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Kate Bowler

on the lies we love, spiritual reflections, and how everyone is on their own hero’s journey.

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Ten years ago, Brené started the Daring Interview series on her blog. It quickly became one of our favorite features. Now, we are relaunching the series and adding in a few new questions, including some from the late James Lipton, host of Inside the Actors Studio, and Smith Magazine’s Six-Word Memoir.

In 2015, at the age of 35, Kate Bowler was married to her high school sweetheart, busy caring for her baby son, and teaching at Duke University’s Divinity School. Then she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and told she had about two years left to live. Her diagnosis turned life upside down, from her research to her beliefs. And when she sought out resources for cancer patients, or talked to well-meaning neighbors, she was troubled by what she found and heard. Some books blamed the patients for getting the disease. People quickly jumped to finding “reasons” for why this happened to Kate (“It must run in your family,” or, “It must be something you ate”).

So she decided to try and change the narrative, harnessing her writing and research skills to help give people language for when awful things happen to them. In her powerful memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), Kate, with humor and wholeheartedness, shares her journey and captures the struggle of searching for answers amid a terminal diagnosis and finding ones that didn’t always align with the beliefs she once held close.

 

Kate’s 11th season of the Everything Happens podcast is out now. Her favorite thing about the art of podcasting? “I genuinely meet people I want to go on vacation with,” she says
Kate’s podcast, Everything Happens, launched alongside the book, in which Kate interviews people about what they’ve learned during difficult times. Now in its 11th season, Kate says of the art of podcasting — “I genuinely meet people I want to go on vacation with;” photography by Gretchen Mathison.

Vulnerability is . . .

Vulnerability is the willingness to be known. I think it’s one of the great privileges of allowing people into your life. Sure, some people will misunderstand. But what’s even scarier is that they can see you for all of who you are. Which usually includes bits that you’d rather hide. So vulnerability is one of the bravest things people can do.

People reach for platitudes that offer them a modicum of comfort but end up pouring more pain on the sufferer. We hope to offer thicker language, a more resilient understanding of faith, and a community of people who understand that sometimes, life just happens. Period. For no reason we can easily find or assign to others.

 

A collection of Kate's books, including The Lives We Actually Have, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Have a Beautiful Terrible Day
Kate’s new book, Have a Beautiful, Terrible Day!, is packed with bite-size reflections and action steps to get through every kind of day — good, bad, and mediocre; photography courtesy of Penguin Random House.

What role does vulnerability play in your work? 

Vulnerability plays a huge part in my work, or at least it began to once I started writing in a much more personal way. I used to just write history books, which I loved and still love writing, but they allowed me to describe events at a wonderfully impassive distance. Now that I write more — personal memoirs and spiritual reflections and that sort of thing — as well as interview people all the time for the podcast, I find that the entire enterprise lies on a willingness to be vulnerable. It’s funny, most of the worst interviews I’ve done over the past couple of years could probably be traced back to that. You can tell in the first five minutes, Does somebody really want to be known, or are they hoping to broadcast a prepackaged bundle of information? Because if they’re willing to be known, then all kinds of other lovely things happen: mutuality and wisdom, and this is my favorite piece — surprise. It opens all of us to the possibility of having our minds changed.

 

A blessing for when you realize everyone is struggling from Kate's instagram
Kate sends out weekly blessings — for “when your parents are aging,” “for you who might become,” and “when you realize everyone is struggling” — to her social media followers; photography courtesy of Kate Bowler.

What’s something that gets in the way of your creativity, and how do you move through it?

I find that having too many grand plans really gets in the way of creativity. Maybe because I’m genuinely not smart enough to have multiple big ideas actually metabolized inside one human day. I keep a quote from The Karate Kid up on my monitor that says, “Your focus needs more focus.” Which makes me laugh and is exactly the right advice. The best way to get creative is to strip down my ambitions into two hours of alone time and only one idea of how to spend the time. I’m usually scared or bored for the first half hour, and then something magical happens.

It’s often difficult to share ourselves and our work with the world, given the reflexive criticism and mean-spiritedness that we see in our culture — especially online. What strategies do you use to show up, let yourself be seen, share your work with the world, and deal with criticism? 

I try to treat every project like a time capsule. Any book, any conversation for the podcast, any project of any kind can really only reflect whatever I’ve been reading recently and the kind of creative tools I’ve honed so far. That’s it. It can’t be more and it won’t be less. I always have to remind myself that I will always be able to tell who I was when I wrote it. As imperfect or plausibly intelligent as I was at that time. That way, I don’t have to have a perfect anything. I just have to have a good-enough reminder of the creative places I’ve been, which give me enough courage to look for new creative places I’d like to go.

The best way to get creative is to strip down my ambitions into two hours of alone time and only one idea of how to spend the time. I’m usually scared or bored for the first half hour, and then something magical happens.

 

Describe a snapshot of a joyful moment in your life.

