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Monday, April 6, 2020

Dr. Kate Bowler (PhD Divinity), Cancer Survivor: "How To Live in the Face of Fear"



Fasten your seatbelts, this Holy Week.  For whatever reason, as I've stated before, Holy Week has historically been tragic and bonkers. 

This is most likely because it's an emotional time for many people.  Thus, religious zealots and those with deep-seated religious resentment alike will get psychologically cuckoo and do unwise, negligent, and angry things, either thinking they're doing them in God's name (and that God will magically protect them) or because they're angry with God and Christians.  Or perhaps there is a spiritual component.  Maybe both. who knows. 

For example, Notre Dame burning last year, the great fire of New Orleans on Good Friday, and this year, the Surgeon General declares that this week will be our worst yet, likening it to Pearl Harbor in terms of deaths due to the virus.   

Whether it actually will be our worst week yet, or the pandemic peak is still yet to come, doesn't matter - because those words have been spoken over us and people will behave as if it is, anyway, you can count on it. 

(Just like "curses" - real or not, people believe themselves to be cursed and so they act cursed lol.)


Speaking of belief affecting behavior and outcome, people like Dr. Kate are sharing their pearls of wisdom each day to meditate on - and they're not Pollyannaish at all -they're realistic.  

Dr. Kate has a doctorate in divinity and is a religious historian at Duke University School of Divinity.  At 35 and a new mother, she was diagnosed and survived cancer. 

If anyone knows how to face fear like a pro, it's this lady - although she also credits learning from people who live with chronic anxiety and PTSD - but her answers may surprise you.  

One of the things she talks about is the American delusion of our  invincibility and the "push to stay positive."

Though she recognizes the importance of a positive attitude and having hope, it's equally important to be realistic and safe, as well as and not to shame ourselves or others if negative feelings crop up - because it has the opposite of the desired effect, more negativity. 

Having a good balance between negative and positive feelings is the healthiest, neither extreme (very Buddhist, by the way). 

She states that we have a national obsession with our own invincibility and pushing those around us to "stay positive/stay strong" to the degree that it becomes delusional, to our own detriment and reality.

Amen - and greed. 

A positive attitude helps people survive longer, sure - but it's not a cure and it doesn't actually prevent anything - and in some cases, failure to accept reality that we're not invincible, can be detrimental and harmful.

Because in fact, we Americans have NOT fared better than other nations because of our "positive attitude" or "because God has blessed us/loves us more" than everybody else - we're simply not that special or better, like we think.

The truth is, we've largely benefitted from a distanced geographic locality, as well as the fact that originally, at our foundation, we were early adopters of new people and new ideas - but not so much anymore, are we? ;)


I mean, it takes a minute to get to the U.S. from other countries of the world - and as such, most of the time, we have the added advantage of time to know a threat is on its way before it gets here - and that includes this virus.


However - we Americans have, over time, developed a very dangerous habit of thinking "nothing will affect us, we're invincible," and thus not taking possible threats seriously, as well as not being open to new people and new methods of dealing with threats.

Even when we pick fights in other countries - which we DO do, people, let's be honest - or we flex our military muscles in other countries as show of force -  we have the benefit that the actual decisions are made thousands of miles away and we can run back to momma for safety, after throwing rocks elsewhere.


Speaking of Pearl Harbor (i.e. surgeon general warning) - I'm pretty sure when things did finally reach us, over here, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, our delusionally positive, invincible, God-loves-us-more-than you American attitudes neither protected nor saved us.

People felt pretty scared and sad for a while afterwards and it was appropriate - and THEN we got back up :)


Nevertheless, we Americans persist in these delusions and expect others to make us feel better, make us laugh, and make us feel good and positive, like the the rest of the world are court jesters for our benefit - we demand it - shaming people when don't feel and act positive and make us feel better about ourselves.

When someone's down, we Americans often yell "stay strong" or "stay positive" at them, instead of just allowing them to have a negative moment or trying to help them and saying, "How can I help you?"

Of course, shaming is counterproductive and actually has the opposite effect, the effect we actually don't want, negativity - and yet we do it anyway.

All of this, of course, stems from an abject fear that feeling momentarily negative and not feeling delusionally "American invincible" will "do us all in," and that this attitude is contagious - which is, of course, is not true and not realistic.

