Kate Bowler is associate professor of history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School and the author of “No Cure for Being Human.”
“I’d like to see the manager,” I say. The teenager produces an older woman in an embroidered sweater and presents her to me with eyes that tacitly suggest minimum wage doesn’t cover this scenario.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” the manager asks gingerly.
But I am coming in hot. “Yes! Thank you. I need you to know that these books are not suitable to be sold in a hospital.” I point to the pile of Christian bestsellers I’ve made on the floor, books that I had carefully studied and documented in a comprehensive history of the movement known as the prosperity gospel. I spent years interviewing their celebrity authors and pulling apart their promises for divine happiness and healing with gentleness. And that’s not what I am after today.
The manager only stares.
“Okay, like this one for example.” I nudge “Your Best Life Now” with my foot. Televangelist Joel Osteen is on the cover, grinning and leaning into the camera.
“It says here it was a New York Times bestseller,” she says, reasonably.
“He’s saying God will reward you with money and health if you have the right kind of faith.” My voice is too high, even I can hear that, but I can’t stop.
“Normally, okay. I can handle this. But you can’t sell this in a hospital. You can’t sell this to me.” I gesture melodramatically to my gown, and she looks away, as if to give me a moment of privacy. Days before, I had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I was only 35.
I gesture to another book and then another. “This book tells me to claim my healing using Bible verses. This one tells me that if I can unleash my positive thoughts, I can get rid of negativity in my life.”
“So, what do you recommend instead?” She is not out of line.
I glance around the bookstore. There are books on how to let go of the past, how to live in the present, how to claim a brighter future. I suddenly feel like I need to sit down.
“Just let me point out the books that actively blame people for causing their own diseases.” Which she lets me do. And the next time I wheel past the gift shop window, copies of “Your Best Life Now” have been replaced by copies of Osteen’s newer book “You Can, You Will.”
It’s a powerful little phrase: best life now. Osteen coined it in 2004, and, almost overnight, everyone from Oprah to diet gurus and Hallmark movie starlets reached for it as the gold standard.
And according to every reality show I have ever watched, it is the only correct response if you encounter an ex-boyfriend who asks, “But how are you?”
I am living my best life now, Matthew. No explanation required.
Every year, billions of dollars are pumped into a wellness industry defined by the theory that we can be perfected. We can organize ourselves, heal ourselves, budget ourselves, love ourselves, track ourselves and eat well enough to make ourselves whole. In the 1970s, a New Age strain of America’s famous self-confidence took hold of the boomer counterculture. Its promises were bold and metaphysical, insisting that the mind could overcome the sins of the therapeutic age: low self-esteem, mediocrity and a ho-hum existence.
Such was the flood of self-help books on the New York Times bestseller list that, by 1984, the newspaper began siphoning them into a separate category to give other genres a fighting chance. The American admiration for bootstrappers and optimists had become a capitalist paradise. Everyone was now an evangelist of good, better, best. Harness your mind to change your circumstances. Salvation is only a decision away.
But I cannot outwork or outpace or out-pray my cancer. I can’t dispel it with a can-do attitude.
After a diagnosis. After a pandemic. That is the right time to question our popular theories about how to build a better life. We cannot “have it all” if we just learn how to conquer our limits. Infinity isn’t at the bottom of your inbox or in the next level on the Peloton.
The problem with our lives is that we cannot solve them. We can only live them. From that bookstore, I could see no formula that would get me the upgrade, guarantee my growth or use my cancer to teach me.
Instead of my best life now, I’ll have to settle into life now: the way the light streaks in through the blinds in this room; the way the nurse allows me to pretend he is a vampire who hoards these bright red vials of blood for his own sinister purposes; the way I’m sure it will be the okayest day yet.