Almost all my joyful moments involve my son, Zach. Mostly because he is incredibly mischievous in extracting my goodwill and multiplying some free time into all-day affairs. Lately, he is so invested in Calvin and Hobbes that my mom made him a stuffie of what Hobbes looks like in the cartoons when everyone is looking. So lately we’ve been practicing imagining Hobbes as Calvin sees him. Leaving out canned tuna for him, pouncing on each other from behind doorways. Basically, just scaring the crap out of each other. It never fails to stick with me because nothing needs to be planned and nothing needs to be perfect. It’s just two people noodling around.

Kate with her son, Zach, at home
Kate with her son, Zach — “When he was born, I promised myself I would take him everywhere. Being able to be a Frequently Traveling Mom has been one of the things I am most grateful for. Most people don’t get to travel OR take their humans, and for a long time I couldn’t do much of either;” photography courtesy of Kate Bowler.

Do you have a mantra, manifesto, or favorite quote for living and loving with your whole heart?

One of my favorite slogans is: “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. For everyone.” It was something I started thinking about when I spent so much of the week in hospitals, the kind of incredible crystalline loveliness that comes from watching people be fragile and be cared for. And it also reminds me that people are usually in the midst of some great hero’s journey. And even the people who annoy the crap out of me are on some kind of quest.

What is your favorite word? 

My favorite word lately is splendid. I love overly formal, stuffy, appraising words.

What is your least-favorite word? 

My least-favorite word is a phrase. When people say, “There you go.” It usually means they don’t want to build on the joke you’re desperately working on and want their approval for.

I picked up the f-word during Lent a few years ago when I found that the preciousness with which people approached life and death could no longer be tolerated and that I would become a truck driver in my word choice.

 

What sound or noise do you love?

I love the sound of music-building practice rooms. My mom was a professor at the School of Music in Manitoba, and if you listen to 20 people practice all at once, it sounds truly horrible, but it’s, like, unbelievably relaxing at the same time. And it reminds you that whatever you see in the performance, everything that happened before was kind of a train wreck.

What sound or noise do you hate? 

Fake English accents. Yes. Even at your child’s elementary school play.

What is your favorite curse word?

My favorite curse word is the f-word. I picked it up during Lent a few years ago when I found that the preciousness with which people approached life and death could no longer be tolerated and that I would become a truck driver in my word choice. Truly, once I was converted, I’ve never gone back.

Social posts from Kate's Instagram account
Scenes from Kate’s Instagram account, from left: a mural in Durham, North Carolina, where Kate and her family live; a snapshot of her quest to visit many of “The World’s Largest…,” including this record-holder in Manitoba, Canada; and one of her many quotes, memorialized by the Tiny Pricks Project from Diana Weymar; photography courtesy of Kate Bowler.

A song/band/type of music you’d risk wreck and injury to turn off when it comes on? 

I lose my ever-living mind if any song by Mannheim Steamroller comes on. I know it’s some people’s nostalgic Christmas favorite, but I lose my ability to celebrate Jesus’ birth or tolerate the company of others if I hear one more synthesizer, sliding scale. I just can’t do it.

Favorite show on television? 

My favorite show right now is The Witcher. I have no idea why. Drama-Rama, fake period costumes, accents I can barely tolerate. I don’t get it.

Favorite movie? 

Muriel’s Wedding, by Baz Luhrmann. It’s perfect. Beginning to end.

What are you grateful for today? 

I’m grateful that I work with people who let me make fun of them as much as I do. Harriet, in the office over, has a calf-muscle injury she really needs to attend to, and all I’m going to do is troll her about it until the workday ends.

If you could have anything put on a T-shirt, what would it be? 

I would put “Okayest Life Now” on a T-shirt.

Favorite meal? 

My favorite meal is homemade pasta. Some kind of tagliatelle, ideally.

A talent you wish you had? 

I wish I could sing while playing cello. It was my childhood dream, but I’ve never achieved it.

Favorite song/band?

My favorite band is the Weakerthans, an emo band from Winnipeg that is the depression of my youth.

Portrait of Kate Bowler in front of a full, colorful bookshelf
Kate’s website is full of resources for people recently diagnosed with illness, for those who need support in caregiving, and for those struggling with grief. Learn more at katebowler.com/resources; photography Michaella Jelin.

What’s on your nightstand? 

My nightstand has earplugs, lip balm, and the new Margaret Renkl book.

What’s something about you that would surprise us? 

I have a massive appetite for the blood sport of arguing. If I’m with other people who like arguing and I know it won’t hurt their feelings, I would laugh maniacally while eviscerating somebody. I have a very emotionally attuned job, and so it’s a little bit fun to yell, “That’s the worst argument I’ve ever heard,” at the top of my lungs.

Your six-word memoir . . .

My six-word memoir is, Getting Better Despite All Odds. No, it’s not that. It’s, Still Dealing With My Own Meritocracy. That’s what it would be.

Vulnerability is the willingness to be known.

Lauren Smith Ford headshot

By Lauren Smith Ford

Lauren Smith Ford is the editor in chief of brenebrown.com and the senior creative director at the Brené Brown Education and Research Group. She has written for Texas Monthly, Elle, Southern Living, Teen Vogue, and Glamour, among others, and when she isn’t spending time with her three daughters, she can be found on the pickleball court.

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