People prone to depression might get stuck, but that's really not their fault - it's brain chemistry and thought-conditioning, usually left there by shaming others (which I struggle with myself).

And in that case, all it takes cognitive therapy to "recondition" your brain from shaming-message residuals and/or more exercise and/or antidepressants to change it.

Regardless, I guarantee you, screaming at negative people to be more positive isn't the antidote, it's pushing the poison in deeper.


Because do you really think they haven't tried and aren't already yelling at themselves to be a stronger, happier person? lol ;

It really is okay to have a day to feel like this sucks - and it WILL pass.

If negative emotions scare you, then put a time limit on it "Just for an hour, I'm going to feel this" or "Just for today I'm wallowing in this, but tomorrow, I'm moving past it"

(My therapist taught me that trick ;)


And if you did get stuck in it, that's the time to seek help from others, but chances are, you won't - this too, shall pass :)
For those of us with PTSD, her words of living this way already being "familiar" hit home for me - it's why those of us with PTSD are faring a bit better through this, in some ways, I think - it's familiar.  There's no sitting on our haunches in denial, there's no being rendered immobile with shock - we think and move. 

Our brains know what to do with this, we go on autopilot and think rather than feel - we feel when it's over. (It's normal life when things are safe again we have trouble trusting, and other people have trouble understanding that.) 

Now, it's like the rest of the world gets it, they know what we're feeling to some small degree - and now is when we get to be helpful :)

However, it's important for those of us with PTSD and/or chronic anxiety to allow some feel time or we'll regret it later - and as much as we want to help others through it and stay hopeful (because we've survived much), that's extra pressure we don't need too and self-care is important.

Thus, here are some of her thoughts, this Holy Week, courtesy of the NYT.  


This is how smart, educated, logical still people do Christianity - because despite both political and religious people telling us otherwise; actually, science and faith are not mutually exclusive :)

Intelligent people approach science and faith with reason and accountability. They don't blame God or the devil for everything, they recognize the power of our free will.

They're also unafraid to challenge their own belief systems or interpretations - what they think they know about the universe. They're never afraid to ask themselves: "What if I don't know, what I think I know, about science OR God - what if I'm wrong?"


That's not insecurity, it's humility:)

Because actually, they're secure enough in their beliefs to allow other people to believe differently or not believe at all - even allowing other faiths to give adjunctive pearls of wisdom to get through this life.

In fact, actually, religious conflict has historically been based on deep-seated, raging insecurity and fear, hiding itself behind a rigid mask of superiority as subterfuge.

Demands for people to convert, propaganda against those who won't, killing people who won't, wars for politico-religious control -  all of it is, in actuality, the fear that something is going to topple an already fragile belief system and their sense of control.

Thus, people who believe differently are not allowed, even feared as a threat, propagandized - because it's too threatening to the psyche of people with insecure, fragile belief systems, who've never had the cajones to question themselves or their beliefs, just rid themselves of anyone whose very existence makes them question it.

Thus, it's possible, even likely, that many of my fellow Christians aren't actually experiencing persecution - they're misperceiving people who don't believe like they do as a threat to Christianity and themselves - when if fact, the threat comes from their own psyche - the very existence of someone believing differently in their realm is perceived a "threat."


Let me reassure you from personal experience - questioning your belief system and faith - adjusting or broadening your perspective as a result - strengthens your faith perspective, rather than weakens it. 

Are you brave enough? :)

The excerpt for Dr. Fowler's interview ... ____________________________________


How are you feeling your way through this new moment of mass fear and uncertainty?

It feels so familiar. That feeling of waking up in the morning and for a moment you don’t believe it’s real — I remember that feeling of not remembering I had cancer, and then remembering all over again, every day. I think so many people are waking up each day and forgetting that they are scared that they can’t hold their mom’s hand in the residential care facility they’re at. Or their sister is about to have a baby, and there are concerns that people can’t even have their partners in the room with them as they have what they hope will be a perfectly healthy birth.  On the other hand this situation is totally new to me. It’s very bizarre to share that feeling with everyone and realize: Wow, we are all feeling especially delicate, at the same time.

What is that revealing about the collective soul of the country, or the world, right now?

