Zibby is joined by podcaster, Duke University professor, and New York Times bestselling author Kate Bowler to discuss HAVE A BEAUTIFUL, TERRIBLE DAY!, a book of witty, honest, and wise spiritual reflections that invite us to embrace the bad—not just the good. Kate shares how her experience with chronic pain and stage four cancer inspired this book and her outlook on life—one that is based on resilience and transforming difficult days into beautiful, terrible days. She shares her strategies for coping with those difficult days (including a “wall of dubious achievement” where she celebrates even the most minor accomplishments with her family).


Zibby: Welcome Kate. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss Have a Beautiful Terrible Day. 

Kate: Thank you. I'm glad to be here. 

Zibby: As a fellow podcaster, you know how this goes.

You know how much fun it is to chat with people who's working. You admire and I have read all of your books and just love everything you have to say and do and follow along and subsequent, I mean, all the things I'm just, you know, so impressed by you and your authenticity and openness and just all of the ways that you've shared your, I hate the word journey, yourself and your experience.

Kate: I find myself almost saying journey all the time, but it's so true. Like we find each other on these weird roads that are just like big surprises always around each bend. 

Zibby: Yeah, exactly. Okay. So for this book, tell listeners a little bit about it. When you came up with the idea for these sort of meditations, how you even narrowed it down to the ones you included.

This is great. I was taking screenshots one after another. I'm like, oh, I'm gonna send this person. I'm sending this one to that person. So. 

Kate: Oh, that's nice. Last year, I really just got stuck in a loop. I was going around and around the same problem with chronic pain. And it really kind of brought me back to that feeling that you get sometimes like in a health problem or in a relationship breaking down.

But like you, You just like, you were having the same problem over and over again, and there's not a way out. And you're a smart person. So if there was a way out, like you probably would have figured it out by then. So I was stuck with this really narrow set of choices. I only had about an hour every day where my brain worked because I was so physically uncomfortable and the meds just weren't working.

And so I thought, well, if this is how I need to practice living, which is inside of An hour, then how can if it's if it's probably going to be a maybe a terrible day, like how could I learn to make it a beautiful, terrible day? And are there habits of attention or reflection or maybe things I need to get rid of that I can do inside of this?

Inside of these 60 minutes and it was as much for my own sanity as it was just to be able to hopefully be there with other people who also have problems that we get stuck inside of and can't always find our way out of. Are you experiencing that level of pain today? Yeah, it was, that one was about a nine month problem.

And one of the, one of the, I mean, most ridiculous things about any like tar pit is that you're positive it will never end. Like if we talked about this last year, I've been like. It's, I mean, it's, it's genuinely impossible. There's no solution to this. And then just like little bit by bit, tiny little moments of possibility opened up.

And I'm doing so much better. But at the time I was, I would have called you a liar. 

Zibby: Okay. I'm glad you didn't have to do that. Thank you. For listeners who backstory and why you ended up in pain and what you've Sure. Could you give the Sure. Or the long version, whatever you want. 

Kate: I, yeah, well, I was a very lucky person for a while.

Things were really going my way. I, um, got like my dream job at Duke University when I was just a little, little baby grad student and all I wanted to do was, Do this, which is be a historian about, like, cultural scripts and, and then I got very, very sick and I had stage four cancer when I was 35 and really spent most of my 30s trying to stay alive.

Which is very time consuming, as it turns out. And I'm doing so much better. But it's just one of those, uh, but because I had so many abdominal surgeries, I just had a lot of lingering chronic pain. So I guess that was kind of the mental shift I was trying to make between sort of life as a crisis where everything is sort of very bright and clear.

And in a way, you almost become more wise when you're having these sort of apocalyptic experiences. And then you're like, Oh, crap. Now I just have the garbage rusted. Of my life where I have to sort through life as a chronic condition. And like, what do you do with the things you can't solve? So those are the questions I guess I think a lot about like personally, emotionally, and historically.

Zibby: Oh my gosh. 

Well, you know, I'm so sorry that was your path, but the way that you have used it to sort of help humanity, divinity, I don't know. Can I read a couple of these and like see where they came from or whatever? I particularly like, for whatever is on the calendar, I'm gonna read this one. Let's see.

