Elizabeth Gilbert Discusses Spirituality in America
Her most recent book is the #1 New York Times Bestselling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love," about the year she spent traveling the world alone after a difficult divorce. Anne Lamott called Eat, Pray, Love "wise, jaunty, human, ethereal, heartbreaking." The book has been a worldwide success, now published in over thirty languages with over 7 million copies in print. It was named by The New York Times as one of the 100 most notable books of 2006, and chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best ten nonfiction books of the year. In 2008, Elizabeth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, by Time Magazine.
In addition to writing books, Elizabeth has worked steadily as a journalist. Throughout much of the 1990’s she was on staff at SPIN Magazine, where – with humor and pathos – she chronicled diverse individuals and subcultures, covering everything from rodeo's Buckle Bunnies (reprinted in The KGB Bar Reader) to China’s headlong construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In 1999, Elizabeth began working for GQ magazine, where her profiles of extraordinary men – from singers Hank Williams III and Tom Waits (reprinted in The Tom Waits Reader) to quadriplegic athlete Jim Maclaren – earned her three National Magazine Award Nominations, as well as repeated appearances in the “Best American” magazine writing anthologies. She has also written for such publications as The New York Times Magazine, Real Simple, Allure, Travel and Leisure and O, the Oprah Magazine (where her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" was excerpted in March, 2006.) She has been a contributor to the Public Radio show "This American Life", and -- perhaps most proudly -- has several times shown up at John Hodgman's Little Gray Book Lecture Series, most notably during Lecture Four on the subject "Hints for Public Singing."
Question: Are Americans suffering from an over-abundance of spiritual practices?
Gilbert: There is a danger, I think. Look, we’re a young country, you know. And the more you travel out of America, the more you see that, right? There’re so much that’s great about youth. There’re so much that’s great about the youngness of America. There’s a certain energy here. There’s a certain willingness to try stuff. There’s a certain ambition, an eagerness, and excitement. I mean, I had friends during the Obama campaign who called me from Europe and said, I cannot even imagine what it would feel like to actually believe in things like hope, to believe in… to believe that a politician can change things, to actually have… They were envious, you know, of this huge enthusiasm that was sweeping across America. That was really real, you know, and really passionate and really fresh in a way, you know. That doesn’t exist everywhere, you know. The downside of that youth and that enthusiasm and that freshness is a certain shallowness, a certain inability to stick to, you know, one path, a certain longing to drink out of every well. You know, certainly the new age movement has a lot of that in there where you’re kind of like cherry picking… like, I want a dream catcher and I want a crystal and I want something tantric and I want, you know, the chakras and I also want to go to mass and I also… And… I’m not necessarily against that because I think there’s… You know, I think, certainly the willingness to experiment… There’s something very beautiful about that. And there’s something wonderful about a culture that permits you to do that. That doesn’t say there is one church, there is one belief, there is, you know, one dogma and everybody must march and lock step. But, you know, it does get… it does get a little goofy. I’ve been guilty of it myself so I have to say it with a measure of compassion and affection because, you know, I could easily have been accused of every single piece of flakiness that I sometimes judge, you know, when I see that out there. But its part of who we are. And consumerism and a profit margin is also a part of who we are, you know. So you get things in America like competitive yoga, which, you know, I still can never hear without laughing. Maybe the idea of going to a yoga competition does seem like… Maybe the point is being somewhat missed. But… I don’t know, you know. I don’t know what experiences the people in the yoga competition are having. I don’t know what they’re… You know, I don’t know enough about what their internal world is. It could be just a big breakthrough for them, winning first place in the meditation price. I don’t know but it’s… it’s… I don’t know. To me, I still feel like the benefits of that kind of freedom, the benefits of the excitement that people in this country are willing to feel about things outweigh the goofiness that, sometimes, a little too easy to be snide about.
Question: What does spirituality mean to you?