I think it’s painful for everyone to know that there’s just not a lot of room between anybody and the very edge. It really does run counter to the whole American story. It’s a story about how scrappy individuals will always make it, and it’s a story about how Americans’ collective self-understanding will always build something that will save the nation. And currently both things are not true. Everyone else in the world will suffer too, but I don’t think they will suffer nearly the same cultural disillusionment because they didn’t have that account of exceptionalism.

What do you make of the idea that we should all just “stay positive” through this?


The idea that we’re all supposed to be positive all the time has become an American obsession. It gives us momentum and purpose to feel like the best is yet to come. But the problem is when it becomes a kind of poison, in which it expects that people who are suffering — which is pretty much everyone right now — are somehow always supposed to find the silver lining or not speak realistically about their circumstances.


The main problem is that it adds shame to suffering, by just requiring everyone to be prescriptively joyful. If I see one more millionaire on Instagram yell that she is choosing joy, while selling journals in which stay-a- home moms are supposed to write joy mantras, I am going to lose my mind!

You’ve been sharing daily wisdom in your Instagram stories, giving people permission to feel and just be. In one post you say, “Today it is OK to be limited.” Tell us about that.


You mean when I’m lightly crying and sitting in my pajamas?

Especially when you’ve drunk too deeply from the wells of invincibility, you get in a time like this and I think we feel confused. Like it’s 8 a.m., why am I still tired?

There was a rhythm I got into with cancer that has served me well right now. Every day sort of has an arc to it. There’s a limited amount that you’re going to be able to face as you stare into the abyss. Being able over the course of the day to track your own resources will help you know how to spend them.

There’s just a minute where you know, OK, I’m starting to hit the wall. Time to turn the boat around. There’s only so much we can do, and in the face of unlimited need we have to not just wildly oscillate between sort of intense action and then narcolepsy.

How do we how feel the day and allow ourselves to be human inside of it? I think that’s really tricky work.


You’ve said people who live with a lot of fear have taught you to have two routines: daytime and nighttime. What are they?

Daytime: My eyes open. There is a six-year-old boy in pajamas. I feed him cereal, then we snuggle. Then I decide there’s only a couple things I can do in the day. Then I launch myself toward them. Then I get overwhelmed midway through the afternoon. You just take a minute. You see who’s left to care about. Then at some point you’ll realize that you’re about to hit the wall.

Nighttime: What’s most important, at least in my little routine, is you pick a time and then you call it. So like 7 p.m., no more new information. No more starting sentences with, “Did you hear about the….” And then start this sort of gentleness. I have positive music and cheese ball movies and more snuggles, and then go to bed earlier than it seems socially acceptable. Because if you violate that rule, then you’ll break the next day.


What are other practical survival tips for living in fear?

If the days are really full and heavy, to focus on the absurdity is so great. Small delight is really fun. I’ve been in onesie Star Wars pajamas so much more this week. Get really in to a reality show that people would lose respect for you if they knew that you watched it. Make a commitment to something unbelievably dumb right now — now’s the time.

There’s the light things. How do you find meaning amid all the terrible?


The trick is to find meaning without being taught a lesson. A pandemic is not a judgment, and it will not discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving. I think moments like this reveal to me God’s unbelievable love for us.

The second I see all these nurses and doctors going out there trying to save somebody else’s life, I realized it’s such a window into how gorgeous it is to be a human being. And the more we see fragility, sometimes the more we understand what an incredible miracle it is to have been created at all. So I think just having a higher and higher view of our gorgeous and terrible humanity.

We’re learning right now in isolation what interdependence feels like and what a gift it is, and the more we’re apart the more we realize how much we need each other. We’re allowed to be like beautifully, stupidly needy right now. We’re allowed to FaceTime people and be like, I feel like a mess, and all I want to do is be loved.

I’ve been thinking about how this is happening in an increasingly secular America, and how there are people who have these deep resources in their religious communities and there are others who don’t. What if you are someone right now who doesn’t pray?

For me part of the joy of prayer is having abandoned the formula. I have no expectation that prayer works in a direct way. But I do hope that every person, religious or not, feels the permission to say, “I’m at the edge of what I know. And in the face of the sea of abyss, someone out there please show me love.” 


Because that’s to me the only thing that fills up the darkness. It’s somehow in there, the feeling that I am not for no reason. And that doesn’t mean anything better is going to happen to me, but in the meantime that I will know that we all are deeply and profoundly loved. That’s my hope for everybody.



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