I'll just read like the first page. Every, every time I do something really difficult, I make an award chart. I know it is completely ridiculous. Truly, it's so dumb. But picture me attempting to get a doctoral degree from a fancy university with a lot of stone gargoyles and leather bound books. But then I needed to read about 350 of those leather bound books in a short period of time.

So what did I do? I made an enormous chart with a point system. Three points for a book I had never read. Two points for a difficult article in a journal. One point if I could simply recite the argument without having finished the book. And then I bought reams of stickers shaped like stars and made each point a star.

If I could have done something similar with chemotherapy when I was diagnosed with cancer, I would have. When life is hard, I secretly wish someone out there is keeping score and clapping. I wish you could get an award for everything you do for others. I would build the podium myself. We could have a whole point system.

Make a horrible appointment? Two stars. Loved an enemy? Three stars. But instead, most of the difficult and painful choices we make to love others and get up again after being knocked down will have no audience, no clapping. At most, we will get a small sense that we are moving in the right direction. So today, let's consider the things we do and what they cost, even though we probably won't get a medal for whatever happens.

I love that so much. I love that. 

Kate: It's funny, too. I started this thing at home just because of the depths of my ridiculousness, which is I now have a wall called the wall of dubious achievement where like everything that I do that like probably in no way deserves to be celebrated like when I was a very mediocre waitress at Perkins Family Restaurant.

I like, I put it on the, I, I make the award chart and everybody else gets to be on it too. So like safe, safely using the crosswalk, do you want an award? I'm going to give it to you. I need to. 

Zibby: I remember this reminded me of my time in Weight Watchers, like back in another lifetime where like I got a, a you lost five pounds bookmark and it like changed my life.

I'm like, Oh my gosh. I won something. Like I actually got an award for doing like the hardest thing in the world, which for me then was losing five pounds, which seems so vain and stupid, but whatever it was the thing I was trying to do. And I put it on the fridge and I'm like, wow, this is life changing.

Like, oh my gosh, could I get to 10 pounds, Jeri? 

Kate: Is it true? I feel like our phones know that about us because every time there's a sound that's like ba do do do doop, we're just like, that's it. I could live for that sound. 

Zibby: Did you know that in Instagram there are all these badges that are just in there and you get badges for all these milestones?

Yes, I found them. I am all about the badges. It's really exciting. 

Kate: Oh my gosh, you've opened up a new world for me. 

Zibby: Yeah, I know. You're going to be like, I need 16, 000 more reels. I'm just going to keep doing reels. No, I think though, I mean, we're poking fun, but external reward and some marker that, like, the effort is noticed, because we are all expending so much effort every day, whether it is, like, in your case, just to live, or just to get through the day, or whatever it is, and there are no external prizes for most of the stuff, and, like, why the heck not? It's funny, because, like, I don't know. 

Kate: I mean, we have so little language for the feeling that we're all hoping for, which is like an experience of transformation in our lives and like, theologically, there is a lovely word for it.

It's called sanctification, but we never use it because we never think about it that way. Because mostly when we're doing something lovely, those are especially the things that, like, there's very few. Like, trying to create a more loving relationship with a person in your life. That's incredibly difficult, like, it's unlikely that our culture is going to say anything except for like, well, I guess that's what's good for you.

And you're like, no, no, no, transformative, like soul changing stuff, the things that make virtues, like those are, those are hard things to even like congratulate ourselves for because they mostly just feel awful at the time. 

Zibby: Yeah, pretty much. Okay, let me read another one. You're being too productive. I like this one, too.

I'm like, oh, yeah? Okay. We even have a little poem here. God, it's time to call it. My productivity is out of control. I'm filling every second with a task that will make the next one work. And even my down times are planned so far in advance, they can't anticipate what life will actually look like. I was literally sitting here reading this at like two in the Kate.

How are you here? Having an issue here. Thank you. 

Kate: It's so funny. I think I, yeah, I think I was ruined by my first reading of the book, Getting Things Done. Remember when it first explained to us that if something could be done in less than two minutes, then we have to do it. And it turns out that that's like 99 percent of available tasks.

