Monday, October 18, 2010

Wealthy, Whiny and White

You might’ve read the book by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Or seen the movie starring Julia Roberts.  Both are called Eat, Pray, Love, but I read an article recently (have a read here) that suggested it could better be titled ... you guessed it.

Wealthy, whiny and white.

I’ll preface this by saying I haven’t read the book, so I may have come away from it with a different impression than I got from the movie.  But I was thinking about this idea after I saw the movie recently, and I think there’s some truth to it.  I wanted to like the movie, I really did -- and in some ways, I enjoyed it.  The idea of it resonated with me – while I’m not being subsidized by a publishing house to take my year off (more’s the pity), i can relate to the idea that your life (whatever it is) isn’t working for you as it is, and that stepping out of it altogether can sometimes help you get clarity on what it is you really need to feel whole. 

But not everyone has that luxury.  Most of the women in most of the countries of the world couldn’t even begin to conceive of spending a year gallivanting around the world; they’d be too busy just trying to put food in the mouths of themselves, or their children.  It’s the wealthy (whiny, often white) folks in countries like the U.S. or Canada that can afford to drop a bundle in their quest for self-fulfillment, whether it be round-the-world travel, membership at an expensive yoga studio, or weekly visits to the spa.    Wealthy, whiny and white.

That doesn’t mean that those things can’t help.  Travel does, for me, which is one of the reasons I love it; I like the person I am when I’m travelling better than I like the person I am at work.  That Carol is a lot more adventurous, more enthusiastic and passionate about things, and more engaged with the world around her.  Stepping out of the rut of my regular life seems to free up some parts of me that I too often repress.

And it reminds me, too, that I’m very privileged to live where and as I do.  If you ever doubt that we have it pretty good in Canada, go visit a small town in, say, Peru to see how different life can be.  It also reminds me that some things about the way we live here are harmful, to ourselves and to the planet, and that there are other ways of living.

But the real challenge, I think, is being able to find meaning and purpose in everyday life, and to live as your “best self” all the time, not just in exotic locales.  For me, for example, the ultimate answer isn’t “travel more”, but rather find a way to bring that attitude and awareness back to my life here.  That’s infinitely harder to do – it’s easy enough to distract myself in a foreign place and be curious, outgoing, passionate and alive; once i’m back home again, however, I’m still me, and I can fall right back into the old rut.  (For the heroine of Eat, Pray, Love, it’s one thing to allow herself to really eat and enjoy food while in Tuscany, but keeping the same healthy attitude when she’s back in the States-- with its obsession with thinness and rigid standards of beauty -- may be much, much more difficult.)

The way I think about my year off has changed.  The way I think about travel has changed.  I probably started off closer to the heroine of Eat, Pray, Love – salvation and self-actualization through travel to gorgeous exotic locales.  The year was going to be all about travel, and somewhere along the way I’d figure out what exactly it is I want to do to “fix” my life.

It isn’t quite that, any more.  I still want to travel more, and I’m hoping to get a few more months off so I can still get to some of the places I want to see, despite being grounded for the last couple of months while I take care of my broken wrist.  But I’ve become more aware the reasons that I and other people travel, and more critical of some of those reasons – whether it’s to rack up more places on your “Where I’ve Been” list, have the best "How I spent my summer" story for the next dinner party, win the “who’s a more authentic traveller” contest in the hostel, or save your whiny, wealthy, white soul by getting spiritual in India or Bali.   And I’m having trouble reconciling extensive travel with a desire to live an environmentally-conscious life (plane travel being decidedly UN-friendly to the environment).

I’ve learned some things this year, but it’s probably as much to do my enforced extended stay in Toronto as it is to travel.  When I work for a living, I am far too prone to spending most of my waking hours at work – at least I have been for the last few years – and I’ve realized that I do so because it’s been easier than facing up to the fact that I didn’t have much of a life outside of the office.  I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing a job well and using my abilities to do work I find meaningful, which is good; where it tips over into dysfunction is my tendency to stifle everything else in the name of work.  Easier to spend 18 hours a day at the office, than to have too much free time in which to face the fact that I wasn’t happy, and actually begin to do something about it. 

Whoever it was that said “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates?) was on to something.  I have lots of time now, without any exotic foreign destinations currently distracting me, to examine my own.  I have realized that, yes, I do enjoy having a challenging professional job, and that`s okay.  I realize that, whatever that job is, it has to feel meaningful and make a contribution to a better world, in however small a way.  I realize that I am happier when i am more social than I thought I was naturally inclined to be, and that I need to feel more connected to other people than I did before this year.  I realize that I need to feel more connected to my community and (clichéd as it may sound) “make the world a better place”, so I’m looking into volunteer work.  I realize that I need to consciously devote time and energy to my passions – writing, of course, but other things as well.  I realize it`s experiences, not things, that bring greater joy, and that a simpler life is often better.

But I didn’t have to travel to figure these things out.  That`s the wealthy, whiny, white pretension that I was falling victim to as well – the idea that you can fix your spiritual malaise if you just visit the right place, do the right kind of mediation, practise the right kind of yoga, or whatever it may be.  The reality is that it`s the ongoing, everyday process of self-examination that is valuable; there is no magic bullet that solves everything.  For one thing, who you are and what you need is continually in flux, and the point is the search for (not the finding of) answers.

That search – and any answers that arrive along the way – is probably different for all of us.  What is the right life for me isn’t going to be the right life for you, and that’s perfectly fine, as long as we both accept that we’re allowed to live differently.   And as long as we’re both aware of what it is we’re choosing and why, and not just repeating old patterns or living out someone else’s script for our lives.

For me, that “right life” may not involve getting married, which disturbs some people immensely; I do agree that it’s important to find connections with other people, but those connections can take a variety of forms.  The ending of Eat, Pray, Love bothered me for this reason – the woman who proclaimed at some point in the movie that she’d hardly been single a day since she was 16 finally finds true happiness in the arms of yet another man?  Please.  That’s just perpetuating the Cinderella approach to happiness – find your Prince Charming and you’ll never be unhappy again.  Why can’t it be good enough to finally be happy in yourself, and happy to have people in your life who are important for all sorts of reasons but aren’t, necessarily, your “one true love”?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against capital "R" Relationships.  If you're in one and you're happy, more power to you.  I just think it's too simplistic to think that true fulfillment can be found by defining your life around another person.  Way too much pressure on that other person, for one thing, if you hand over all responsibility for your current and future happines to them.

Besides, given the choice ... I’d have taken the cute Aussie beach bum over the older Brazilian man any day.  (Seriously, what was she thinking?)

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