I just finished reading Eat Pray Love. I know what you're thinking: Damn, is it 2006 again? Is The Lake House back in theaters? What's that I hear — people complaining about this weird new "news feed" feature on Facebook, over a soundtrack of Gnarls Barkley?
Reading a popular bestseller ten years after its heyday, especially one that's sometimes been criticized as an ode to white women's privilege, is a slightly disjointed experience. You know that the details of the book you're reading (or in my case, listening to as an audiobook) were once shared eagerly among friends and picked apart by critics, but you're shut out of the conversation. It's kind of like being Sandra Bullock's character in The Lake House, showing up two years too late to meet Keanu Reeves. There's a dramatic irony in reading from this distance — not only is the world different now from the one Elizabeth Gilbert was traveling and writing in, but a few of those differences can be traced, at least in part, to this very book.
I wonder if Eat Pray Love could be written in 2016 without a more explicit acknowledgment that, yes, it's a privilege to be paid to live abroad for a year in the name of self-discovery and personal healing. It also feels a little odd that Gilbert doesn't at least nod to the concept of cultural appropriation when discussing her serious study of yoga, her adoption of a spiritual guru, and her four months spent in an ashram in India, which are covered in the "pray" section of the book.
And it's interesting to read Eat Pray Love in the context of a world in which personal seeking and spiritual enlightenment aren't quite as corny as they were to Liz Gilbert's New York friends in the early 2000s. I know these trends have been coming in various waves and forms for a lot longer than the last decade, but we are in an era of self-improvement as status symbol. Which includes, or is adjacent to, a lot of spiritual and new age exploration: I have more friends who are into homeopathy, crystals, tarot, auras, and palm reading than I ever would have imagined just a few years ago. And it's all tied together with fitness and nutrition and productivity and meditation and the life-changing magic of tidying up.
I'm as dazzled by the promise of various tools for fulfillment as anyone else: I've been known to make lofty New Year's resolutions, do a power pose or two, and download Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project audiobook without ever getting around to listening to it. But a recent piece about self-care caught my eye. In "Life Hacks of the Poor and Aimless," Laurie Penny writes that "obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life."
Claiming that well-being is the sole responsibility of individuals, Penny argues, absolves government leaders and power structures from having to meet the foundational needs that make personal fulfillment possible: access to healthy food, affordable housing, etc. That said, it doesn't help anyone to treat yourself horribly and wallow in despair just because "self-care" has become associated with consumerism and individualism. Penny even reveals that she actually does do yoga, and it actually has improved her life. Real love, she says, for both self and others, isn't just a happy, indulgent, blithely forgiving emotion — it's the active, daily, sometimes tedious work of dedicated care.
The thing is, I think Eat Pray Love subscribes to a less politically radical version of that same notion. I mean, by nature the book is deeply self-centered; its whole arc is that Liz Gilbert becomes happy. But although some of that happiness is because she eats a lot of pasta, and some of it is because she has transcendental experiences through meditative chanting, and some of it is because she has nice sex with a Brazilian man, the best parts of the book are all about her friendships with the people she meets in each destination. Assuming that her accounts are basically accurate, she brings warmth and friendly humility to all of her interactions. She teases her new friends and does thoughtful things for them, and generally avoids treating them as mere characters in her own story. I listened to a recent interview with Gilbert on Pete Holmes' You Made It Weird podcast, and my takeaway from what she said was that spiritual rituals are worth nothing if they don't help you meet the world with kindness, generosity, and patience.
The idea of connecting with people comes up in Gilbert's interview for On Being, too. She talks about going to a quiet island to be completely silent for several days, which she calls "a dumb idea": "What I probably really needed was to be around community and maybe some therapists." While on the island, she got sick. A neighbor woman noticed that she wasn't taking her usual daily walks, and came to check on her. "Pay attention to what's happening in your community," Gilbert says in the interview. "That's what it means to be deeply engaged with the place where you live, such that you will see when someone is in trouble."
Contemporary self-care culture would have you believe that happiness and fulfillment can only be intrinsic, created by and for yourself. And while that's true in some ways, and I'm going to keep exercising and journaling and trying to eat more vegetables and occasionally meditating, I believe that happiness for me will come from doing the daily work to invest in relationships with the people around me.
When I heard Gilbert say "Pay attention to what's happening in your community," I instantly pictured the Fourth Precinct police station in North Minneapolis and the governor's mansion in St. Paul. In front of these two state buildings, last winter and this summer, organizers and community members have worked physically and emotionally to build a model of community care. The precinct and the mansion became centers of righteous anger, but also of laughter, music, hugs, and shared meals — places where people can bring their kids, places where people can eat and pray and love.