So then like, what? What is, what does that do? Who have I become?

Zibby: I know. I was doing something, I was like, oh, it's so much faster for me to just like pay this quick bill. It's only like 34. Yeah. You're like. Not that that's nothing, but you know, it's not like I'm like having to, like I can pay this bill. So I was like doing it and then they, they kept having more sections and I'm like, this is like, I looked at the clock on my computer, I'm like, oh, this can't take more than two minutes.

I'm allocating two minutes for this. I start doing it. Okay. Da, da, da. Now they need this. Now they need this other contact form information. Then they started asking me all these other things and now I need invoice numbers. I'm like. Oh my gosh. Now it's like become like a ten minute thing. Cheers. Like, anyway.


Kate: I think that's, that's definitely life is like the avalanche effect, and especially two of, I think we're hoping, I feel like nice moments last about like, 10 to 12 seconds, you know, like those mountaintop beautiful. Everything is amazing. I can't believe I got here like 7 to 12 and it's over Bad things or even like the things that will measurably help us like making a stupid health care like phone call Yep I mean that that will be that will never end I feel like it's just like if there was a quick cut montage of me being like hi Linda.

Yeah You No, I'll hold. Hey, hey, Joanne. No, that's And that's the part where... 

Zibby: you should do that. That would be so funny. From now on, anytime you make an appointment, like, throw the phone up in the tripod, and after a year, put them all together. And I don't know what prize Instagram will have for that, but it'll be a big one.

Kate: Yeah, the endless, the sprawl, the sprawl is so real. And I think we think that our lives are going to be, I don't know, I guess that's why most of those cultural stories that we hear really just, they're really crowded onto the super positive side of the spectrum where we do imagine we should be having more mountaintop yoga experiences.

I do think it's more like, Trying not to murder anyone in traffic. Trying, trying, trying to keep a certain tone of voice when you're talking to your kid when they're complaining for the 200th time about a thing that cannot be changed. Like, these are the ways we're being changed. It's just really, it's just difficult to see how we're being changed while we're doing it.

Zibby: When somebody, like some expert at one point said, if you're really furious, whisper. Try it. Like when your kids are like, when you're like ready to like throw something instead of you're like. You guys, I'm ready to kill you. You know, like, just try it. It changes the mood because then they're so surprised.

You know, it changes everything. It works. It works. What's like your last mountaintop amazing eight to ten seconds that you've had? 

Kate: Oh, yeah. Well, actually, to be honest, last night was really fun. Kids have this weird thing, right, where they can make time elastic, and I spend most of my time avoiding it, because they're gonna make me super inefficient, like, I got stuff to do.

But last night, my son really, like, sucked me into his time vortex. And before I knew it, Like drawing became a, like a game of pretending to be Mario Karts, but became me throwing things at his head as hard as I could. And like, that, I don't think I've laughed that hard in a really, really long time. So yeah, and I didn't know what time it was.

And that's always how I know something is kind of magical, is that I'm like, wait, what's that? Oh, sorry. Bud. Buddy. Yeah. We forgot about bedtime. We gotta shut this down. Yeah, it doesn't happen to me that often because I'm just too, I get too aggressive about trying to keep everything in order, you know, but it's always lovely where you kind of fall off the side and then to a big kind of bubble pit.

Zibby: And where do you, where do you think you get that? Your need to have everything in order. 

Kate: I think it got worse with illness. I'm sure I was a productivity monster before, but the tick tick of being scared kind of cranked it up. So I, I kind of have to work against every time they're like, consider the lilies.

And I'm like, I don't have time. I'm really, I think I've just trying to work against my own nature and it's like my, my growth edge.

Zibby: I was on my way to it. Like a book event or something and I was in this car service and the guy's like, well, we have like 10 minutes. You want to like get out here, walk around, kill some time.

And I was like, kill some time? 

Kate: Who do you think I am? What do you think I can't do with 10 minutes, sir? 

