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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Gilbert’

The other day after I got home from my run (I use the term advisedly), I got a call from the local NBC affiliate asking for a quick interview on the overall impact of “girl power”  in this year’s Olympics.  Within ten minutes, the reporter and her cameraman were on their way.

While dashing around the house trying to figure out what to wear — no white, no black, no patterns — and ruing the fact that I never mastered the art of applying makeup, I did some power thinking about what the so-called “year of the woman” means to those of us who have never done a cartwheel and who were always the last to be chosen for volleyball.  (Both would be me.) And what I realized is that the Olympic Games are a good metaphor for a lot of what we call real life.

Wherein we find some real lessons, especially for us women.

Lesson one:  You go for the gold, girl.  First, there’s the good old-fashioned inspiration of the goose-bump variety.  Whenever a woman excels at anything, I’m inspired — even if it’s not my field.  Gabby or Missy or Kerri and Misty?  Talk about motivation.  And yet it’s a message that goes far beyond the pool or the (faux) beach or the balance beam: set yourself a goal, work hard, try your darnedest and anything is possible: You never know what you can do until you take that leap of faith.

For all of us, there’s joy to be found in getting into the Zen of it all, of being totally absorbed in our passions, whether it’s poetry or pole vaulting.  Put yourself out there, throw yourself into your dreams one hundred percent, and the message is this: you just might bring home the gold.

Lesson two:  Fail well.  Or maybe you won’t: put yourself out there, give it your all — and you still might fall flat on your face.  But even if you fail spectacularly, you still win. We write about this a lot:  one of the surest indicators of future success is how good you are at failing. In fact, this year the New York Times reported on some cutting edge school programs based on something called the character strengths inventory that is proving that kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. (Look no further than world gymnastics champion Jordyn Wieber, who failed to qualify for the individual all-around final yet came back to nail her floor exercises.)

Which leads to …

Lesson three: Take the risk.  In other words, failure can often be the world’s best teacher. First, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve taken a risk and lived to tell the tale. And then there’s this: That whole process of trial and error is likely to bring you closer to figuring out your own goals and how to get there.  Maybe you’ll learn from what you’ve done wrong and do it better the next time – or just maybe you can use that failure to rule things out.  If you can see that failure for what it is, just one more step in the never-ending process we call life, you may well learn something that can propel you forward. Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure. But regret? It’s not recoverable.”

That risk-taking, the idea of allowing ourselves the courage to fail?  It’s especially important to today’s women who are often navigating uncharted territory, especially in the workplace.  As Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote, “We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.”

And speaking of running without a roadmap …

Lesson Four: Dispense with the shoulds.  That’s Gloria Steinem’s line, not ours.  More in a bit. I was once asked for advice from a very earnest twenty-something who wanted to know what women trying to make their way into high-stakes careers should do. And my answer was this:  I don’t have any advice — not because I don’t like to dish it out – but because there are no clear cut, one-size fits all answers.   For us, I told her, it’s all too new.  And then I quoted Gloria Steinem, who once told a group of college women: “Dispense with the word “should.” Don’t think about the way women should fit into the world.  Think about how the world should fit women.”

Which brings us back to my soundbyte on the nightly news and perhaps the best lesson of all from the year of the woman.  The reporter asked my take on those women who were owning the non-traditional sports like Judo and weightlifting, breaking through the stereotypes, and what I said was something like this:  “Every time a woman does something a little above and beyond society’s expectations, it opens doors for all of us.  And I think that’s fantastic.”

I was overshadowed, of course, by an interview with a poised young tween in a leotard at a local gymnastics center.  What she said she has taken away from this year’s Olympics is the belief that women can do whatever they want, that they can do just as much as men can.  “I’m motivated,” she said, looking straight at the camera, “to do better than I think I can.”

Girl power, indeed.

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What if the surest indicator of your future success–of living a happy, meaningful, and productive life–is how good you are at failing?

Brace yourselves, perfectionists, because the evidence is mounting: in order to fly, you’ve first got to fail. And (worse!) how well you fail may be one of the biggest predictors of success. Bigger even than, say, IQ. Paul Tough’s recent piece in the New York Times, entitled “The Character Test: Why our kids’ success–and happiness–may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure,” looks at character-development programs in two schools–one school affluent, one not; both programs inspired by the character strengths inventory developed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson–which seem to show that the kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. Of course, in order to move through a failure, they have to be allowed to fail. An issue about which Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School–one of NYC’s most prestigious private schools–is worried:

People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, I think they’re going to be screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to handle that.

