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Eating, praying, loving, and thinking

August 16, 2010

My sister and I took my two teenage daughters to see the movie Eat Pray Love this past weekend. It was enjoyable, if for no other reason than that it gave this wanderer lots of pretty location eye candy to feast my eyes on. And, as a mother who sat watching with her teenagers, I was glad that the producers chose to keep it G-rated. All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

But… (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?) the fact that I brought teenage girls to the movie also made me cognizant of a few things that concern me somewhat about not only the movie, but the bigger picture of what this movie & book represent. I couldn’t help but think what messages my 13 and 14 year old daughters are picking up in this era of what Bitch Magazine calls “priv lit”. Here are some of my thoughts on that subject:

1. The movie (even more than the book) does a poor job of establishing why the character is wracked with such angst that she has to ditch a marriage and walk away from her life for a year. The impression that you get in the movie is that Gilbert is just a bit bored and needs to inject some enthusiasm in her life. Well, call me old fashioned, but I don’t want my daughters to believe that you leave a marriage because you’re “a bit bored”. When you’re in a relationship, you commit to it and you work damn hard at making it work. I’m not saying every marriage is going to work (or that they should), but leaving is not a decision that’s made as lightly as the movie would imply. (Granted – they didn’t have a lot of time to tell that story.) Not so long ago, my daughters watched some of that commitment at work, when my husband and I put the whole “in sickness and in health” vow to the test and decided that love was worth sticking around for. Hopefully they’re watching us more than they’re watching the movie screen.

2. I’m all for self-improvement and “living your best life”, but… well, just how dangerous is the message that we’re communicating to our youth that we as women are “entitled” to spending hoardes of money traveling around the world and finding ourselves? What about the “giving back” part of that? When do we remember that our rights have to be balanced with responsibility? Sure it’s good (and important) to spend time growing in our spirituality and learning more about our giftedness, but then what? Then we get to flit away to an island with a sexy Brazillian and never have another care in the world? I guess I’m still too committed to the idea that we find ourselves in order that we can better serve the world. (And… you might argue that Gilbert is doing just that by writing books, etc., but my point is that my daughters only pick up a one-sided view by watching the movie.)

3. Along the same lines, I can’t help but sigh a little about the “luxury of angst” when I have met women in Africa who have to walk 10 kilmetres to fetch water for their families, or women in India who’ve had to give up their daughters (and lose them into the sex trade) to keep the rest of their families alive. Is it right that we get to spend so much of our time and money on ourselves “because we’re worth it”, when some of the luxuries we’re enjoying are on the backs of the poor?

4. As this article so eloquently suggests, maybe all of this priv lit that represents the post-feminist era is actually sending us backwards instead of forwards. “But though Oprahspeak pays regular lip service to empowerment, much of Winfrey’s advice actually moves women away from political, economic, and emotional agency by promoting materialism and dependency masked as empowerment, with evangelical zeal.” Maybe, while we get lost in this culture of “self-enlightenment for our own sake”, we’ll miss the bigger picture of how we can impact real change in the world.

5. And a bonus quote from the article linked above… “It’s no secret that, according to America’s marketing machine, we’re living in a “postfeminist” world where what many people mean by “empowerment” is the power to spend their own money.” Does spending money make us empowered? Really? Maybe we could seek empowerment instead by simplicity and generosity and justice. (I couldn’t help but notice that, although the main character left New York with just a duffle bag, she was still wearing a different outfit in nearly every scene of the movie.)

It’s not that the movie was horrible – it was actually quite enjoyable and there were parts of it that genuinely inspired me. However as I continue to imagine what gifts I’m going to offer the world as I build my consulting/writing practice (and dream of workshops, retreats, etc.), I find I have to examine some of the self-improvement/self-enlightenment/mindfulness work and determine which of it is moving us forward. Which of it is snake oil? And which of it is making us an even more self-centred consumerist culture than we already are?

As I’ve said in the past, I want to imagine what it looks like if “Sophia Rises” and we all learn to trust our feminist wisdom more deeply and let it impact the way we interact with the world and each other. Contrary to what I may have said above, some of it will mean that we have to take lessons from the Elizabeth Gilberts of this world and focus more of our attention on beauty, spirituality and relationships. Those are all very good things and they will help us see our way forward. BUT we have to guard against the temptation to turn these things into self-serving pleasure seeking consumerism.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2010 12:14 pm

    Ahhh…I’m not sure I can stomach this film…

    I have only read excerpts from the book and find them self-indulgent to the point of nausea and over-written to the point of meaningless hyperbole.

    (I have a slightly strong opinion…HA!)

    The message I find MOST disturbing (beyond your well thought out list) is that we have to LEAVE to find meaning, when meaning resides INSIDE. As Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title says, Wherever you Go, There you Are.

    Having experiences is important but it is not what finally changes us — we do. Or we don’t. And no matter how many times you go to India, the fact that YOU have to do the real internal work will not change.

  2. August 16, 2010 12:16 pm

    I really enjoyed the book, and don’t have any desire to see the movie. Whilst I related to many parts of the book very well, and it helped me work out some stuff myself, yes there’s always that nagging question in the back of my mind about how incredibly privileged we are to have the luxury of all this self analysis and self improvement.

    I think as result we have an even greater obligation to use our bettered selves for more good, rather than just in a self indulgent way. I would hope that most people who do feel they’re evolving personally do then use this for the greater good of those around them, to use their new found strength and creativity to inspire others to greater heights too.

    I really like the points you raise here Heather, great post.

