“My life had this really direct momentum,” Bowler said, speaking with The New York Times columnist David Brooks at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “All I wanted to do was get my Ph.D., then get tenure, be loved by all members of my field, and do all the shiny things you want to do when you have endless time.”
But Bowler’s commitment to the notion that everything happens for a reason went out the door once her diagnosis hit. Now she believes that idea is deeply problematic. “We live in this culture that seems unable to allow people to suffer without trying to explain things to them,” she said.
It’s common for people to tell themselves or others that the best is yet to come. But promoting that idea, Bowler argued, can be cruel to those who might consider their best days far behind them.
Now several years beyond her diagnosis, Bowler has moved to scans every six months and is trying to savor every day as she continues treatment. She said there are several big ways people can better speak to those who are suffering. First, she said, each person’s pain is uniquely his or her own, so avoid trying to relate to someone’s struggle. Don’t bring up your aunt with cancer or your friend who also went through a bad, but unrelated, situation.
Second, don’t Google someone’s symptoms or suggest a bunch of solutions unless the person actively seeks your help; most likely, the person will already be aware of everything. And third, drawing from her scholarship Bowler encouraged people not to imply that someone’s suffering is at all part of God’s master plan or a direct result of a choice that person made. The cruelty of life can be random. Often, it’s just bad luck.
The most important thing, Bowler said, no matter what religious beliefs you have, if any, is that when someone in your life is suffering, you’re there for them. Bowler had friends who faded away from her life after her diagnosis because they didn’t know how to confront her tragedy. But the type of person she found most helpful when she was at her lowest, she said, was someone who just “shows up, doesn’t ask for anything, and just knits in front of you.”