It’s a bit like the kid who eats the occasional fistful of dirt, versus the one whose every move is greeted with an anti-bacterial wipe. Sure, one will get dirty (and perhaps cooties)–but, long term, whose immune system is going to be stronger?

When it comes to failure, the trick is being able to look at it objectively: easier said than done, when you’re in the midst of being dressed down in the boardroom or rejected in the bedroom. And for women, as we explore in Undecided, there are even more complications: often we’re carrying the weight of some great expectations–whether our own, or those of our (real and proverbial) mothers who never had the opportunity we do–born of the well-intentioned message that we can do anything! (And that we’re so lucky that we can do anything.) And the kicker: we’re doing it blind! After all, as Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote,

We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female  role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.

You look at it that way, and it seems we’ve all been set up for failure! But might that be a good thing–if only we could figure out how to fail well? Tom Brunzell, Dean of Students at Kipp Infinity School in the Bronx, says of the “character conversations” that have infiltrated all aspects of the curriculum:

what’s going on… isn’t academic instruction at all, or even disciple, it’s therapy. Specifically, it’s a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, the very practical, nuts-and-bolts psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves using the conscious mind to understand and overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits, using techniques like “self-talk”–putting an immediate crisis in perspective by reminding you of the larger context… “I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m OK. Tomorrow is a new day.”

It’s tough not to let our ego get in the way (even when we know there are worse things than messing up or being wrong), but when we succumb to that knee-jerk defensiveness (a “baby attack,” in KIPP school parlance), we deprive ourselves real growth. What if we could just tell our ego to chill, and take a minute to observe: what can this situation teach me about the areas where I have a little room for improvement? What can I do better next time? (And then, the fun part: holy crap! Imagine how successful I could be if I could figure out a way to get better at the things I’m not as good at yet!)

The thing is, blowing it every once in a while is inevitable: we might as well do it well.

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So, here’s a scenario. You, single, lookin to meet someone. You’re perusing the offerings at Match.com when you come across an attractive stranger whose specs are all to your liking. Then, let’s say, he describes himself: “Big Ol Failure!”

…I’m guessing you’d pass?

You’d hardly be alone. Success, after all, is a virtue in our world; failure, something to be ashamed of.

But. A new book says that, “in a complex world, the process of trial and error is essential.” The book, written by Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, is called “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure.” And while the book is business-leaning, the point–that it’s the mistakes that beget the great successes–seems pretty applicable to Life In General.

Of course, failure’s scary. But, without it, what is life? If we’re here to learn, to change, to grow, to discover who we are and what we want to do with ourselves while we’re here, well–all of those things involve taking steps into the unknown. And, like someone wandering an unfamiliar town, we’re likely to take a couple missteps. We may even fall flat on our collective face. But, with every stumble, every accidental dead-end, we get a little bit clearer about the road we do want to follow.

Makes sense–but then, it’s easy to speak in metaphor. It’s a lot harder to cut ourselves that kind of slack in our actual lives. We’d prefer to never get fired, dumped, disappointed, bored, scared, angry, or lost again. But I feel pretty certain that we will. (Admit it, you know I’m right.) After all, in a way, our mistakes are our lives. They’re certainly every bit as significant as our successes.

And so imagine if we weren’t so tied to the outcomes of the things we try. When we’re making the big decisions of our lives, what if our ego didn’t give a shit whether we’d come out on top? What if we chose to believe that there are no right or wrong decisions, only choices that we’ll live with? What if we realized that failure might, in fact, be inevitable–and went for it anyway? It reminds me of this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert that I wrote about some time ago:

Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted–by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on. Future generations will thank you–trust me–for showing them the way, for beating brave new footpaths out of wonky old mistakes.

In medicine, doctors make diagnoses by ruling things out. Seems a pretty sane approach in life, too, doncha think? I mean, maybe I’m wrong about all this. In which case… great! I’ll try something else tomorrow.


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This post originally ran in April, but we thought now would be a good time to revisit it, giving the impending release of Eat, Pray, Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-bestseller of the same name. So, this week, when you’re bombarded with ads for the movie, the trip, or the collection, remember these words from everyone’s favorite fuck-up: Blow it all, catastrophically, and start over with good cheer. After all, if she hadn’t made some serious mistakes in her life, who knows where she’d be? More importantly, we’d all miss out on a chance to ogle Javier Bardem.

