Recently, I re-read Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert — which I had first read about 10 years ago, when I was in early college. Back then, Liz’s tale had seemed so irrelevant to my own life. Divorce, home ownership, a successful career. I was still trying figure out my major. What resonated with me, though, was her spiritual pursuit — her fierce desire to connect with happiness and God.
Now that I’ll be turning 30 in a few months, I see the book through a slightly different lens. While my writing career hasn’t had quite the resounding success that Liz has had (note, you are reading this on a self-published blog), being closer to her Eat, Pray, Love age helps me identify more with her experiences. The dilemma of whether to have children, once so far on the horizon, is now breaking on my mental shores as friends have babies — or making the decision not to.
In college, I adored this book, and I still do. But I have to admit that I kept it in a drawer, not on my bookshelf. Visitors to my dorm had rolled their eyes more than once at the book. I admit, it’s not exactly what you would call great literature. (Although Liz is certainly capable of crafting that — her book published before Eat, Pray, Love was The Last American Man — a Finalist for the National Book Award in 2002.)
As much as I enjoy Eat, Pray, Love, I do see where the skeptics are coming from. Liz goes through emotional turmoil, but the internal battles quickly reach a resolution within a few pages. It seems she skims over the deeper parts of her battle, focusing instead on the rosy outcomes. Which, I think, is part of the appeal of the book. It’s relentlessly positive, making for a buoyant read that’s perfect for the beach.
The phrase, dolce far niente comes to mind. It’s an Italian phrase that Liz learned in Italy and means “the pleasure of doing anything.” As Americans, we often have trouble relaxing into sheer pleasure, without a feeling of guilt. Having Liz articulate this dilemma was pretty validating. Her book is a reminder that embracing dolce far niente is okay.
At the same time, the book sometimes dives so deeply into dolce far niente that it can feel a little insular. At one point, Liz feels guilty about lamenting about her “boy problems” back home. But, then she recalls how when her therapist friend had counseled Cambodian refugees (who had suffered terrible torture, crimes, and losses), they wanted to talk about ex-boyfriends. Liz says:
This is what we are like, collectively, as a species, this is our emotional landscape…. There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. How much do you love me? and Who’s in charge? Everything else is somehow manageable.
I felt that this quick assessment flattened the terror that Cambodian refugees have endured. Yes, those questions are important, but to disregard the hardships endured as being “somehow manageable,” can come across as naive. With prose like this, it’s understandable that Eat, Pray, Love has found its way into the “priv-lit” genre.
The book is one part spiritual journey, one part escapist. Let us not forget our narrator is a wealthy white woman whose bank account opens doors that most could never touch because of responsibilities back home. Still, there are lessons that Liz learns, which I benefited from vicariously. For example, her sense of God. She writes:
What I have come to believe about God is simple. It’s like this—I used to have this really great dog… She was a mixture of about ten different breeds, but seemed to have inherited the finest features of them all. She was brown. When people asked me, “What kind of dog is that?” I would always give the same answer: “She’s a brown dog.” Similarly, when the question is raised, “What kind of God do you believe in?” my answer is easy: “I believe in a magnificent God.” … I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.
Initially, I wasn’t so sure about Liz’s spiritual cherry picking. Was that just another verbal package for cultural appropriation? The two concepts do straddle a fine line. The way I see it, cultural appropriation is when you take a minority’s cultural practices for your own use, without honoring the original context or meaning. Think: the image of Buddha used to sell a bag of popcorn.
If the image of Jesus were being used to sell chips, it would raise some eyebrows.
Liz’s spiritual cherry picking, by contrast, doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s an internal pursuit. Her God is her way of finding inner peace, whatever form it may take. In one particularly desperate moment, she looks inside herself for a sense of God, asking what to do. She then taps into a deeper sense of self that offers her guidance.
The experience she describes bring to mind the phrase, “namaste,” which loosely translates to “The God in me honors the God in you,” an acknowledgment that a piece of the divine rests within each of us, if we are willing to connect to it.
I enjoyed reading about Liz’s process, as well as her travels.
In spite of what cynics may say (including the cynic within me), this remains a book I greatly admire.