Are you in your "Eat Pray Love era"? As I enter what sociologists rather meanly call “early mid-life” at the age of 35, I am firmly in mine.
Like Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote her autobiographical book in 2006 about the story of her divorce at the age of 34, I am what sociologists also fetchingly call a SINK. That is single income, no kids. I am a woman of (reasonable means) with no dependents who remains what another doyenne of the self help movement, Gwyneth Paltrow, might call “consciously unpartnered”.
And so, this year alone, I embarked on a reasonably expensive journey of self discovery (also known as a series of holidays) which include (but are not limited to) spending several days in the desert on a fig farm just outside of Cape Town with no phone signal or electricity, a yoga retreat at a holistic wellness resort called Amansala in Mexico and, shortly, a few days at a hotel on Lake Como called Villa Lario which looks like the sort of place one could definitely find oneself, if one were able to afford to go looking.
Not quite as bold as Gilbert’s decision to relinquish all of her worldly possessions, take a vow of celibacy and travel for a year, but it has been a deliberate journey of discovery, both internal and external, nonetheless.
The subtitle of Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is “one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia”. It was an incredibly bourgeois fantasy which can only be a reality for a woman who earns enough to not only sustain herself but throw away disposable income but, nonetheless, it was read by 13 million people and turned into a Hollywood film starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert and Javier Bardem as Felipe (a character based on a Brazilian businessman named Jose Nunes whom Gilbert met in Bali and later married).
And yet, almost two decades after it spent more than 200 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, years after Gilbert announced she would stop talking about Eat, Pray, Love and a few months after the author decided to withdraw her forthcoming novel from publication due to controversy over it being set in Russia, Gilbert’s book or, perhaps more accurately, the ethos she articulated inside it, is having a second life on social media.
At the age of 54, Gilbert is firmly a member of Generation X. She is twenty years older than me, a millennial. But, on Instagram and TikTok, younger members of Generation Z in their twenties are only half joking when they post about being in their "Eat, Pray, Love era" too with millions of posts on each social media site containing plates of food, sunsets, cocktails and (mostly white) women in the lotus meditation pose.
Given that we are in the midst of an economic crisis, there’s something fascinating about the way that Gilbert’s quasi-spiritual manifesto for soul searching on three different continents has developed such a prolific afterlife amongst younger generations of women who, on the surface of things, are experiencing the world very differently to Gilbert who, at the time of her divorce, was a reasonably well-off and well-known Australian writer living in New York.
I was more surprised than anyone when I turned to Gilbert’s writing in the wake of my own “divorce” (we weren’t married but we shared a mortgage which, let me tell you, is actually harder to get out of). My bad faith reading of her work (and of anyone who liked it) had always been not just that it was “naff” but that it spoke to the spiritual consumerism of the billion dollar self help industry, peddling a particularly capitalist brand of self-interested feminism which was aimed at economically independent and professionally successful women who lacked meaning in their lives and didn’t know where to find it.
But, then, after a rupture in my own personal life so high on the richter scale that the reverberations would be felt for years after the event, I found that it was Gilbert (alongside bell hooks’ entire body of work) who offered me a framework for thinking about the future as I let go of a life that I had been trying to hold together for years.
Consultant psychologist Dr Linda Blair is not surprised that Gilbert’s work continues to speak to women across age ranges, regardless of whether they’ve ever been married or not.
“I don’t think young people are reading Eat, Pray, Love for the divorce angle,” she told me over the phone. “I think they’re reading it because it speaks to recovery and because they want to find themselves.”
As Dr Blair sees it, the slightly tongue-in-cheek way that the "Eat, Pray, Love era" has become slang – shorthand for fuck it I’m getting out of here – is also about the pandemic.
“We all lost our identity during the pandemic to some extent, but the young lost it most,” she explains. “When you are young, you define yourself by being around your colleagues, your comrades and your friends. And the pandemic denied them all of this – for good reasons – but denied them nonetheless.”
Based on her own clinical practice, Dr Blair thinks that young adults are trying to work out how to find who they are again in a world which has been turbulent for the best part of five years – first because of COVID and now because of a devastating economic crisis of inflation and rising interest rates.
This tracks. Aside from the pure escapism encouraged by Gilbert, her own journey into various religions – Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism – does offer insight into the different ways that people all over the world try to overcome hardship and find peace.
Some of the most well-quoted lines from Eat, Pray, Love include:
“This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.”
“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort.”
And, one of my personal favourites: “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day.”
It’s hard to fault the universal wisdom in any of these lines. At my most fragile they offered the sort of comfort that I needed to continue to make difficult decisions and actively try to change my life, I could read Gilbert when I wasn’t quite ready to take on some of the more confronting theories of feminist writers like hooks who challenged my ideas about the purpose of romantic relationships full stop.
Dr Blair thinks that the “spontaneity” of Gilbert’s story also speaks to young people at a time when, after being locked down literally for years and now, in many ways, financially, “being able to up and leave without planning” feels freeing.
That is very appealing when you’re lost,” Dr Blair says. “The idea that the answers to your questions are out there if you can just get started and get up and go. It worked for Gilbert – the answers to younger generations’ questions won’t be the same because young women are so much more independent today than older generations were but it’s still an adventure to just see where life takes you without trying to plan or control too much.”
The carousels of cocktail pictures which sit above the #EatPrayLoveEra speak to the fuck it impulse of the sort of lighthearted luxury nihilism that underpins the desire to live when the world feels like a place where there are an increasing number of hurdles – mostly financial – to so many people who want to do so.
There was (and still is) good reason to be skeptical about any writing or product sold by women which implies that we can find happiness or true love by parting with our cash which, after all, is what’s required to go travelling (on a very long holiday).
The notion that engaging with the self as an entrepreneurial project which is so often called “personal growth” is problematic. It is how products to “improve” us – which include everything from Botox to gym memberships – are sold. A middle-class culture of therapy, self-help and wellness is a very lucrative one. The theorist Michel Foucault called this back in the 1980s, he called psychotherapy, yoga and spa treatments “technologies of the self” and identified them as being a means for capitalist enterprise which would make some people money by selling solutions to the stress, anxiety and overwork that was fast becoming the norm.
All of this remains true. All of this remains a problem. And, all of this remains the preserve of the reasonably well-off.
The enduring appeal of Gilbert’s memoir, though, doesn’t lie in the reductive world of self-help where you can pay someone £30 to tell you that the grotesque inequality fostered by our economic and political systems can be meditated away. She went somewhere far deeper than that in the book (the film is a different matter altogether).
Much of Gilbert’s journey is about questioning the status quo, the rest of it leads her to the realisation that connecting with others and, sometimes, helping them is the secret source. It is through living a life that is bigger than you that you can really find yourself, as she does in Indonesia when she helps a local healer to buy a house.
She wrote: “your treasure – your perfection – is within you already. But to claim it, you must leave the busy commotion of the mind and abandon the desires of the ego and enter into the silence of the heart.”
As the old adage goes “wherever you go, you take yourself with you”. You don’t have to travel hundreds of miles from home to realise that using whatever skills you have to support other people is the way to ground yourself. And, perhaps you shouldn’t. Start with yourself, with the people you encounter and the society you participate in.
That is also the ultimate message delivered by bell hooks in her seminal text All About Love: love is ultimately the service of others. And that’s a message worth heeding in a world that feels ever more like it’s closing in on us, a world where finding ways to do things that serve others in meaningful ways is ever more important.
Of course, it helps if you can afford to travel halfway around the world to make new connections. But it’s possible to start a lot closer to come, in the community you live in and, perhaps, that’s something more of us should endeavour to do.