What if failure was not only an option, it was the only option? According to a recent article by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) in this month’s O magazine, we’d all be a lot better off. In fact, “Failure is the Only Option” is the title of the piece, in which Gilbert suggests we’d be happier if we screwed up. Early. Often. And big.

Now, easy for her to say: her divorce, after all, begat one of the publishing world’s most staggering successes in recent memory (soon to arrive at the multiplex near you), not to mention an amazing round-the-world adventure and another go at the whole Committed thing. (So, it’s probably no surprise that she’d encourage failure on an epic scale: she, after all, is living one serious silver lining.) In the course of making her case for failure, she hits on one of our main theses about the overwhelm women feel in the face of limitless options, and why those options trip us up so colossally: They’re So. Damn. New.

Here’s a little bit of what she says:

We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map. As a result, we each race forth blindly into this new maze of limitless options. And the risks are steep. We make mistakes. We take sharp turns, hoping to stumble on an open path, only to bump into dead-end walls and have to back up and start all over again. We push mysterious levers, hoping to earn a reward, only to learn–whoops, that was a suffering button!

We’ve all accidentally pushed the suffering button. This new job is gonna rock! Quitting this job is gonna rock! This cheese rocks so much, I’m just gonna keep eating it! I’m totally gonna rock these 5-inch heels all night long! How can we ever know if we’re doing the right thing?

Maybe the better question is When can we know if we’re doing the right thing? To which, the only correct answer is: after we’ve done it. In which case, if it was the wrong thing, it’s too late to do anything but pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try something new (or swear off cheese altogether). But until we’ve given what may or may not rock a shot, well, we’re generally operating without a map. (When you think about it, it’s terrifically ironic: women, who are so talented at comparing ourselves to others, don’t have a whole lot of comps to go by while charting our own course through this life.)

Of course, the major failures–the ones we’re afraid of making–are more significant than a blister or a day spent, uh, divesting oneself of sins of the Cowgirl Creamery variety. But the half-full way of looking at it might be that all those missteps are indeed serving a purpose: in many ways, women today are making the map. And while, one might expect the moral of a story called “Failure is the Only Option” to be something along the lines of “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so you might as well go for it!”, Gilbert’s points are more charitable: stop pressuring yourself to be perfect, and every time you blow it, consider it a gift to your little sisters. Failure as philanthropy. Check it:

Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted–by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on. Future generations will thank you–trust me–for showing the way, for beating brave new footpaths out of wonky old mistakes.

So here’s to blowing it. And here’s a word to the wise, from a sister who’s been there: half a wheel of Mt. Tam is too much cheese.

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Something struck me  as I clicked on the salon.com daily newsletter in my inbox Wednesday and it totally pissed me off.

Now before I go on, let me assure you that I love salon.com, that I’ve been reading it ever since Dave Talbot started it before the idea of digital journalism had even hit the radar, and that I myself have written for it as well.  But here’s what got me going:  Salon’s daily newsletter lists the each day’s headlines, along with bylines, and what I noticed Wednesday was this:  Of the 30 stories linked, only 8 were written by women.  Not that bad, you say?  Well, that’s debatable.  But of those:

One was a personal essay by Laura Wagner on going back to Haiti to report on what we don’t know about what it’s like there now.  Okay, good.

Another was an editorial by Joan Walsh, salon’s editor-in chief.

One was by a freelance food writer, whose piece was about a layered Japanese cake made with coffee jelly.

And the other five were all corralled into the women’s neighborhood known as Broadsheet.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Broadsheet as much as the next girl.  Read it every day in fact, and almost always agree with the feminist line.  But, if you were to be honest you’d have to admit, every column is thorougly predicatable:  we’re pissed about (fill in the blank) and we’re gonna riff about it.  Done.

I couldn’t help but wonder: on a cutting edge news site, run by a woman in fact, can’t you figure out something for smart women writers to do —  other than rant or rhapsodize over tea cakes?

So anyway, then I went over to jezebel.com.  More cranky pants.  They were talking shit about Elizabeth Gilbert.  Now, let me say again, as I’ve said before, that I am probably the only woman left in America who hasn’t finished Eat Pray Love.   But c’mon: “How Elizabeth Gilbert ruined Bali”?  Really?  They also talked a little trash about Julia Roberts.   Of course.

So then, what the hell, I checked out the New York Times Homepage.  Nine bylines and only one woman, whose byline was shared.  To be fair, Maureen Dowd’s column (no byline) was up in the corner.  And there’s no question, were I to have given the gray lady multiple clicks beyond the home page, I am sure I would have found a number of women.  Or on the blogs.  Like Lisa Belkin, who I read often and kinda like, who writes about parenting.