Zibby: Yeah. I was like, that's like against everything I'm trying to do in my life. So you have these like, Fun, not fun, but like, you know, poking fun at the craziness of life things, but then also like very serious things, you know, when you're certain today will be too much, not drowning in other people's problems, and then you have this one, number five, when it's not fair, it really isn't.

This is the one I was sending a few people. In the midst of the, can I read one more thing?

In the midst of the worst things that have happened to me, I realized that no one was going to show up to apologize. People who have heard us rarely apologize, natural disasters and disease will most certainly never say sorry. And even though it felt silly to say I want an apology about my cancer diagnosis, I really did.

So if you need one too, here's a blessing for when life isn't fair. And for what it's worth, I'm really sorry that happened to you. It literally makes me want to cry. 

Kate: It's so funny. It's like, oh my gosh, the like deep, the deep need we have to like, for someone to be keeping track of what it cost. It's such like, it's such a deep need in us.

And that's part of the, My favorite kind of love is sometimes I have really scary friends, like, just like, I find that I'm always friends with these terrifying people. And, and it's because they're so formidable in their love. And when they look at me and they'll be like, I am so sorry. And also, I wish I could murder everyone that's ever, anything that's ever hurt you.

That it like, confirms in me a thing that I didn't realize was, was missing until they said it. It's like, thank you for, thank you for counting. What? The loss. Oh my gosh. 

Zibby: So how and when are you doing all of the things that you are doing? Like, you're a professor, right? You're a professor? 

Kate: Yeah. I profess. 

Zibby: You profess?

You must have to prepare a little bit for that. 

Kate: I think you can tell that I'm a monologuer, so I'll be like, hey, thanks for coming. I have 40 minutes. on this, on this idea that I'd very much like to share and you're contractually obligated to listen to. Yeah, I do have that job. 

Zibby: You write best selling books.

You host a podcast. 

Kate: I have a podcast. It has been a lot of jobs. And also, I probably have still about like 10 hours of health appointments a week. And so that's, that takes up a lot of my time, which I don't love. But the, My favorite part is that the research and teaching part lets me stay really curious about new questions because the second I'll kind of give a lecture on something, I'll realize the 200 things I genuinely don't know and kind of made up in Q& A, so I'll have to go back.

And that's kind of created this like cycle then of being able to research and then test ideas and then talk about them with other people. Because before the podcast and before all the other stuff, I really didn't ever have a chance to talk to people out of my own expertise. And that has been really great.

I mean, beautiful, because it turns out that I'm always just interested in the same thing. Courage? How? How? Hope? How? Love? And then interdependence. How do we get out of this absolutely insane individualism we've been boxed into? So kind of playing around on those themes has Sort of like fleshed out most of the ways that I work and think now.

But it does. I think it is probably too many jobs. 

Zibby: Don't you need, do you find you need to rest? I mean, I know from these you are not letting yourself really rest or it seems that way if I can read into things. 

Kate: I do have, I have pretty firm cutoffs for um, like I stop work at a certain time and I don't work on the weekends just because I got a, I got a mom hard with that one.


Zibby: Wow. Do you find solace in other books? Like, do you carve out time for that? 

Kate: I love, yeah, especially, man, memoir is, memoir is just earth shattering. I mean, it's, it creates awe every time. Mm hmm. So, and there's like such a bizarre intimacy of having read like 250 pages of somebody else's inner thoughts.

So yeah, I read a lot of memoirs. I, I'm a little topped up on, cause I read so much theology and spiritual thinking for my job. I'm like, oh my gosh, if this becomes one more lesson, I'm going to throw myself, throw everything off a cliff. So I am a little bit more into the, like, I love comedians. I'm obsessed with like comic memoirs.

Zibby: What's a good one? I need a comic memoir. 

Kate: Okay. Well, honestly, Samantha B. 's memoir is. hysterical. She's probably the best comic writer I've ever read. It's upsetting. Her, like, granular attention to, like, the weird way her grandma does something will never leave me. It's, she's perfect. She's God's most perfect creature.

