Don’t make me choose!

Posted on Oct 11, 2012 in Blog
Day before yesterday I came across this excellent article in The Atlantic. It is, as you will see, an article that focuses on two writers whom I hold in very high regard: Cheryl Strayed, who we all know now as the ultra-wise voice behind the Dear Sugar column (as well as, you know, the author of that memoir that got snapped up by Reese Witherspoon), and Elizabeth Gilbert, who we of course all know as the lady behind Two Buttons (as well as, you know, the author of that memoir that got snapped up by Julia Roberts).

It’s a good article. It really is. Have to admit, however, that I was sad to see it pitching these women against each other, in however subtle a manner.

I mean, can’t we all just get along, folks? Can’t we all just get along? 

Here’s the deal, before I go any further: I love Cheryl Strayed. Love her. I love her wholeheartedly, with every chamber of my  insignificant little writer’s heart. Something about her Dear Sugar column managed to shine right through the messy beautiful muck that has been my lifelong quest for God and good. Every Thursday, I sat down at my computer and read her column and cried and felt my world explode. I would follow her to the ends of the earth. Seriously. (Are you creeped out yet? I’m not ambitious enough to be a stalker, Cheryl, so have no fear.) She goes there, people. Every single week, when the column was in its heyday, Cheryl as Sugar went straight to the horrible gorgeous beating heart of what it meant to be a human being. She was unflinching in her honesty and endless in her compassion. She was/is what I imagine God might be like — she is what I think of when I imagine that a spark of that Godself lies inside of each of us. Even if the reality is that there’s no God at all, the ability that Sugar had (and has) to reach beyond her human self and touch some kind of endless compassion embodies, for me, what the whole damn God idea’s about. In this sense, the art of Cheryl’s column makes me want to be a better person.

So there’s that.

But I also love Elizabeth Gilbert. Wholeheartedly. Unreservedly. With every chamber of my insignificant little writer’s heart. Almost four years ago I splurged and bought a copy of Eat, Pray, Love from the Waterstone’s at the west end of Princes Street, in Edinburgh. I did not have enough money for groceries at that point in life, so to spend a whole seven pounds and ninety-nine pence on a book was extravagance of the most ridiculous kind. Seven pounds (and ninety-nine pence) could buy me nearly a week’s worth of groceries then, so it was a big deal. But I’d heard so much about the book, and so I took it home, and I finished the whole thing on a sunny Saturday afternoon in my little Scottish flat, drinking watered down tea. (Tip: green tea all tastes the same after a while. If you’re poor, reuse the tea bag! After a while you won’t even notice!) I cried in the middle. I cried at the end. I closed the book with a renewed appreciation for the God with whom I’d played a lifelong game of hide-and-seek. And then I thought, you know, maybe reaching for what you want in life and believing that you can get it isn’t a bad thing. Maybe I do deserve to be happy. Maybe everything will be okay. 

So there’s that, too.

Of course, 2008 happened right in the midst of all of this. And 2008, as the Atlantic article notes, changed everything about what anyone might imagine for God and love and what it means to be a messy, hurting, hopeful, searching human being. We like to say that these kinds of things are above money, and in a lot of cases they are. But money — the lack thereof, the overabundance of, the striving for, the losing, the having, all of that — also has a huge part to play in how we structure our worldviews. We are creatures of currency in so many ways. We are always determining the worth of things. That’s just how it goes.

So in that sense I suppose it’s inevitable that people will re-evaluate the worth of the books that we love and the advice that we’re given. Okay. Yes, absolutely — in light of the 2008 crash, and renewed values of frugality and determination and etc etc that so many of us have adopted because we’ve had to, because it’s become the way to survive — in light of all of this, I totally understand how some people see Gilbert as the, quote, “doyenne of self-indulgence” of yesteryear. It’s the glamourous twenties versus the thrifty thirties all over again. Self-indulgence was in vogue five years ago because times were good. Mucking in and doing the hard work is in vogue now because times are not-so-good, and elbow grease is called for. I get that.