But. Way back when, there was a TV show, “Lou Grant”,  that had been a favorite — either in real time or on rerun channels — of just about everyone I knew in J. School.  And there was this one episode where the girl reporter followed a hot story that allowed her to get outside the walls of the traditional woman’s beat, the only place most women journalists were allowed.  You know, lightweight features, ladies lunches, that sort of stuff.  The girl ghetto.

Anyway, having run into all this stuff, on Wednesday,  I couldn’t help wondering.  Are we back there again?  The girl ghetto? Where’s the writing of substance?  The Reporting with the captial “R”?  Are smart women only capable of essays or riffs or recipes?  You gotta wonder if we’ve been sucked into a ghetto of our own making, where we do simply what’s expected of us:  We write about food,  we write about kids — or we put on the cranky pants and riff predictably about women’s issues..  It that’s all we want to be known for, great.  But seems to me, if we want to be taken seriously — as journalists, or even as women — we ought to break out of this self-imposed exile.

Right here, I should probably add a little backstory.  I’m still pissed off about the list of the “greatest magazine stories ever“, compiled by men, that only had ONE woman on the list’s first iteration: Susan Orlean, for “The Orchid Thief”, who initially earned one star out of a possible four.  What about Orlean’s award-winning “The American Man at Age 10″?  Or what, no Joan Didion?  No mention of one of the most critically acclaimed magazine pieces ever, her “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”?

I’m happy to report that the list has been updated and, ahem, the above have been included.   But nonetheless.  I’ve been, you know, cranky ever since.

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Life happens when you least expect it. Which is to say that serendipity can be a wonderful thing. Most researchers will tell you, in fact, that many scientific and medical breakthroughs (penicillin, anyone?) were the result of happenstance.

The unexpected happened or something zigged left when it should have zagged right, and rather than bemoaning what went wrong, the smart folks ran with the moldy bread. Often to grand results.

This all came to mind today via the 2010 version of serendipity: links that turned up in my inbox. The first came from Maggie, a former student that we first met here, where, a few months out of college and teaching English to unappreciative French teenagers in Lyon, she raised the question of whether growing up meant making peace with life’s uncertainties. Which may be how she found herself an accidental tourist at a distant relative’s dairy farm outside Skiberdeen, Ireland, thanks to the cloud of volcanic ash that left her stranded at the Dublin airport.

Faced with an uncertain future at the airport bar, she decided to call her long-lost cousins who invited her and her traveling companion to spend an epic week at their farm on the edge of the sea, where they ran with the cows, toured “the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen,” and drank minute’s old milk out of an old Irish Whiskey bottle. She called it the best phone call she had ever made:

My relatives live in the same farmhouse that’s been in the family for five generations and probably longer. It’s a dairy farm, and their cows produce some of the milk for Dubliner cheese (best cheese in the world). Across the field, you can see the quaint little stone church where my great-great- grandmother was baptized. From the top of the hill, you can see the westernmost point of Ireland (and nearest point of Europe to America), Fastnet, which is a lighthouse on a rock 8 miles from the mainland into the Atlantic. Alan, one of the sons, used his friendly connections to get us on a boat out to that rock, which is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life (though the choppy boat ride back was terrifying). The day before, his older brother Kevin took us on a 6-hour driving tour around the area, pointing out memorials and giving us history/Irish language lessons along the way. Good stuff.

That other link? That one was for a delightful piece in the latest Oprah magazine by Elizabeth Gilbert (Full disclosure: I may be the only woman in American who still has not finished “Eat, Pray, Love.” Please don’t hate me.) In an essay essentially about her mother, she revisits the time her mom turned Gilbert’s absolute and abject disappointment at not being chosen for the lead of the third-grade play — it was about a lemonade stand – into a show stopping two-line triumph:

Opening day: The play droned to life. Bored parents fanned themselves in the audience, straining to hear mumbled lines. When I exploded onto the stage, as confident as (and dressed rather like) a drag queen, I could feel the crowd pop awake. Towering over the cast, I sashayed toward the lemonade stand and drawled languidly, “May ah have an oatmeal cookie and a glass of lemonade?” (The honeyed Southern accent had been my mother’s brilliant, last-minute suggestion.)

