Liz, Naomi and Lyra – Three Daughters, Three Stories
Chapter 16 of the series Myths and Dragons
Part 1 – Liz and Empathy’s Dirty Little Secrets
Part 2 – Naomi and the Hard Decisions Between What is and What Should Be
Part 3 – Lyra and Changing the Metaphors (or Making a New Map over the Old)
In the first part of this series I looked at three mythic male heroes that make up a significant part of our ancient cultural heritage. In the second part of this series I looked at three new myths from science fiction that I think will shape how the future generations will frame their personal experiences. In this last part of the series, I want to look at the stories of three women. What do they say about our maps for behaviour – how the individual navigates between the known world and the unknown world?
I’m terribly late when it comes to the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing. I saw Julia Roberts’ version before getting to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. For both the movie and the book, most of the reviews and commentaries I noticed seemed to be of two camps. This person was delightfully envious of Liz’s fun and admittedly self-indulgent journey to some of the world’s “I” countries. That person was eye-rollingly underwhelmed with Liz’s navel-gazing and supposedly spiritual journey only to catch the eye of a charming, cosmopolitan, older man in the end.
I hope I’m not just rehashing old criticisms or adorations, but I saw a side of empathy that confirmed a few of my theories on spirituality and a few of my worries about people.
Liz talks to her God frequently, and she makes no bones about just how personal the relationship is with her God.
What I have come to believe about God is simple. It’s like this – I used to have a this really great dog. She came from the pound. She was a mixture of about ten different breeds, but seemed to have inherited the finest features of them all. She was brown. When people asked me, “What kind of dog is that?” I would always give the same answer: “She’s a brown dog.” Similarly, when the question is raised, “What kind of God do you believe in?” my answer is easy: “I believe in a magnificent God.” (14)
Her God, like many of us, is a plural concoction. We like to believe we have taken the best features of our experiences to make the finest self, or many selves, we could. And we like to think that of our Gods, too. And since we are living more and more internationally now, we are motivated now to see how we fit ourselves and our Gods into such plural roles.
All the more telling, in those conversations her God talks to her in Liz’s own voice. Early in the book Liz talks about a night she spent in the bathroom. Her husband was sleeping, blissfully unaware Liz was going through a crisis of identity just a closed door away. Ultimately, Liz did not get down on her bathroom floor and ask her God, through tears, “What is real?” or “What is true?” She didn’t even ask, “Are you real, God?” At the heart of her crisis, she was not in the least concerned with reality. She asked her God for something much more useful, and much more important:
Please tell me what to do. (15)
In the moments that shape our lives and construct our character, our own identities, we want to know how to act, what we should do, more than anything else.
She then explains how she heard the voice, her own voice, say to her, “Go back to bed, Liz.”(16) After that, she is willing to abandon all bonds of material possessions and commitments in order to take up the journey. She is able to act. It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do for a person when that person is finally comfortable with herself (or with what she is doing).
Liz never once thinks of going to a Christian community or leader for part of her spiritual journey. She talks about her Protestant upbringing but certainly doesn’t identify with that culture. Instead, she seems to find hope in the foreign, the different. In particular, she is drawn to traditions that seem to offer personal experiences with whatever divine natures that might be out there, ready for relationship. This is a predictable course of events when it comes to the Hero’s Journey, or even the Heroine’s Journey. She sees something wrong with the known world around her, and so seeks the unknown, and she seeks a different concept of self. As a result, she brought back an experience that a lot of readers identified with, or at least could see themselves in.
Christianity has a long history of mysticism within its spirituality. But it has been outsourced over the last hundred years or so to self-help authors, new wave gurus and other cultural injections. And the typical, traditional trappings of the Sunday services, committee meetings or community outreach projects all downplay the personal experience for the sake of the social event or the social group. As a result, prayer has a distorted reputation. It is something to study in terms of efficacy, or to scorn, or more plainly to feed to the reductionist knife. It certainly isn’t a meet-n-greet-n-get-cozy between a person’s self and a person’s God.
It’s a statement of the times in the Western world, when even Western people looking for personal identity and personal spiritual communion don’t consider the resources of the culture around them. Liz goes to Rome to have a spiritual experience with pasta and pizza and never cares to catch a glimpse of the pope.
She doesn’t see herself in the pope. And she certainly doesn’t seem to see her God in the pope either.
While in Bali, Liz becomes fast friends with a woman named Wayan. Wayan is about Liz’s age. She is divorced, like Liz. She is a professional – Bali’s equivalent to a naturopathic doctor or healer. She has dreams of owning her own home someday to take care of her daughter and two adopted girls. Liz finds the girls adorable and charming, and wants to do something remarkable for Wayan. Liz has a lot of wonderful, professional friends back home and asks them all to help so that Wayan can purchase a home and have a permanent place of business.
It’s a delightful success story for empathy. Liz sees a part of herself in Wayan. She sees the the struggles a professional, caring, divorced woman like Wayan must deal with because of Bali culture. And Liz wants to make things right. And I’m sure many of the readers empathized with the situation too. It’s well written.
The event made me look back on all of Liz’s relationships and friendships in the story. Liz has a great time in Italy. Several friends and family members came to visit her. They see the sights and remember past experiences together. In the Ashram in India Liz spends a lot of time with fellow Americans. Divorce and middle-class professionalism are common denominators with most of them. In Bali she starts a friendship with a guitar player that once lived in New York. He was deported due to the stricter immigrant regulations after September of 2001. They both reminisce of the places they know and love and used to frequent in New York.
Would Liz have helped Wayan if she had not seen so much of herself in Wayan? I can’t help but wonder if underneath the gracious act Liz was only really helping herself, in a way. In all her travels, she seemed to only strike up relationships with other versions of herself. She went into the unknown to find her personal identity, and she found others like her to share the journey.
And would Liz’s audience have found so much in the story if they did not see so much of themselves in Liz?
Empathy seems to need something common or shared in order to initiate a relationship or spark a positive social change. However, I fear this isn’t really starting a relationship with “the other”. Being so very comfortable with your God doesn’t bridge the differences that still remain between people, especially when you don’t see anything in common between yourself and “the other”.
Liz’s story turns out to be important, not just for the success it found or the empathy it sparked in its readers. It shows us just how much farther we still have to go. Liz took up the quest, made some material sacrifices and found an identity she could literally share with some others in the world. But in many ways, she only found herself, which means there is a much larger, unknown world still out there waiting.
Maybe the same thing can be said about us?
What do you think?