  3. Rosemary Augustine permalink
    August 16, 2010 12:31 pm

    It’s a movie and movies are about illusion. we go to movies to escape reality, be entertained and watch illusion. would it be entertainment to watch Elizabeth Gilbert or anyone trying to make their marriage work on the big screen when obviously it isn’t going to work? Is that entertainment? Beyond the entertainment and illusion factors, too bad you missed the point and worry that your daughters did too – of taking time to self evalute and move into new directions with a different perspective.

  4. ccap permalink
    August 16, 2010 12:33 pm

    I don’t have as thought out a review as you but I certainly got bored during the movie, that’s for sure. I read a review that said “she should have stopped at ‘eat'” and I can’t so much disagree.

  5. August 16, 2010 12:49 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree. It’s all a bit stomach turning for me.

  6. Jane Kirsch permalink
    August 16, 2010 1:16 pm

    Thank you for stating this so eloquently, Heather, and for pointing me to the related article. I knew that I did not share the general acceptance of this book like so many others. I kept hearing comments like , “it’s truly inspirational”, and “oh, how I’d love to do that!”, etc. but I could not make myself chime in. I’ve not seen the movie, and will not now, even though I was considering it only to experience the travel shots from Italy….

  7. August 16, 2010 1:45 pm

    what a lovely post!! you bring up the pros & cons of the book and give it the respect and criticism it rightfully deserves.. putting it all into the wider context of our modern/post-feminist etc. world. thank you!

  8. August 16, 2010 2:57 pm

    I’m pretty well speechless, Heather, blown away by your thoughtful, eloquent, powerful clarity. Deeply resonant, yet inchoate. I need to sit with this, process more fully, and read the Bitch article.

    In the meantime I just read your April post on love being worth sticking around for – coincides to a similar commitment via “for richer or poorer”. Vows we live and grow ourselves into, day in and day out, over and over again, remembering it is a choice, though sometimes the no-choice choice.

    You are, quite simply, remarkable.

  9. August 16, 2010 3:18 pm

    Great post Heather.

  10. August 16, 2010 6:37 pm

    Terrific, thoughtful post, Heather. It made me revisit my feelings after reading the book, as I finished it full of enthusiasm for it, yet with a nagging disquiet.

    It’s so true, the line Christine mentioned earlier, that wherever we go we take ourselves with us, and it’s only in our much more affluent Western cultures that we have the luxury to go elsewhere to ‘find’ ourselves. There is much to be said about the mind- and perspective-altering power of travel. I was lucky enough to travel through SE Asia as a child, and to travel myself as well as live in the UK as a young adult (I’m Australian). My worldview is definitely richer for those experiences, and it’s given me some unique insights into myself, too.

    However, having Hollywood and book marketers dress up such travel as a indulgent whim for the emotionally shallow is a damn shame. I hope people can see through the hyperbole to recognise the value of such life experiences, that enrich not just the traveller but the people and places they encounter. More importantly, that more travellers will seek the experience not just for what they can get, but what they can give.

  11. August 16, 2010 7:40 pm

    Absolutely beautiful balance of sentiments. A recognition of all perspectives…true wisdom.

  12. August 17, 2010 5:30 am

    Everywhere I look these days, I find younger people abandoning marriages for reasons I can’t fathom. What is the background story to, “We’re growing apart”? I see very little attempt to fix the problems and grow together. Like you, I understand that all all marriages are “fixable” but enough of this baling out on little more than a whim.

  13. August 17, 2010 5:33 am

    Hah! Just read the comments. Someone can’t have been reading you much if she thinks that you of all people don’t take the time to evaluate.

  14. August 17, 2010 11:50 am

    Yes, if your Sophia leadership idea takes off as I think it might, please resist the temptation to sell it as a neat little package complete with journal, t-shirt, ribbon-shaped magnets for your car bumper, stones with messages written on them (at $15 a pop) and the like.

    And thanks for the link to the Bitch Mag article, which was amazing. I had no idea that Gilbert’s journey of self-discovery was underwritten by a publisher. So it was all, in fact, fake. Wow.

    Let’s teach women to find contentment and empowerment in their ordinary, humdrum lives with their ordinary, boring husbands (who are out of shape because they work in an office all day to pay for the house and car), their imperfect bodies, their deteriorating skin tone. True empowerment and leadership comes from the strength and wisdom of embracing yourself as you are.

  15. August 18, 2010 11:25 pm

    I’m back after some days of reflecting on what left me inarticulate.

    I had a different take on EPL, the book, haven’t yet seen the movie, though did catch the OPRAH rerun featuring actor, writer, director, corresponding with the movie’s release last week. The book really spoke to me, her love of Italian language (I, too, am studying it and will visit next year) but in particular, her deep love of and yearning to be in touch with God, moment by moment. (This is why Rumi, Hafiz and Sufism speak so deeply to me.)

    What all this brings to mind was my “way into” learning about my own spirituality. It was through Shirley MacLaine’s book, Out on a Limb. Curious coincidence…an actor, who, too, took a lot of heat for her disclosures, her particular point of view…but it broke the shell and I began to sense and feel and know this was what I had been searching for. It was her particular way of framing that did it. I knew religion, doctrine, dogma…but I didn’t know this, my heart’s longing. Now I have moved into greater depth since then, but I have all Shirley’s books and each has been a friend along the road home.

    I choose to trust that we who are priviledged, with resources – books, internet, wise friends, spiritual teachers, money, time, space, thought – and freedoms – to use these resources, to think, to speak, to write – are making a better world, sometimes in leaps and bounds, sometimes in babysteps. A wise friend told me thirty plus years ago that “the world is absolutely perfect including my dissatisfaction with it, and my efforts to change it.” (I think this might be a bit of Taoism – I draw from many sources.) And for me, that’s why I call it “my practice.”

    A deep bow of gratitude to you, Heather, and to this community, for the paradox of deep resonance and provocation. I learn. I practice. Namaste.

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