Kate Bowler

Editor’s Note: Kirsten Powers is a CNN senior political analyst and New York Times bestselling author whose forthcoming book is “Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered and Learn to Coexist with People Who Drive You Nuts,” publishing on November 2, 2021. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

At the age of 35, Kate Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Doctors predicted that at best she had two years to live – essentially handing the Duke Divinity School professor a death sentence. Since then, she’s been on the receiving end of a maddening collection of cringey cliches presumably meant to encourage her, but which have only made her already terrifying situation more difficult.

Kirsten Powers

Six years later, Bowler is the author of a remarkable and soul-baring new book filled with the wisdom she has gained on this harrowing journey. In “No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear),” she reflects on the epidemic of denial that results in so many of us refusing to gracefully come to terms with finitude – ours and those around us. Bowler, a historian of self-help, is fed up with “toxic positivity,” which she defines as “an overemphasis on the idea that our mindsets determine our reality.”

I doubt she’s alone: raise your hand if this kind of pernicious positivity is getting on your last nerve too.

It’s nearly impossible to live in America and avoid the trite admonishments to “think positive!” when you lose your job or that “everything happens for a reason” when you go bankrupt from medical bills, even though you have health insurance. Chances are, you too have delivered these empty platitudes in an effort to be helpful.

Bowler told me, “Our minds are powerful, but forcing our minds to conjure up optimism is not always healthy. American culture got hooked on the idea that everything is possible for those who believe. But the casualty is honesty. We overemphasize our own abilities and end up saddling ourselves with unnecessary shame and frustration. Life is hard enough without imagining that we are not simply suffering, but failing.” Bowler is an expert in the “prosperity gospel,” a witch’s brew of toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing (in which spiritual ideas and practices are used to avoid facing reality head-on) that is popular in many evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches.

In this paradigm, God rewards you with health, wealth and happiness if only you have the right kind of faith. As the pandemic has demonstrated, scientific facts and common sense fall to the wayside as people declare they will “trust God” to protect them from a deadly virus that is befalling people all around them who God apparently doesn’t care about. (Weirdly, many of these same people own guns rather than trusting God to protect them.)

But spiritual bypassing isn’t just for Christians. It infects much of the wellness and self-help industry which commodifies magical thinking about our power to overcome dire health diagnoses, financial struggles, deadly infectious diseases and systemic issues such as racism, misogyny and income inequality with positive thinking and spiritual belief.

Even Americans who aren’t particularly spiritual or religious can fall prey to this kind of mindset, so embedded is it in the American ethos. “This movement that began as a very Pentecostal, overtly Christian theology has become so widely mainstream that I can’t go to Target without getting an entire home goods line explaining to me that the Universe is conspiring to bring me happiness,” Bowler wryly commented to me in an interview recently.

During a period many years ago when I was attending an evangelical church, I was exhorted to pray and fast so that I could be healed from chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and debilitating clinical anxiety. A hipster pastor at the New York City church I attended held a meeting for those struggling with depression and anxiety and informed the group that they should not take medication, but instead trust God, as he was doing. God was “putting us in the furnace” – a Scriptural reference – to shape and grow us.

So, I faithfully white-knuckled my way through paralyzing anxiety for years until I finally couldn’t take it anymore and started taking an antidepressant. Within two weeks, my anxiety had significantly subsided and I was able to function normally. It felt, dare I say, miraculous.

As for my physical pain and fatigue: it turns out they were rooted in trauma, and after intense therapy, my health was restored. Hearing that my lack of belief was the cause of my health struggles not only made my suffering even more unbearable – it was factually incorrect and dangerous advice.

Bowler acknowledges that seeking to find meaning in the lowest points of our lives can have positive consequences, such as building resilience in the face of change. But when people insist that your pain and suffering are meant to teach you something, that can cause shame and fear, Bowler notes. “If I thought that being told I have stage four cancer and probably was not going to last till the end of the year and then leave behind a two-year-old because God or the universe was trying to teach me to be a better person, I would really struggle to understand what it would mean to have a loving God in that scenario.”

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    Bowler isn’t advocating that we give up hope for a better world, abandon optimism or faith that there is a higher power. Instead, she’s pointing us to a better understanding of what spirituality and faith are really about.

    In the Christian tradition, the promise that God makes isn’t to protect us from never encountering a storm; it’s to be with us in that storm. “Too often our lives are taken apart by the things we can’t choose,” said Bowler. “If we could all have a little bit more love and reality about not being able to live our best lives now, I think the world would be a gentler place for people in pain.”