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  • There is some medical news that nobody, absolutely nobody,

  • is prepared to hear.

  • I certainly wasn't.

  • It was three years ago that I got a call in my office

  • with the test results of a recent scan.

  • I was 35 and finally living the life I wanted.

  • I married my high school sweetheart

  • and had finally gotten pregnant after years of infertility.

  • And then suddenly we had a Zach,

  • a perfect one-year-old boy/dinosaur,

  • depending on his mood.

  • And having a Zach suited me perfectly.

  • I had gotten the first job I applied for in academia,

  • land of a thousand crushed dreams.

  • And there I was,

  • working at my dream job

  • with my little baby

  • and the man I had imported from Canada.

  • (Laughter)

  • But a few months before, I'd started feeling pain in my stomach

  • and had gone to every expert to find out why.

  • No one could tell me.

  • And then, out of the blue,

  • some physician's assistant called me at work

  • to tell me that I had stage IV cancer,

  • and that I was going to need to come to the hospital right away.

  • And all I could think of to say was,

  • "But I have a son.

  • I can't end.

  • This world can't end.

  • It has just begun."

  • And then I called my husband, and he rushed to find me

  • and I said all the true things that I have known.

  • I said, "I have loved you forever,

  • I have loved you forever.

  • I am so sorry.

  • Please take care of our son."

  • And then as I began the walk to the hospital,

  • it crossed my mind for the first time,

  • "Oh. How ironic."

  • I had just written a book called "Blessed."

  • (Laughter)

  • I am a historian

  • and an expert in the idea that good things happen to good people.

  • I research a form of Christianity nicknamed "the prosperity gospel,"

  • for its very bold promise that God wants you to prosper.

  • I never considered myself a follower of the prosperity gospel.

  • I was simply an observer.

  • The prosperity gospel believes that God wants to reward you

  • if you have the right kind of faith.

  • If you're good and faithful,

  • God will give you health and wealth

  • and boundless happiness.

  • Life is like a boomerang:

  • if you're good,

  • good things will always come back to you.

  • Think positively. Speak positively.

  • Nothing is impossible if you believe.

  • I got interested in this very American theology

  • when I was 18 or so,

  • and by 25 I was traveling the country interviewing its celebrities.

  • I spent a decade talking to televangelists

  • with spiritual guarantees for divine money.

  • I interviewed countless megachurch pastors with spectacular hair

  • about how they live their best lives now.

  • I visited with people in hospital waiting rooms

  • and plush offices.

  • I held hands with people in wheelchairs,

  • praying to be cured.

  • I earned my reputation as destroyer of family vacations

  • for always insisting on being dropped off at the fanciest megachurch in town.

  • If there was a river running through the sanctuary,

  • an eagle flying freely in the auditorium,

  • or an enormous spinning golden globe,

  • I was there.

  • When I first started studying this, the whole idea of being "blessed"

  • wasn't what it is today.

  • It was not, like it is now,

  • an entire line of "#blessed" home goods.

  • It was not yet a flood of "#blessed" vanity license plates and T-shirts

  • and neon wall art.

  • I had no idea that "blessed" would become one of the most common cultural cliches,

  • one of the most used hashtags on Instagram,

  • to celebrate barely there bikini shots,

  • as if to say, "I am so blessed.

  • Thank you, Jesus, for this body."

  • (Laughter)

  • I had not yet fully grasped the way that the prosperity gospel

  • had become the great civil religion,

  • offering another transcendent account

  • of the core of the American Dream.

  • Rather than worshipping the founding of America itself,

  • the prosperity gospel worshipped Americans.

  • It deifies and ritualizes their hungers,

  • their hard work and moral fiber.

  • Americans believe in a gospel of optimism,

  • and they are their own proof.

  • But despite telling myself,

  • "I'm just studying this stuff, I'm nothing like them,"

  • when I got my diagnosis,

  • I suddenly understood how deeply invested I was

  • in my own Horatio Alger theology.

  • If you live in this culture, whether you are religious or not,

  • it is extremely difficult to avoid falling into the trap

  • of believing that virtue and success go hand in hand.

  • The more I stared down my diagnosis,

  • the more I recognized that I had my own quiet version

  • of the idea that good things happen to good people.

  • Aren't I good?

  • Aren't I special somehow?

  • I have committed zero homicides

  • to date.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • So why is this happening to me?

  • I wanted God to make me good

  • and to reward my faith with just a few shining awards along the way.

  • OK, like, a lot of shining awards.

  • (Laughter)

  • I believed that hardships were only detours

  • on what I was certain would be my long, long life.

  • As is this case with many of us, it's a mindset that served me well.

  • The gospel of success drove me to achieve,

  • to dream big,

  • to abandon fear.

