In October of 2015 I went with a friend to hear Elizabeth Gilbert on her Big Magic book tour. She was on the cusp of her ten-year publishing anniversary of her memoir on divorce, despair, and re-discovery of life--Eat, Pray, Love--which launched her into global fame. During the audience Q and A someone asked her if she’d re-read Eat, Pray, Love in the years since it was first published. She responded by saying that she had just recently re-read it for the first time, as the 10th anniversary was approaching, and that she was shocked to find how many times she referred to herself as old in the memoir, because there she was ten years later, feeling quite young.
My favorite modern-day philosopher, Alain De Botton captures this experience well in his latest novel, The Course of Love, which chronicles the phases of Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship, with plot punctuated by philosophical vignettes. In one such vignette he states:
This concept of “arresting the wheel” and saying out loud (or heaven forbid publishing in a best-selling memoir) that captures a crystallized moment is, in fact, a risk we all must take. The alternative is staying mute your whole life. Only, our reflections on our own experiences are obsolete as soon as we utter them. At least for us. But perhaps not for those that hear them. Eat, Pray, Love gained such incredible traction because that year in Elizabeth Gilbert’s life resonated with so many people who were suffering or coming back to life in similar ways to the ones she so beautifully chronicled.
I have friends that will call me wanting to talk about their relationships that begin the conversation with these disclaimers of “I need to talk about what’s wrong, but it doesn’t mean everything is wrong.” “I know,” I say. Stories are sound-bytes. They are malleable. They change.
Despite being an International Studies major in college, the only section of the NY Times I read reliably is the Modern Love column. I wrote my first Modern Love essay (not published, just for private consumption) in 2015 when I was trying to make sense of my broken engagement. A year later, re-reading it, what I had written, and felt so sure of in 2015, no longer fully resonated. So I wrote a new version in 2017, and that one rings truer, but it's still not quite the full picture. And the truth I’ve landed on is that nothing written (or spoken) stays personally true forever. Good writing taps into universal truths that other people can relate to, but on an individual level, we can never step in the same river twice.
Last spring when I was in the middle of hard weekend, I texted my dad and told him that I was impatiently waiting for things to change. He wrote back: “When the present changes, so does the past.”
There is a form of therapy, called Narrative therapy, that I’m particularly drawn towards. The focus is on how we make meaning out of our lives, by crafting our own life story in such a way that it heals old wounds and creates space for generativity.
A friend recently sent me this beautiful Vanity Fair article, “Monica Lewinsky: Emerging from ‘the House of Gaslight’ in the Age of #MeToo.” I was 12 years old in 1998 when the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton affair dominated the daily news. I remember going with my mom to her aerobics class occasionally on the weekends, and the instructor calling out in a chipper tone, “Alright ladies, let’s do the Lewinsky,” which was some variation of a hip thrusting move paced to loud 80’s music. As a 12-year-old, I wasn’t all that invested in the scandal. I didn't consider that Monica Lewinsky was just 13 years my senior, and that like her (and every other human), I would also make big mistakes in my life, but that unlike her, I wouldn’t be crucified on the cross of public humiliation.
Now as a 31-year-old, I read her incredible story of rising up from unimaginable ashes—and I regret unthinkingly mocking this young, incredibly unlucky woman all those years ago. The Vanity Fair article quotes, Salman Rushdie in a statement he made after the fatwa was issued against him:
I started blogging as a way to make sense out of my life. The writing is for me, but occasionally, I hear from people that what I’ve written strikes a chord with them too. Because the human experience is universal—it’s only that we land on different parts of the experience at different times.
I was visiting friends I love dearly last night who are in a very different part of the human experience from where I am currently. They are newlyweds, who just bought their dream home, who are successful in their chosen careers, and who are eyeing their new spare bedroom as a future nursery. Meanwhile, I’m recently broken up, trolling job boards that promise me minimum wage work despite having just spent two years in graduate school, with a dog (aka: my lifeline) who has been alternately throwing up or having diarrhea for the last few days, and a birthday on the horizon that makes me feel like my chances for children are evaporating. In short, it seems that my friends and I are living on different planets. But I’ve know these friends for a while, and I know they’ve done time on Planet Suffering too. Because we all do—nobody escapes it.
When I’m in the dark moments of my life, it is hard to imagine that they will end, even knowing on a rational level that they will. My dad (aka: my other lifeline) likes to remind me that Fortune’s Wheel is always spinning. That I’m not stuck. That this is temporary. I know he is right. It’s just getting my heart on board with this truth that takes time.