Zibby: Wow. Okay. I'm gonna, I'm gonna get that. I have not had her on the podcast. I'm gonna read it. I feel like the gift of laughter is Such a, such a joy when I'm literally like laughing. I was laughing so hard on a plane, this book that was a submission or whatever. And I was like covering up my mouth. And I'm like, I am one of those people right now who like my shoulders are shaking because I'm laughing so hard.

I'm like covering up. But, but that's wonderful. Are you reading anything that I should read right now? Oh, what am I reading? Well, speaking of memoir, I am about to talk to Katie Arnold. I don't know if you've read any of her stuff. She's, this is her second memoir. It's called, Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal Worlds.

Oh, wow. And Running Free. And her first book was called Running Home. And it's, it's not just about running, but she lives like in, I think, Santa Fe. And it's very much about like the nature, but it's also about the loss of her dad. And in this book, she has like a whitewater rafting accident. But I love stories like that where people have to recover from something.

You know what? 

Kate: Me too. Me too. 

Zibby: Like, take me to the bottom, and I will rise with you up to the top. It's so true. That is where I want to go. 

Kate: Yeah. I want to see everybody in a Rocky montage. I really do. 

Zibby: Yeah. Yeah. And then I will feel better. Then I'll close it and be like, okay. I can, I can get through this.


Kate: Yeah. You did it. You did it. 

Zibby: Right? Yeah. 

Kate: Exactly. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. Well, in all the people that you've met, and the events, and all the things, because of the books themselves, what's been like the greatest gift of a moment? 

Kate: Ah, well, I think there's always a moment in a conversation. Because, you know, you do so much preparation, you kind of know what somebody's going to say.

But then there's always surprise, like, and it's the same feeling you get in the classroom where you like, structure a topic, and then two thirds of the way through you're like, oh my gosh, I genuinely don't know what's going to happen. And I, like, there's this little lift in my heart, and then someone just sort of punches me in the face with their idea.

I mean, I remember the last time I felt that way was. I was talking to this lovely pastor, his name is Jerry Sitzer, and he, he was coming out with a 25th anniversary edition of this book that people had, that had been really formative for a lot of people. And it was, it was the story of this tragic car accident that ended the life of his wife.

wife and child. And it's like an absolutely devastating story. And then, and it was so beautiful to see him 25 years later and to see the incredible, the like truth of his life be played out in all these years. And then I was like, but Jerry, like, so how do you then think about like hope and, or like, what, what does a miracle feel like for you?

And he goes, and he was like, Oh, but Kate, like, I mean, the dirty little secret about miracles is that they never last. And when he said it, and he was like, like, okay, even Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, like, died again. It was, it could have been the most depressing thing someone had ever said but I felt the wind knocked out of me and I was like, from a man who has like, kind of come up from the worst, like come up from the grave a bunch of times, I thought, you're totally right.

Every beautiful thing is a flash and a gift. But like, the idea that I could hang everything on some like, durable, endless, everything's always gonna work out. Like, I can't, I can't and shouldn't live that way, but only because he said it. I was like, I believe you. I believe you and I have changed my mind.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors? 

Kate: I'm very clear about not being very special, and that really helps me. I don't think I'm, uh, I'm not wonderfully insightful. When I sit down, nothing incredibly magical will happen, and that is A OK. I just know that between certain hours, I think more clearly, and I just, Keep my bum in a chair, and I light a candle because I'm terrified of leaving an unattended flame.

And so having a lit candle forces me to sit there and have my non special thoughts. And then eventually, they will become better. But like, having a low view of my own abilities and a fire hazard has probably been the key to my writing ability. 

Zibby: Who knew? 

Kate: Yeah. 

Zibby: Low self esteem. It really gets you over the finish line.

Kate: Yeah, it really. If you think you're all that wonderful, gosh, I'm happy for those people. I just don't know how I would come up with something if the bar were that high. 

Zibby: So funny. Thank you so much. Thank you for talking to me today, for coming on my podcast, for all the books, and all the joy and, you know, just letting us go along the ride with you.

And I really love it. So thanks. 

Kate: I'm so glad to see you again. 

Zibby: Okay, take care. 

Kate: Thanks so much, hon. 

Zibby: Okay. 

Kate: I'm sure we'll see each other soon.

Zibby: I hope so, thank you.


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