  • It was a mindset that served me well

  • until it didn't,

  • until I was confronted with something I couldn't manage my way out of;

  • until I found myself saying into the phone,

  • "But I have a son,"

  • because it was all I could think of to say.

  • That was the most difficult moment to accept:

  • the phone call, the walk to the hospital,

  • when I realized that my own personal prosperity gospel

  • had failed me.

  • Anything I thought was good or special about me could not save me --

  • my hard work, my personality,

  • my humor, my perspective.

  • I had to face the fact that my life is built with paper walls,

  • and so is everyone else's.

  • It is a hard thought to accept that we are all a breath away

  • from a problem that could destroy something irreplaceable

  • or alter our lives completely.

  • We know that in life there are befores and afters.

  • I am asked all the time to say that I would never go back,

  • or that I've gained so much in perspective.

  • And I tell them no,

  • before was better.

  • A few months after I got sick, I wrote about this

  • and then I sent it off to an editor at the "New York Times."

  • In retrospect, taking one of the most vulnerable moments of your life

  • and turning into an op-ed

  • is not an amazing way to feel less vulnerable.

  • (Laughter)

  • I got thousands of letters and emails.

  • I still get them every day.

  • I think it is because of the questions I asked.

  • I asked: How do you live without quite so many reasons

  • for the bad things that happen?

  • I asked: Would it be better to live without outrageous formulas

  • for why people deserve what they get?

  • And what was so funny and so terrible was, of course,

  • I thought I asked people to simmer down

  • on needing an explanation for the bad things that happened.

  • So what did thousands of readers do?

  • Yeah, they wrote to defend the idea that there had to be a reason

  • for what happened to me.

  • And they really want me to understand the reason.

  • People want me to reassure them that my cancer is all part of a plan.

  • A few letters even suggested it was God's plan that I get cancer

  • so I could help people by writing about it.

  • People are certain it is a test of my character

  • or proof of something terrible I've done.

  • They want me to know without a doubt

  • that there is a hidden logic to this seeming chaos.

  • They tell my husband,

  • while I'm still in the hospital,

  • that everything happens for a reason,

  • and then stammer awkwardly when he says,

  • "I'd love to hear it.

  • I'd love to hear the reason my wife is dying."

  • And I get it.

  • We all want reasons.

  • We want formulas

  • to predict whether our hard work will pay off,

  • whether our love and support will always make our partners happy

  • and our kids love us.

  • We want to live in a world in which not one ounce

  • of our hard work or our pain or our deepest hopes will be for nothing.

  • We want to live in a world in which nothing is lost.

  • But what I have learned in living with stage IV cancer

  • is that there is no easy correlation

  • between how hard I try

  • and the length of my life.

  • In the last three years, I've experienced more pain and trauma

  • than I ever thought I could survive.

  • I realized the other day that I've had so many abdominal surgeries

  • that I'm on my fifth belly button,

  • and this last one is my least favorite.

  • (Laughter)

  • But at the same time, I've experienced love,

  • so much love,

  • love I find hard to explain.

  • The other day, I was reading the findings

  • of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation,

  • and yes, there is such a thing.

  • People were interviewed about their brushes with death

  • in all kinds of circumstances:

  • car accidents, labor and delivery,

  • suicides.

  • And many reported the same odd thing:

  • love.

  • I'm sure I would have ignored it if it hadn't reminded me

  • of something I had experienced,

  • something I felt uncomfortable telling anyone:

  • that when I was sure that I was going to die,

  • I didn't feel angry.

  • I felt loved.

  • It was one of the most surreal things I have experienced.

  • In a time in which I should have felt abandoned by God,

  • I was not reduced to ashes.

  • I felt like I was floating,

  • floating on the love and prayers

  • of all those who hummed around me like worker bees,

  • bringing me notes and socks and flowers

  • and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement.

  • But when they sat beside me,

  • my hand in their hands,

  • my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me

  • the suffering of others.

  • I was entering a world of people just like me,

  • people stumbling around in the debris

  • of dreams they thought they were entitled to

  • and plans they didn't realize they had made.

  • It was a feeling of being more connected, somehow, with other people,

  • experiencing the same situation.

  • And that feeling stayed with me for months.

  • In fact, I'd grown so accustomed to it

  • that I started to panic at the prospect of losing it.

  • So I began to ask friends, theologians, historians, nuns I liked,

  • "What I am I going to do when that loving feeling is gone?"

  • And they knew exactly what I was talking about,

  • because they had either experienced it themselves

  • or they'd read about it in great works of Christian theology.

  • And they said,

  • "Yeah, it'll go.

  • The feelings will go.

  • And there will be no formula for how to get it back."

  • But they offered me this little piece of reassurance,