Gilbert: Well… Look, something happened to me but even saying that, kind of puts it in a little bit too passive of a voice, you know. I set out to… I set out looking for something very specific. And through a pretty rigorous search and a pretty rigorous set of practices, I got that thing that I wanted, which to put it really simply and perhaps oversimply is a certain calmness, you know. It’s… Life is an extremely agitating event, you know. And I vibrate at a slightly higher frequency than is necessarily healthy, you know, than I always have. I’ve always been kind of anxious. I’ve always been super motive. I feel things harder than is good for me. Indecision has been part of my life, you know. And I could see, after a certain age, how that was destructive not only to myself but to people around me. And… You know, I just think you get to a point where you don’t want to be in other people’s way. You know, you don’t want to be taking up… You don’t want to be taking up other people’s space and energy to sort of take care of you. And I longed to be a different kind of person. You know, I longed to be just a little more at ease, a little more relaxed, and a little more wise, you know, because it seems to me that wisdom is the beginning of serenity, you know. And, you know, aside from people who are very heavily medicated, the calmest people that I know tend to, also, be the wisest, who are quickest, you know, or most instinctively, able to put things into perspective, that takes away the urgency of the moment. And there’re practices that you can do to get there, you know. And those practices, you know, as my friend Richard from Texas always says, the shit works, you know, those practices work. And people do it in different ways and they do it… they do it in different places. But I think that the end result and desire was always the same, you want peace, you know, if not in the world, then, at least, within your own mind. This is not to say that I glide to the world now on a sort of cushion of serenity at all times because I am, you know, exactly as capable of anybody else at experiencing road rage and sidewalk rage and customer service representative, putting you on hold rage, and all the other sorts of rages and jealousies and frustrations and self-pity. I mean, all these things are not foreign to me, you know, but I’ve just… I don’t know. It’s like there’s an engine that works within me, now, that much, much, much more efficiently processes all of that. And I… You know, I’m believing now that that’s a direct result of the work that I did for a whole bunch of years, you know, trying to get to that place. And when I find myself kind of spinning out of orbit, you know, there’s like a tether, you know, that I braided, you know, myself from my own beliefs and my own studies and this work, you know. And that tether sort of pulls me back and reminds me, do you really want to go, you really want to make a big production out of this, or would it be better for you and everybody around you if you just found a way to accept what’s going on. And that’s just made life very much more pleasant. And I feel like my… You know, if I can define my spiritual practice today, it is the maintenance of that. It is doing whatever is necessary to keep that healthy and to keep that system working. And you have to be a little bit nimble and a little flexible to kind of figure out what each day requires in order to keep that going.
Question: What practices help you maintain spirituality?
Gilber: I find, to be perfectly honest, a lot of it has to do with napping, you know. I just think… You know, I’m alarmed by reports of how little sleep Americans are getting anymore. You know, even in the last 10 years, people are getting, on average, you know, an hour to 2 hours less sleep a day. It’s making people really frazzled and really fragile and I just… I kind of feel like, you know, if there’s a new religion that needs to be founded, it’s a religion about, like, naps. You know, something happens when you take a nap. You go into another state. You know, your pulse goes down. Your blood pressure goes down. It’s a kind of meditation… kind of lose meditation. And I do a lot of it. It seems to help, seems to make me more pleasant for people around me. I would prescribe it to anybody. I think every nation that has any civility incorporates napping into their day in a kind of official way. So… You know, rest, rest. I say no to a lot of things that’s become a kind of active spiritual practice for me. I turned down a lot of things, not just professional invitations but personal invitations and social invitations. I think saying no is something we’re really bad at in this culture. I spent years not saying no to anything because I was afraid that if I said no to people, they wouldn’t like me as much and they will be disappointed. And I’ve learned in my old age that when you say no to people, they don’t like you as much and they’re disappointed. Nonetheless, you know, there are times that it has to be done in order to protect whatever small sanctity of serenity you have build up in your life. It’s inhumane, the pace at which people live in this society. And when I came back from traveling for “Eat, Pray, Love”, I was truly sort of jaw droppingly shocked to see it a new… from fresh eyes and to see the amount of stress and the amount of work that we have, somehow, decided is normal. And it is so warped. And, you know, fear is that we’ve exported that, you know, and we’re sort of exporting that idea all over the world all the time and sort of spreading it like a virus. And it’s just… There is no… There is absolutely no way you can defend it as healthy, normal, safe, or wise. And yet, it’s really hard to resist. And you have to push really hard against it, you know. And I don’t always succeed. You know, I find myself at the end of my rope all the time, I’m like, how did I end up… how did I end up with a 14-hour day today, like… you know, how did I let that happen. And so, there’s a sort of vigilance against that that I would really strongly argue as part of, like, the main spiritual practice in my life right now.
Elizabeth Gilbert says there is a danger in America of having too many choices.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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