I can also see how some people found Gilbert whiny. Insufferable. Frustrating. I didn’t, but of course I’m only one reader. Yes, she was starting from a certain amount of privilege anyway, being able to go on a round-the-world trip at all. Yes, so much of Eat, Pray, Love could be classed as #firstworldproblems. I get that. Oh, poor writer who has to work through her demons while eating pasta on the cobbled streets of Rome. Oh, poor writer who struggles with her depression whilst on those beautiful beaches. Poor her. 

You know what, though? Just because she started her journey from a relatively privileged place doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard. Just because she suffered depression in the wake of a marriage break-up as opposed to, I don’t know, having her arms torn off in a helicopter accident while on a gruelling humanitarian mission in some far corner of the world doesn’t mean that her story’s any less compelling, or any less worthy of being told. If anything, I think she should be given extra points for taking that leap — for putting her story out there anyway, even in spite of the fact that she must have known people would tear her apart in exactly the ways that they have.

So. There’s that.

I dislike the way that the Atlantic article positions Cheryl Strayed as The Oprah Author, 2.0, as though Elizabeth Gilbert and her own voyage of self-discovery have no place in our world now. Today, it runs, the prescription of “indulge your appetites, find enlightenment” not only seems unrealistic but even a little silly. Sure it might be a little unrealistic — I’d argue that it was always a little bit unrealistic for a lot of people — but how is this any different from a 1,100 mile hike across the Pacific Northwest, just like the one that Strayed herself undertook? That’s a journey that a lot of other people wouldn’t be able to make, either.
The point about each of these women, and the stories that they’ve told, is that their journeys were both spiritual as much as physical. Both mentally and physically gruelling. Anyone who’s practiced meditation for long periods of time will tell you that it can be every bit as painful as hauling a pack across rugged terrain. In so many ways, it’s the same kind of thing.

The Atlantic article tries to paint Strayed as the goddess of “pick yourself up and do the work” as much as it tries to paint Gilbert as the freewheeling hippy who stumbles on happiness through luck and good food. It’s not fair, even if there’s some truth to it. I adore Cheryl Strayed, and I admire her more than I’ve admired anyone else in my life except perhaps my parents, but Elizabeth Gilbert also had an awful lot of “picking herself up” to do after her marriage collapsed. And gruelling as it might have been, Strayed’s own hike across those mountains was also as much an expression of “I deserve to be happy” as was Gilbert’s year of travelling round the world.

We all deserve to be happy. But we all have to earn it, too. I think that both Strayed and Gilbert would acknowledge this, and I’m slightly baffled as to why The Atlantic seems to think there’s such a divide between the two. The thing that I love best about Cheryl’s Dear Sugar column is her unrelenting encouragement to the people that write her for advice. Reach for the light, sweet peas. She’s unflagging in her optimism, even in the darkest possible moments of their lives. And I’d argue that Elizabeth Gilbert was too. You don’t pick yourself up and throw yourself out on some godforsaken quest if you don’t think that there’s any possibility for happiness at the end of it. In each of these women there was an insistent beating heart that said, Go. Find it. Make it yours.

Yes, we live in a different world now. Yes, it might be easier for a lot of us to find enlightenment (whatever the heck that means) in less … expensive ways. Yes, the bootstraps approach to life will probably do you well. (They learned about bootstraps in the Thirties. Then they forgot about them. And now we’re learning about them again. Who wants to bet that we’ll forget about them again in the future?)

But knowing that you deserve to be happy — and that you’re prepared to earn it — is a gift that everyone should have. There is room enough in life for each of these things. Happiness and struggle both. In a very real, messy, beautiful way, they complement each other. And I’d argue, in another real and messy and beautiful way, that Strayed and Gilbert do the same.

You deserve to be happy, my shining crazy lovely friends. And you know what? Sometimes you’ll have to work hard for that happiness, too. That’s okay. Life is dark and horrible. It’s also beautiful beyond belief. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s any one right way to pull yourself through the mess.

And don’t, for the love of our bright beautiful world, make me choose between Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert. I just won’t do it.



  1. Steph
    October 11, 2012

    Hear, hear!

  2. Sirrah
    October 20, 2012

    Excellent final paragraph.