chemical loads. Having learned that she was among the three percent with the “magic” cancer that could be explained by a complicated gene repair disorder that might respond to experimental therapies, there was, of course, no guarantee that the treatment would actually be magical or the response long lasting.

    Many of us go through life events that utterly transform us, about which we can say later there is distinct “before” and “after”. For some, these events occur sooner than later. The world—or more precisely, the way we see it—seems completely changed. The carpet has been pulled out from under us, or perhaps the obscuring veil of illusion has dropped.

    represents its author’s effort to make sense of the ultimate seismic shift in her life. One of the things she learns as she is “stuck in the eternal present of cancer”, trying to walk the “fine line between total passivity and supercharged heroic effort”, is that “nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life that has been more painful than I had imagined. More beautiful than I had imagined.”

    Thank you to Net Galley and Allison Schuster at Penguin Random House for providing me with a digital copy of this memoir.

  • Bill Gates

    I spend my days asking “Why?”

    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,

    I spend my days asking “Why?”

    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,

    , 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:

    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.

    ” 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

    : “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.

    belongs on the shelf alongside other terrific books about this difficult subject, like Paul Kalanithi’s

    and Atul Gawande’s

    . 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

    about faith, morality, and mortality. It’s inspiring to see this thoughtful woman face such weighty topics with honesty and humor.

  • Samantha Price

    I feel like I get to be honest here. I don’t have to feel bad for this woman (although, I do), but I do feel like I can judge in a more non-biased view given my own Stage IV diagnosis. Every cancer memoir or article that is published is going to influence people’s view about our illness, mortality, etc. Here’s the thing - none of us can know what’s to come and religion won’t tell us the truth. To me, she explored (and over shared) her religion and didn’t talk much about anything else. This was m

    I feel like I get to be honest here. I don’t have to feel bad for this woman (although, I do), but I do feel like I can judge in a more non-biased view given my own Stage IV diagnosis. Every cancer memoir or article that is published is going to influence people’s view about our illness, mortality, etc. Here’s the thing - none of us can know what’s to come and religion won’t tell us the truth. To me, she explored (and over shared) her religion and didn’t talk much about anything else. This was more of a religious book then a cancer memoir. In the end, was she still a televangelist and believed in the prosperity gospel? I don’t know. Additionally, it was not in chronological order at all and overall very confusing.

  • Julie Ehlers

    Sorry to have to say this, but

    is a mess. This short book is a memoir of Kate Bowler's Stage IV colon cancer and how her diagnosis flies in the face of the "prosperity gospel"—the notion espoused by some Christians that as long as you believe in God and think positively, good things will happen for you, and therefore if something bad happens it's kind of your own fault. Was Kate Bowler previously a devotee of the prosperity gospel, or was she raised in that tradit

    Sorry to have to say this, but

    is a mess. This short book is a memoir of Kate Bowler's Stage IV colon cancer and how her diagnosis flies in the face of the "prosperity gospel"—the notion espoused by some Christians that as long as you believe in God and think positively, good things will happen for you, and therefore if something bad happens it's kind of your own fault. Was Kate Bowler previously a devotee of the prosperity gospel, or was she raised in that tradition? Why, no. She was raised in the Mennonite tradition. She's a professor at Duke divinity school and did her dissertation on the prosperity gospel, so she knows a lot about it, but has no actual personal lived experience with it at all. Analyzing a particular area of Christian belief in relation to her cancer might work for a short essay, but it doesn't work for a book-length memoir. Memoirs are supposed to be personal. Bowler discusses the prosperity gospel for so many pages, and after a while it just seemed pointless. She doesn't believe in the prosperity gospel herself, so what does it really have to do with anything?

    The book otherwise just meanders. It touches on her Mennonite background and other religious traditions, talks quite a bit about how hot her husband (allegedly) is, goes over her past fertility issues and other health problems, mentions a high-profile article she wrote on her cancer diagnosis and the prosperity gospel and the various responses it received—aha! When I got to this part it all made sense: Bowler had written an article for the

    , it got a massive response, she got a book deal, and then had to stre-e-e-e-tch it out to book length. She's done this, but not successfully.

    As other reviewers have mentioned, this is really much more a book about God and Christianity than it is a book about Bowler's cancer diagnosis. Given that she is a divinity professor, maybe I should have expected that. But the book started out with a harrowing section about her unexpected diagnosis and then went off in a hundred other directions, leaving me wondering how her surgery went and what her prognosis and treatment plan were. She doesn't come back to it until several chapters later, and even then she doesn't provide a lot of direct details—eventually the reader can suss everything out, but it takes longer than it really should for a book this short.

