Betty Duffy

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Embracing the Mystery (or more reasons to be annoyed with Elizabeth Gilbert)

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love," is in the news again promoting her new book, "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage." After having sworn off marriage, she has decided to give it another go, but only after defining marriage in soft palatable terms, “marriage lite,” and girding herself against the threat of a mysterious future by signing a prenuptial agreement.

In an interview in the Wall Street Journal on January 2, Gilbert concedes to marriage as a way to protect the privacy of her relationship with her partner and gain legitimacy and respect. But no bond lasts forever (without handcuffs), and she should know. Thus she considers it an act of charity to lay out an exit strategy:

“Even in the heat of love, it's as though we all understand that the future is a mystery, and it's best to keep your options open, just in case, God forbid, it doesn't last…. sometimes it is an act of love to chart the exit strategy before you enter the union, in order to make sure that not only you, but your partner as well, knows that there will be no World War III should hearts and minds, for any sad reason, change.”

She phrases her motives so reasonably. We are mutable, evolving creatures in a situation called marriage that over the years has undergone its own mutations. How can we possibly expect to remain yoked to both a changing person and a changing institution? And yet, one of the only certainties in life is that people do change, and it’s very possible to wake up after ten years of marriage, see the inert body under the covers next to mine and wonder, “Who is this stranger in my bed?”

We try to decode the mystery of other people by putting them into categories. My husband is phlegmatic. He has a dry wit. He’s of German/Irish descent. These classifications help to alleviate some of the mystery of the other, and make the thought of having yoked my life to a mostly unknowable entity a bit less fearful. But there seems to be a little voodoo in any such tests that claim to sum up and predict the behaviors of the human soul: The Myers-Briggs personality test, The Temperament God Gave You, “Which Jane Austen character are you?” on facebook.

The message of Christ redeeming tax collectors and prostitutes seems a sign to Christians, however, that we are never free to pigeonhole people. We can never assume that anyone is beyond the possibility of surprising redemption and change. And as we are all sinners, it should be our hope to be in constant transformation into Christ. The more we imitate Christ, the more knowable we are to others.

My cousin related a recent homily she heard on the Feast of the Holy Family by Father Walter Wagner, OP. On the finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple, Mary and Joseph ask him “Why have you done this?” And Jesus answers, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary ponders these things in her heart. The Gospel does not say she understood. She ponders. Her child is a mystery to her.

Reminds me of a poem I read in college by Robert Hass:

Household verses: “Who are you?”
the rubber duck in my hand asked Kristin
once, while she was bathing, three years old.
“Kristin,” she said, laughing, her delicious
name, delicious self. “That’s just your name,”
the duck said. “Who are you?”
the duck asked. She said, shrugging,
“Mommy, Daddy, Leif.”
---“Santa Barbara Road”

The child’s “delicious self” is a mystery both to the parent and the child. When the child can’t define who she is, she identifies herself by naming the members of her family.

And Jesus, attempting to explain himself to Mary and Joseph, identifies himself with his Father: “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?” I’m sure his answer was just as mysterious in his own, fully human, twelve-year-old mind as it was to Mary and Joseph. We are all mysteries to one another, just as we remain a mystery to ourselves.

Maybe the act of charity in the face of all this mystery, would be not to plot an exit strategy, but to go a little easier on our spouse, and on ourselves. We are all struggling to become more recognizable, more predictable, more knowable, more like our Father.

*Strong contribution from cousin, M.B., on this post.

Posts on Eat Pray Love:

Why I didn't like Eat Pray Love

One more word on Eat Pray Love


This Heavenly Life said...

Sheesh. That paragraph from her book is stated with such perfectly common sense, even *I* started to believe it. What nonsense.

TS said...

Meaty post, a fine rejoinder to Gilbert's falsehoods.

wifemotherexpletive said...

the thing is, common sense is wonderful and great... its just that marriage is not common sense, its a wild miraculous leap of faith that we take in God's name... so. its a misuse of common sense to attach it to something so 'nonsensical' ... ?

Young Mom said...

"Even in the heat of love, it's as though we all understand that the future is a mystery, and it's best to keep your options open"


nicole said...

I haven't read that book. It just doesn't appeal to me at all. As for her thoughts on marriage, wouldn't it be a greater act of love to say that "I know you (and I) will change over time, but I vow to love you each day, no matter how and when you might change. There will be no exit strategy, because there will be no exit."

Bethany Hudson said...

Maybe I'm too biased, but Gilbert's excerpt doesn't even sound like commonsense to me. It sounds to me like what C.S. Lewis called "a lot of damned nonesense!" ("Damned" being used literally, not flippantly.)

I love what you wrote here, Holly. This sort of stuff gets me so riled up. I just cannot understand this sort of thinking!! If you want an out--DON'T GET IN! Talk about spoiled children wanting to have their cake and eat it, too. "I want to have my relationship 'legitimized,' but I don't really expect it to BE that legitimate thing I want to have it appear." Ack! The hypocrisy!!

bronzedshoe said...

Agreed. No matter how well you think you know someone, you don't know it all. That's definitely a lesson I need to remember more often when I'm nagging at my boyfriend.

Peter and Nancy said...

I love how you've dovetailed the poem with the account of Jesus at the temple. Perfect.

I think the questions we should ask ourselves about marriage lie more in the area of "how in the world will this person put up with ME over the next 50 years?" That gets more at the heart of dying-to-self as it is required in marriage and in our journey with Christ.

Katie said...

So far, my experience with the writing (and public speaking) of Ms. Gilbert is that she is anxious to assign meaning to things but not anxious to put in the work that would cause meaning to arise out of the things themselves. After her divorce, she finds perfect peace with it by having a vision in India of her husband being just fine--she finds sumptuousness by going to Italy, she finds love by going to Indonesia.

I watched a video of her presentation (at on the creative process whereby she suggests we all rely on, thank, and blame our muses for our creative works.

There's something just a little off about her search for fulfillment.

Yes, you can find sumptuousness in Italy, but in order for it to last, you must find it in your hometown. Yes, you can find peace about a decision that affected two people, but in order for it to mean something, both parties must be at peace. And you can find love... anywhere, as billions of people have proven.

As for crediting and blaming a muse, that removes the process of refinement and discipline that must build over time to allow the creation of masterpieces.

This planning of a marriage which includes planning its end is part of the same self-serving, low-commitment, and ultimately unsatisfying approach to life. It's like watering one plant for six weeks at a time and then moving on to another. Sooner or later, the plants will all wither!

Wow, sorry, I didn't realize I had so much to say on the topic.

BettyDuffy said...

Katie et al., I couldn't agree more. Funny thing about Gilbert, I had a lot to say about her much so, I started this blog. I suppose I owe her that. "Why I didn't like Eat Pray Love" was my first post here. Had to get it out somewhere.

jen said...

basically, she's an insane piece of doo, but let me tell you what i really think...

Marie said...

Really nice piece.
That book sticks in my craw, too. It's one of a handful that people recommend to me because they know I'm religious so they try to make a connection with me because they read this book that talks about God. I'm afraid I've come to consider her a thief -- maybe she doesn't know she's one, but she steals thousands of years of religious thought and belief from all sorts of great traditions and makes a Big Mac out of it. Thanks for clearly that away.