758. The Transcendent Time Continuum of Hope

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Everything Happens for A Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, a book by Kate Bowler, came out last year from Random House and to considerable acclaim. At the age of 35 years, Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School and mother of a young son, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Fortunately, her cancer is the “magic” kind, as Bowler likes to call it, meaning it responds to a new kind of cancer therapy known as immunotherapy. Take a look at her website and you’ll see her there in photos smiling and looking the picture of health.

The book was an interesting read for me because it gave a human face to therapies that I write about in my medical writing day job. For several years, a good part of my work has been writing about these therapies that help the person’s own immune system kill cancer cells. The book was an interesting and compelling read, also because it showed a person coming to terms with living in a state of great uncertainty about the future.

As Bowler writes,

“Plans are made. Plans come apart. New delights or tragedies pop up in their place. And nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life that has been more painful than I could have imagined. More beautiful than I could have imagined.”

Given that I’m writing a book about hope, I was also interested in how hope might be at play in her story. I found that while throughout the book, Bowler both struggled with and lived with hope, the topic of ‘hope’ per se was never overtly discussed. It felt a bit like a missing beat; I had wanted her to take on hope. Not that this at all takes away from her book or her story, it was just a perhaps selfish desire on my part to learn how she thought of hope.

Then the end of last month, Bowler had a cover story in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times. In “Hope Isn’t Only About the Future” (see below for link), she describes how her cancer diagnosis and treatment took away the future tense of her life and grounded her in the looped present comprised of treatment cycles. Hope as typically used, pointing to the future, seemed irrelevant when what she wanted was all now: life with her husband now, life with her son now. For her, hope had been a “kind of arsenic that needed to be carefully administered.”

She writes about trying to resolve the present:future dichotomous time continuum on which hope dwells for her as a person living with such uncertainty. Towards the end of the essay, however, she writes words that emerge from her personal struggle that spoke to me, and my guess is, they might speak to you as well.

“The terrible gift of terrible illness is that it has in fact taught me to live in the moment. But when I look at these mementos, I realize that I am learning more than to seize the day. In losing my future, the mundane began to sparkle. The things I love—the things I should love—become clearer, brighter. This is transcendence, the past and the future experienced together in moments where I can see a flicker of eternity.”

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Note: The essay’s title in the online version is “How Cancer Changes Hope.”

[Photo: Taken from a corner of the cover illustration in the article’s print version in The New York Times.]

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