Elizabeth Gilbert is a renowned writer, most famous for her book Eat, Pray, Love in which she chronicles her year-long journey through Italy (to eat), India (to pray) and Indonesia (where she ultimately finds love.) Then 34, Elizabeth embarked on the travels in an attempt to find herself after a messy divorce. It was in Indonesia that Elizabeth met Jose Nunes, who she would marry in 2007.
More than ten million copies of the book have been sold since its release a decade ago, and it has spent almost half of that time on New York Times’ list of bestselling books list.
Elizabeth wrote a follow up book which also was a number one bestseller. Her navigation of her personal life has resonated with many people – and particularly women – across the globe. She has more than 1.5 million Facebook followers, many of whom, it seems, view her as some type of relationship or even life coach.
Last month, Elizabeth’s personal life again hit the news after she published a Facebook post declaring that the reason her marriage to Nunes had ended was that she was now in a same-sex relationship with her best friend, Rayya Elias, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer earlier this year. Elizabeth explains:
Death — or the prospect of death — has a way of clearing away everything that is not real, and in that space of stark and utter realness, I was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth.
But death or the prospect of it does not always result in clarity and truth; indeed, often the emotion and the fear surrounding such traumatic events can lead us to behave irrationally. But that is almost beside the point. The real issue here is the justification Elizabeth uses for the decision to end her marriage:
For reasons of my own integrity and sanity, I need to be able to walk into any room in the world with Rayya on my arm, feeling relaxed enough to stand comfortably in simple openness about who we actually are to each other... Pretending is demeaning, and it makes you weak and confused… Truth and transparency not only make my life more ethical, but also easier... It's for the sake of our own integrity, but it's also intended to make our lives simpler.
Elizabeth tells her readers that her relationship with Rayya is a matter of integrity and ethics, and a rejection of pretence; that she is being authentic by following her heart. And she is being congratulated by people across the world for being “true to herself.”
I want to suggest that these congratulations are based on a grave misunderstanding of what it means to be authentic and true to oneself. It is unfortunately a misunderstanding which is pervasive today.
Elizabeth’s decision to end her marriage and enter into a romantic relationship with Rayya is one where, it appears, emotion has been prioritised over existing commitments; feelings have done away with promises.
But following whatever our strongest emotion is at any one time is not the same thing as authenticity. I would even go as far as to say that it is the exact opposite. To be authentic, we must be people of our word; people who keep our promises. Sometimes, being authentic means we stay when our heart wants to be elsewhere. That’s why we take vows when we get married, are ordained or enter religious life – we are promising that we will live our vocation, even (and especially) on the days we don’t feel like it.
The alternative is being a person who cannot be trusted, not out of malice or bad faith, but because no one will ever be sure if we will fulfil any of our commitments. Those we love will never be able to be certain that we will stay and support them in the good times and the not-so-good times. If the duty to be true to our word can be dispensed with based on our feelings, then it is not really a duty at all.
“The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.” Frank Underwood, House of Cards.
Monica Doumit, catholicTalk contributor
[This article first appeared in The Catholic Weekly and is reprinted here with permission.]