An open letter to Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed)

Dear Liz:

I wanted to write to let you know how much I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love and Committed and how much they have impacted my thinking.  I am not your typical reader – I am male (and I didn’t know of you before EPL so I only know you as a “chick” writer), Republican, “traditionally” Christian, never sexually promiscuous, still married to my first wife of 26 years, with five children we were absolutely overjoyed to bring home from the hospital.  In short, I’m the person in your writing you often subtly, and sometimes explicitly, mock.  Still, we have much in common.  We both seem to have incredibly powerful brains, seemingly with minds of their own that we have had to force into submission.  You have been more successful with this than me and I long for the experience in the Ashram that you had.  It is just what I need.  We are both spiritual seekers.  I would love some day to introduce you to Jesus Christ.  I don’t want to get all evangelical on you, but there is a love in Jesus that can be found nowhere else, and believe me, I’ve looked. 

In case you actually read this letter, I want to offer some, hopefully, helpful thoughts on marriage in return for how helpful you have been to me.  I won’t comment on EPL other than to say that you are an incredibly gifted writer.  I stumbled across EPL in the audio book section of my local public library, which, since I live in the third-poorest county in America is limited, to say the least.  I had just changed jobs and now had a slightly longer commute and was looking for books to listen to during the drive.  I only found about six I thought I could stomach (I don’t think I’m a Danielle Steel sort of guy, although since I haven’t read her, I really don’t know).  I had heard of EPL and had vaguely positive notions somewhere in a nook of my brain, so it made it into the six.  I’m really glad you read it to me.  First of all, you have a very sexy, sultry voice.  Moreover, I love knowing which words and syllables you, as the author stress, and I loved hearing you speak Italian.

In addition to being a spiritual seeker, I am also a scientist.  I even have a PhD!  I’m very proud that the degree is a doctor of philosophy, because I am mostly a philosopher even though my degree is from a business school.  My field, broadly, is leadership.  I am essentially a professor of human behavior who focuses mostly on how people behave while they are working.  The only reason I chose that applied field is that most of us spend more time working than doing anything else, even sleeping.  I am the rare scholar who has focused on interdisciplinary subjects and consequently I have publications in journals ranging from leadership to education to science to philosophy to spirituality with others in between.

Marriage is a subject I have studied professionally, but more so as a hobby.  I do have several thoughts to share with you, but the most important is a biggie.  You extensively address the topic of marriage in Committed, but you leave out the most important detail.  That “detail” is that a good marriage is, at its essence, a mutual decision.  It is not a feeling or a tornado or a hormonal response.  This is why so many arranged marriages are successful.  Both parties have decided to make it successful.  This is why Felipe was not aghast at your list of failings.  He looked at the list (which he already knew) and decided that he would decide to commit himself to you, regardless of those failings.  This is why your hometown farmer husband lovingly took care of his invalid wife for so many years.  He had made a decision to love her in this way.  The best analogy I can think of is a true (i.e., committed) sports fan.  Your Italian friend was like that with his soccer team.  In NYC you have Yankees fans like that.  Is a Cubs fan committed to his team even if they behave badly, even if they embarrass him, even if he cries himself to sleep sometimes?  Yes.  He has made a decision and he is committed to it.  That is the secret to a successful marriage.  If two people truly decide to commit to each other, “for better or worse,” the marriage will almost certainly be successful and both people will be happy.

This brings me to the value of all of the marriage studies you analyzed.  I agree with all of the caveats your statistician friend mentioned, but she forgot to tell you the biggest flaw in them.  In research we try to find a “cause” that leads to an “effect” (I have published about mutually causal phenomenon that are abundant and drive scientists crazy (if they think about it)).  In your book you write as if being married is the input, or independent variable, and satisfaction or happiness is the output, or dependent variable.  However, in all of what you have written, and likely what is in nearly all of the studies is an independent variable of two people who have a marriage license.  Most studies won’t measure true deciders (not feelers).  It may not even be easily measurable because most couples “in love” will “feel” committed.  The input variable we are truly interested in is something along the lines of “have you decided to remain married to this person ‘for better or worse,’ ‘for richer or poorer’ and, oh, yes, likely even in spite of infidelity, when her looks are gone and so are his teeth.”  That’s quite different from people who hold a marriage license because their hormones went crazy, they were infatuated, and they had an overwhelming feeling they couldn’t live without this other person.  It is those people marrying that drive up the divorce rate.

I think you also give a mistaken impression when you discuss on p. 256 that accommodators can survive a marriage.  In my studying, leading of marriage workshops, informal counseling of couples, and other semi-professional training to comment on marriage, I would say that these couples are “aggressive collaborators” rather than accommodators.  If a couple decides they will never go to bed angry, I suppose they could take turns rolling over, metaphorically.  In reality, they hash things out, even if it goes late into the night or into the next morning.  I have a marriage like that.  We are both stubborn and opinionated but haven’t had anything even approaching a fight in 26 years.  We know how to collaborate almost effortlessly at this point. 

You seem like such a big-hearted person that I do have a favor to ask you, if you have actually read this far.  Would you consider coming and speaking in this third-poorest county in the nation in Southeastern North Carolina?  I would hope you would do so as part of a fund-raiser so the money stays in our poor county.  You would touch thousands of lives immediately and hundreds of thousands indirectly. 

With best regards,

Eric

P.S.  I just listened to roma nun fa la stupida stasera on youtube!  Thanks for that introduction.

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