Currently in Italy with Elizabeth Gilbert, as in, I’m reading her Eat Pray Love. In Italy, the Eat portion of the book, it’s all about pursuing pleasure, and gaining the ability to do so. I haven’t read the book before, had no interest, but it was one (of the many) suggested as part of studying memoir as a genre, and the copy my library owns was in when everything was Covid-19 closing down. So, here we are.
Eat Pray Love is one of those stories the world is enamored with, stories of people, women in particular, who go out to find themselves, often self-indulgently. Elizabeth Gilbert had the enviable experience of spending a year abroad in three places she longed to be, and the enviable pecuniary freedom to do so. I’m sure many have said, “Good for her!” and some variation of, “You GO, girl!” According to its own publicity, this book “touched the world and changed countless lives, inspiring and empowering millions of readers to search for their own best selves.”
Did you hear my eyes roll?
No one could argue against the popularity of the book, which, again according to its own publicity—easy enough to verify but I won’t take the time—has sold over ten million copies worldwide. It reportedly made the author millions of dollars, and was made into a successful movie with a well-known star.
But whatever an emotional response is inspired by—book, movie, charismatic speaker, religious experience—it’s just that: an emotional response. That isn’t the same as a life transformed.
The people I give credit to when it comes to finding their “best selves” are the people who manage to do it within the confines of the life they have to live in the season they’re in. Most of us are never going to be able to just move to a foreign country we’re enamored with, then another, and another. Most of us will never be able to afford a year abroad, or have the time to do it around our day-to-day responsibilities. That’s just life. And if you can’t be your “best self” wherever you are, you won’t truly be your best self anywhere. You’ll just indulge and please yourself. Sure, you may become more than just happy or content. You may accomplish some good for others, or even true good within yourself. You may be changed in a positive way. But every day after you find yourself outside in something separate from the daily life you’re constrained to by responsibilities, legitimate obligations, and financial considerations, you’ll have to wake up and live life. Ideally, to the fullest extent possible.
My soul isn’t rebelling against Elizabeth Gilbert’s feelings and how she’s dealing with them as strongly as it did against Cheryl Strayed’s account of her time on the Pacific Crest Trail and the time leading up to it. I just kept wanting to shout in frustration, “Oh, grow up and take responsibility for yourself!”
I roll my eyes a lot.
I didn’t finish Wild.
I may or may not finish Eat Pray Love. I no longer feel obligated to finish books just because I start them. That’s part of my personal declaration of independence, my putting enjoyment above unnecessary obligation. I haven’t quit yet. And there was a good line that caught me this morning. But for the most part I’m bored with it. Yup, she was miserable because she realized she didn’t want to have kids, and she didn’t want to be married anymore. Blah, blah, blah. Feeling trapped and unfulfilled, like millions of other women. I can identify with that, and I had the loss of a mother in common with Cheryl Strayed. But how many of us can just chuck our lives for months, a year? It’s not the women celebrated for shedding the day-to-day to run off in search of what they think they’re missing I respect, but the women who figure out who they are, live true to that , and never stop growing, whatever life keeps them from doing. And, really, not just the women, but the men. Because it’s not just women who get caught feeling stuck and out of place in their own lives.
If you’ve watched The Wizard of Oz—and how few haven’t?—you’ve heard the perspective Dorothy gained from her time lost in Oz, attributed to Noel Langley:
If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.
Don’t get me wrong, I am so not saying everyone needs to stay in their own backyard. Far from it. But we need to find a way to figure out who we are wherever we are. Whatever we think we need, we’ll be incomplete with it if we can’t be complete without it. Fulfillment isn’t just waiting for us over the rainbow any more than it was for Dorothy.
Maybe some will think my take on these books, these women, is harsh. Maybe they’ll accuse me of spite rooted in jealousy. Spite, no. Rooted in jealousy, no, but I know and am honest enough about myself to myself to admit some jealousy. Yeah, I’m growing, but I’m not utterly free of pettiness. I recognize my desire to follow whims, and that I envy the freedom of some who just can. If I refused to admit it, I couldn’t grow away from it. I’d rather be the woman who can celebrate other women’s victories (yay for the best-selling authors) and learn contentment in all circumstances (nod to the Apostle Paul), than the woman who tries to tear others down, or wrecks herself with self-pity and takes refuge in self-indulgence. I spent enough time feeling sorry for myself; I won’t go back there. I have my moments, but it’s no longer part of my identity.
It’s important to remember that not all leaving is running away.
And not all running away involves physically leaving… I’ve done plenty of that.
When we accept the fact we don’t have to run away to find ourselves, we empower ourselves to get on with it. Even the hard parts.
Looking for something better? Check out Tara Westover’s Educated.
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