Three winters ago, I stood in line at a ski resort and nervously held a pair of rental skis, thinking this was a bad idea.
Skiing requires coordination, lots of snow and a fear of heights. Unfortunately, I am extremely uncoordinated and all the chemotherapy I’d had for cancer had made me shockingly intolerant of the cold. Did I mention I’m also afraid of heights?
“I’ve never skied before,” I said cheerfully to the employee at the ski rental stand. “So say goodbye, because I’m ready to go downhill fast to an exciting and terrible ending!”
The servant looked startled. “No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t speak that into the universe!”
Kate Bowler (pictured), who was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 35, argues it’s toxic to expect people to be optimistic when the world around us has changed forever — or is always fragile –
He tapped a sign on the wall behind him that read, “GOOD VIBES ONLY.”
I wanted to discuss with him. I happen to be a historian with an expertise in the fallacy that we should always be positive. But I also know firsthand about our inability to manipulate the universe with good thoughts.
After all, in 2015 at the age of 35, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. There was no amount of positive thinking that could change this dark truth, but I found it nearly impossible to be honest without a well-meaning friend or stranger. who suggested I found the silver lining.
Apparently there were solutions and a brighter future as far as the eye could see. People were convinced that God had a better plan for me, or that alternative medicine would save the day.
And everyone had a diet plan that worked wonders.
Western culture has been dominated for the past century by ideologies of positivity. Optimism is big business. It’s the message of megachurches and fitness gurus, Peloton instructors, and multi-level marketing programs selling leggings or essential oils.
It’s the dominant commercial message for every glittering Instagram influencer in the multi-billion dollar health and wellness industry. We can heal our lives by controlling our minds. Just believe that the universe supports you.
But what if the universe stabs you in the back? One day I had my dream job as a professor at a top university, a hilarious toddler and a loving husband.
Televangelist Joel Osteen (pictured), pastor of the largest church in America, coined the phrase Your Best Life Now in 2004
And the next thing, doctors cut me open in a search for invading tumors, suggesting that my life expectancy could now be measured in months instead of decades.
There’s a little catchphrase people started using to describe that approach to controlling your own destiny: Your Best Life Now.
It was a phrase coined in 2004 by a television evangelist named Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest church in America, with his bestselling book of the same name.
“I’m living my best life right now” became short for the feeling that you were winning at the game of life. You had found a way to be saved through the gospel of good, better, best. And while I didn’t like the cultural clichés, I naturally believed in their truths—or at least assumed they applied to my life, whether I said it out loud or not. Hadn’t I studied hard to get where I was?
Hadn’t I delayed the gratification, saved my pennies, held my chin up, and never forgot to add smiley emoticons to awkward texts? But none of that mattered that September afternoon in 2015, when the doctor called to tell me to come right away. I had cancer.
To which all I could answer was, “But I have a son.” This can not be true. Life had only just begun.
Kate said positivity denies reality and drives home the false story that if we just find the right formula, life won’t interfere with our plans (file image)
And from my hospital room and in the months of painful chemotherapy and immunotherapy that followed, I found no master plan to take my life to the next level, ensure my growth, or use my cancer as a teaching tool.
The absurd truth of living too close to the brink of mortality is that everything is beautiful. And terrible. And full of beautiful moments and difficult things to admit, that’s how I’m afraid of dying. That I’m furious to be cut off from the family I love. And that worst of all is the loneliness of suffering. I’m not the only one with this feeling, I know. We get sick, or those we love get sick. Marriages are falling apart and family dinners will never be the same as they used to be.
Addiction or bankruptcy or a pandemic turns life as we know it upside down. We all struggle with the limitations placed on our bodies, our obligations, our ambitions and our resources – all while being saddled with inflated expectations of invincibility. This is the strange cruelty of suffering. We are told that if we just stay positive, everything will be fine. But expecting people to practice optimism when the world around us is forever changed — or always fragile — is toxic.
Positivity becomes a kind of poison in that it expects people who are suffering somehow always to find the silver lining or not talk realistically about their circumstances. It denies reality and drives home the false story that if we just find the right formula or repeat our mantras every morning, life won’t interfere with our plans.
Kate hopes the pandemic has taught us we can’t work faster than illness or outrun tragedy (file image)
But that’s not really being human. So instead of trying to surpass our human condition, the real question is how to live under a burden. We have to accept that a large part of our lives is determined by realities that we do not choose. And we must live with eyes – and hearts – wide open to life as it really is: beautiful and terrible, and that love itself breaks our hearts. What a gift. I hope the pandemic has taught us that we cannot surpass or surpass or surpass disease or tragedy. Despite the prosperity hype of pastors and the self-help industry, we can’t make our way to our ‘best life now’.
When the threat of the virus has abated, we will likely feel an intense desire to make up for lost time by imagining that we can return to the people we were.
I understand that impulse. I miss the person I was before cancer, and the dreams and possibilities I cherished. But instead of nostalgia, we must accept that there is no mythical “best life now” to return to or rush to.
Today I am doing quite well, thanks to modern medicine — not a positive thought. But my cancer, like my life, will be a chronic condition. As I find my way, I have to give up all illusions to live my ‘best life now’. Instead, I’ll try to find the little joys of this imperfect year. I must be as alive to my loves as to my fears.
Because this beautiful, delicate life will take courage. We step forward – not fearlessly – but with the knowledge that whatever situation we face, we don’t have to be perfect. Only loved.
So can we break down the Good Vibes Only mentality? I would like to make way for All The Vibes. All vibes welcome? That’s a T-shirt I’d wear while skiing.
No Cure For Being Human: (and Other Truths I Need To Hear) by Kate Bowler is published by Rider Books (out now, bound £14.99).