This week we’re listening to: The magic of being human
In this podcast episode, Wajahat Ali and Kate Bowler delve into optimism and faith, illness and dying, all while wading through the often murky waters of what it means to be a good human on this planet.
- Format: Podcast episode
- Year: 2021
- Listen on: Apple Podcasts or Spotify
Wajahat Ali and Kate Bowler both know heartache, they have both faced death. Together, they are the perfect pair to have a conversation about hope.
This is a sucker-punch-to-the-gut kind of episode: it is raw and exposed, the layers of living peeled back. How can you have hope when there is so much to feel hopeless about?
Bowler has been living with colon cancer for over six years. When she was first diagnosed, she was given a year to live, and although out-living that prediction is a victory, it is by no means an easy ride.
Ali has also stared into the eyes of death. His five-year-old daughter is a stage 4 cancer survivor who was declared cancer-free a few months ago.
The two begin unpacking hope by turning to the expectations of hope – those well-meaning sentiments that people proffer, asking you to “look on the bright side”, when, really, it seems the darkness is all around.
“It’s always been very confusing to figure out what hope means, if hope is a story about the future and the future is never certain,” Bowler says.
“You’re living on the knife’s edge of uncertainty and hope, life and doom, at all times,” Ali agrees.
For Bowler, still having cancer six years on means she exists on that edge – she hasn’t moved any further away from it, and having long-term hope is difficult.
“I realised you have to learn to live here, the way this is, much closer to the edge, where it doesn’t really feel exactly like a knife’s edge anymore. It feels sort of like you’re asked to build a tiny home on the side of a cliff,” she explains.
“I think one of the big questions for me was, now that we know, now that we know that life can come apart in an instant, how do we live like this?”
Both Ali and Bowler are in a unique position, and they realise that. They have not only looked into hopelessness, but have seen it surround their lives and permeate their existence. Still, they choose to look towards hope, to sit with it and to ponder it.
There is the sense that the listener is privy to an incredibly precious moment, that these two people who, with the cards they were dealt, deserve to feel hopeless. And yet, they sit and intentionally discuss how they choose not to. And it is a gift.
“I recently got to hold little phosphorescent moon jellies in my hand on a kayak at night and see nature light up like underwater glitter. And you think, ‘dear God, thank you for this absurd wonder and the privilege of being in this body and loving the people I love and getting a shot at doing it again.’
“And then, also, structural inequality and crushing medical debt and… and cancer. And having it all up close together – that seems to me to be the big challenge of all this – is widening our little aperture so we can see the reality of both without missing one or the other,” Bowler ponders.
Perhaps, then, hope is acknowledging the darkness and the light standing side by side, and being grateful.
This is very clearly a conversation between friends, so comfortable it’s almost as if it just happened to be recorded and was not planned. Ali and Bowler discuss productivity: “We can have good, beautiful things that we do even when nobody’s watching,” Bowler says; and regret: “If we prevent ourselves from moving between past, present, and future, I think we become really narrow in our cultural language for how to live.”
There is a shift, towards the end of the episode, where the conversation softens, like whispers into the podcast void. And Ali asks, how can you be an “incurable optimist” when you are living with circumstances no one would ever choose?
“I think you and I probably both believe in an individual and a corporate view of brokenness; is that everywhere around us is the terror and the wonder. And I think always being able to be honest about the utter brokenness we see reflected in our bodies and in our cultures, and yet also, like flowers through concrete, the way that, even in the cancer centre, you see that son reach over and tuck a strand of hair behind his mom’s ear… And you learn how to live with the things that you can’t change,” Bowler says.
“I can’t help but be hopeful… there’s so much to live for,” Ali agrees.
It’s a difficult conversation, and one not without a few tears, “perhaps on both sides of the stream”, but overwhelming gratitude is ever-present. As Ali says to Bowler, “We have appreciated your vulnerability in being so human on this journey.”
What is giving you hope today? Ali ends the conversation by asking.
“How we can be characterised not just by our finitude, like the things that are numbered, but our natality – the idea that we have such unbelievable potential to begin again… it’s a complete miracle, and it makes tomorrow feel really beautiful.”
And so we are left to ponder – what is giving you hope today? DM/ML