    In the past year or two I've read several memoirs about people's trials and tribulations, and many of them have left me underwhelmed. When I post my middling-to-negative reviews on Goodreads, I usually get some insults from people who think not liking a memoir is tantamount to going to the author's house and criticizing her life choices to her face. I'm not going to sugarcoat it: I think this is a simpleminded attitude. An author and her book are not exactly the same. Writing a book requires making decisions about what to put in, what to leave out, what tone to take, how to organize everything, and on and on. All of that affects the reading experience, and if it isn't done well, I'm not going to appreciate the book. I think what happened to Kate Bowler is awful and I wish her the best, but I also wish I hadn't bothered to read this.

    When I think back to memoirs I've really liked, such as

    and

    , I'm reminded that it's just not enough to have an interesting life. A memoirist also has to be serious about writing a really good book. I don't see a lot of that happening in the current crop of memoirs, and in the future I'm going to be much more careful about which new ones I read. I'm sure

    will help some people, but purely as a reading experience it didn't hit any kind of mark for me.

  • Liz

    A portion of this book was striking in its special way of describing mundane aspects of life and how meaningful they are when you’ve got a terminal illness. However, its narrative style was absolutely jarring and so hard to follow. Also, I felt that a huge portion of the book was not relatable because of the author’s privileged background and narrow sample of demographics. I was hoping for a bit more reflection or insight on the topic of prosperity gospel, but I felt all it had to offer were sni

    A portion of this book was striking in its special way of describing mundane aspects of life and how meaningful they are when you’ve got a terminal illness. However, its narrative style was absolutely jarring and so hard to follow. Also, I felt that a huge portion of the book was not relatable because of the author’s privileged background and narrow sample of demographics. I was hoping for a bit more reflection or insight on the topic of prosperity gospel, but I felt all it had to offer were snippy and oftentimes judgy comments not limited to prosperity gospel or limited to ideas in general. Sanctimonious is a perfect word to describe the tone of book and the author’s way of thinking. Although I have a lot of sympathy for any kind of suffering, I also do not believe in the prosperity gospel, I am a mother to young children, and I am also very attached to my husband, the author left me unable to relate to her. I feel sympathy, yes, deeply. But in all other aspects, it was not an enjoyable read.

  • Suzy

    I was drawn to this book because I've noticed that there seems to be a widespread belief that we are completely in control of our destinies. Think of all the articles and books that tell us what to eat, how much exercise to get, what to invest our money in, etc, etc to live a long and healthy life. Conversely, if you do experience financial difficulties or serious health problems, you must have done something wrong or something to deserve it. I've recently experienced some health issues, and man

    I was drawn to this book because I've noticed that there seems to be a widespread belief that we are completely in control of our destinies. Think of all the articles and books that tell us what to eat, how much exercise to get, what to invest our money in, etc, etc to live a long and healthy life. Conversely, if you do experience financial difficulties or serious health problems, you must have done something wrong or something to deserve it. I've recently experienced some health issues, and many people have commented that they either can't believe that I got that or asked me what I did to get it or think all I need to do to get better is a positive attitude. My thought . . . if we're human and living on earth, shit is going to happen!

    While there is some connection with my beliefs and Bowler's experience and premise for this book, I had never heard of the Christian creed of "prosperity gospel". Indeed her previous book

    was based on her belief in and her study of this phenomenon. Basically it purports that if you're good enough and you believe enough God will bestow wonderful things upon you and, conversely, if you're not doing the right thing, God will punish you! Well, she comes to the conclusion that shit happens, too, after her stage IV colon cancer diagnosis and experience with treatment (although I imagine she doesn't describe it exactly that way).

    While I didn't have the patience to read more than half this book about her experience and her revelations, I do feel that I'm probably not the target audience and also see that it had resonance for many GR readers. With all that said, the two appendices should be required reading for all people who have friends and family going through things.

    1)

    - you will likely cringe when you recognize things you've said (I did) and you will know how unhelpful these things are if they've been said to you when you are going through terrible times.

    2)

    - Alternative things to say to and do for people going through terrible times. Believe me, follow Bowler's advice! These are all the things people who are suffering need to hear and receive!

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