Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
One of the smartest people I know recently wrote a blog post on Eat, Pray, Love and the backlash against it; the post was something of a defense against that backlash.
She was speaking of a different type of backlash (namely women who've taken up Yoga and Spirituality and suffered dearly), whereas I belong to another group that's pretty well known: guys who hate Eat, Pray, Love. Hate is probably too strong a word, allow me to elaborate.
First things first: no, I haven't read it. I probably won't, either, so feel free to add that to a long list of reasons to discredit or grain-of-salt this post, because there are a many. But my criticism isn't so much based on the book itself, which I'm sure is fine, but on its cultural impact based on how I've observed other people react to it.
I'll start by citing a tweet: when PZ Myers was being criticized for being too mean to his opponents (calling them idiots, frauds, etc.), he more or less brushed it off. But then someone mentioned that many of his targets don't deserve it, as they're normally acting out of ignorance. His response floored me with how he could, in 140 characters, point it out so clearly:
"Deserve" is a red herring. Life isn't fair, you don't get what you deserve...just have to hope you get what you need.
My major problem with Eat, Pray, Love is that it is a product of - while bolstering - a vague, responsibility-absolving entitlement to "happiness," comfort, "enlightenment," and self-satisfaction. And that this is inevitable (you are a strong, wonderful person! You deserve it) and can be lots of fun! Note that while this book is overwhelmingly more popular with women, my observation is that the previous point affects both men and women pretty hard. Tons of guys I know get distraught over the fact that they don't feel good warm things all the time. I'll address the gender differential in the specific case of the book later.
Maybe it's just from attending private school followed by Brown, but I'm always observing people who are pretty lucky in their lives, are well- educated, but just don't feel happy, and feel deep anguish that they don't know what the meaning of their lives are.
I hate to burst your bubble, but you shouldn't. "Happiness," "inner peace," "enlightenment"... these aren't finish lines. You won't reach a point in your life when you're like BAM! I'm happy! Things are good! And I will never be insecure about my talents or role in the world again!
It's kind of like getting your first sexual urges in Middle School: sorry, but you will always feel this way. You never reached a point in your life where you suddenly stopped getting horny. You just acknowledged the urges, and learned to deal with them, incorporating those feelings in your life in a more healthy, day-to-day way.
Note that until you did, you struggled with the insecurities, exacerbated loneliness, and questions about sex and sexuality in society that came (lol) with those new sexual urges. It takes years (and some people never get there) to get over the social cattiness and mess that arises from those insecurities. There's a teething phase.
Similarly, there are big points in your life when you feel miserable, and mostly, untapped. You feel your life is shallow, you haven't made a dent in the world, your talents are unappreciated; you especially feel guilty that this bothers you because you are better off than many others.
To which I say it's true: you are shallow, you're not impacting the world that hard, and there are people who are much worse off. But that's just life, and it's no weakness or inadequacy on your part. There isn't anything you're missing (or that you reasonably could do with any significant probability) to change any of it. So learn to live with it, because, as we say in software, there is no silver bullet. Yoga might help, but probably won't. Same with eating in the long term.
Though, here's the hardest one: you have no guarantee (or even an unofficial right to the prospect) of a magical person you find lovely, wonderful, and attractive will walk into your life and love you. This might have nothing to do with how wonderful you are as a person; you can be the kindest, smartest person on Earth, and while this bumps up your odds a little, there's never a guarantee. You don't get what you deserve, just hope you get what you need.
As to how EPL fits in to all this, and why it bothers me: EPL shows the story of someone we (privileged, educated unsatisfied people) can all relate to and shows her either crossing the finish line, or making giant, giant steps toward it. It (without meaning to) exploited our misunderstandings and fetishism of Eastern Mysticism and Hot Ethnic Love Abroad and pushed desperate people wildly in that direction.
I feel about Elizabeth Gilbert and her talks, writing (i.e. the magazine articles I've read) the way I feel about most priests: you clearly believe what you preach and live pretty happily by doing so. You have every right to do it and I won't stop you. But overall, I happen to think your messages are snake oil/placebo, and ultimately takes us down further down a path I think we're already too far into.
People then start looking at Yoga, travel, and Eastern Mysticism and get conned they way they do at homeopathy, or chiropractors (note that I don't find the exercise component of Yoga nearly as toxic as those two. But lots of those "gurus"? Most definitely). I just wish people would stop looking for silver bullets, and I feel that EPL puts a toy carrot in front of everyone.
Regarding the gender difference: I think the book and its reception really highlights the impossible situation women are put into. See the Male Privilege Checklist: women are expected to be superbeings with contradictory measures of success, and we are taught that they fail if they don't.
So if you're a woman, you get told by society as a whole, implicitly and explicitly, that you're a failure or 'failing to perform' much more often than guys. Guys like you a lot less, unreasonably soon.
Given all this, I find it not at all surprising that when you read a book that appeals to your wants and wishes, that you too could go to eat and pray and love and feel warm and fuzzy and find what you've lost and oh my god it's you!, that they love it. Again, guys fall for this mindframe too, but this book in particularly highlights the troubling situation women are in.
Personally, I'd rather put energy and resources in addressing the sexism in society, trying to prevent insecurity and doubt becoming a problem in the first place, rather than setting people up to fail by filling their heads with fantasies of ashrams and vague, impossible notions of fulfillment.
I'll end with a favorite quote. It comes from _why the lucky stiff, a minor genius of our time, more or less prescribing what I think is the best way out of these loops of self-futility and doubt: create. Write plays, or short stories, or code, or fan fiction, or sand castles, or design model trains. Do something you care about and can share with people. Give back. As he says:
"When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. so create."
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