The audience hollered with laughter. Still in character, I drawled my next and final line ( “Thank yoooouuu!”) to the three dumbfounded stars and began my exit. But—not so fast. The audience was still laughing, still loving this 8-year-old Blanche DuBois. And that’s when I had a clarion revelation: They still need me! This is when I made the charitable decision to give the crowd just a little more Mrs. Fields. Instead of heading for the wings, I swished back to center stage, dropped an imaginary quarter on the lemonade stand, and ad-libbed, “Keep the change, sugar. “

Afterward, Gilbert was allowed to “ revel in exactly one hour of triumph,” then it was back home to do her chores. What was significant, she writes now, was the critical survival lessons she learned from her mom. Chief among them – at least as far as our accidental post is concerned:

If life gives you lemons, don’t settle for simply making lemonade—make a glorious scene at a lemonade stand.

Which brings us back to that idea of serendipity – or its converse: the five-year plan. Maybe you should ditch it. Because sometimes, you’re most likely to find what you’re looking for when, you know, you just stop looking for it.

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What if failure was not only an option, it was the only option? According to a recent article by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) in this month’s O magazine, we’d all be a lot better off. In fact, “Failure is the Only Option” is the title of the piece, in which Gilbert suggests we’d be happier if we screwed up. Early. Often. And big.

Now, easy for her to say: her divorce, after all, begat one of the publishing world’s most staggering successes in recent memory (soon to arrive at the multiplex near you), not to mention an amazing round-the-world adventure and another go at the whole Committed thing. (So, it’s probably no surprise that she’d encourage failure on an epic scale: she, after all, is living one serious silver lining.) In the course of making her case for failure, she hits on one of our main theses about the overwhelm women feel in the face of limitless options, and why those options trip us up so colossally: They’re So. Damn. New.

Here’s a little bit of what she says:

We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map. As a result, we each race forth blindly into this new maze of limitless options. And the risks are steep. We make mistakes. We take sharp turns, hoping to stumble on an open path, only to bump into dead-end walls and have to back up and start all over again. We push mysterious levers, hoping to earn a reward, only to learn–whoops, that was a suffering button!

We’ve all accidentally pushed the suffering button. This new job is gonna rock! Quitting this job is gonna rock! This cheese rocks so much, I’m just gonna keep eating it! I’m totally gonna rock these 5-inch heels all night long! How can we ever know if we’re doing the right thing?

Maybe the better question is When can we know if we’re doing the right thing? To which, the only correct answer is: after we’ve done it. In which case, if it was the wrong thing, it’s too late to do anything but pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try something new (or swear off cheese altogether). But until we’ve given what may or may not rock a shot, well, we’re generally operating without a map. (When you think about it, it’s terrifically ironic: women, who are so talented at comparing ourselves to others, don’t have a whole lot of comps to go by while charting our own course through this life.)

Of course, the major failures–the ones we’re afraid of making–are more significant than a blister or a day spent, uh, divesting oneself of sins of the Cowgirl Creamery variety. But the half-full way of looking at it might be that all those missteps are indeed serving a purpose: in many ways, women today are making the map. And while, one might expect the moral of a story called “Failure is the Only Option” to be something along the lines of “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so you might as well go for it!”, Gilbert’s points are more charitable: stop pressuring yourself to be perfect, and every time you blow it, consider it a gift to your little sisters. Failure as philanthropy. Check it:

Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted–by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on. Future generations will thank you–trust me–for showing the way, for beating brave new footpaths out of wonky old mistakes.

So here’s to blowing it. And here’s a word to the wise, from a sister who’s been there: half a wheel of Mt. Tam is too much cheese.

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Marriage. It’s what brings us together, today…

It is, after all, the Mother of all decisions–I mean, when we’re in the market for a car, a house, a job, or a sandwich, must we pronounce our love and fidelity to the Passat or the Pastrami til death do us part? Of course not. (And thank god for that, or I swear to you, I would be wheel-less, homeless, unemployed and starving.) And a couple of new books shine a little light on an interesting point: when it comes to that infamous “Piece of Paper,” could it be the decision-making part of the Til Death Do Us Part that does us in?

First, consider the new book “A Little Bit Married,” just released this week, written by journalist/blogger Hannah Seligson. Of the project, Seligson writes at the Daily Beast:

‘A Little Bit Marrieds’ are the ones that write a prenup on a piece of loose-leaf paper as they move in, detailing who paid for the Ikea bureau, who brought the flat-screen TV, whose parents gave them the bed. They don’t share the cost of anything ‘just in case.’ They each have separate shelf units for their books and DVDs. Are they roommates or are they building a life together? Are they husband and wife, girlfriend and boyfriend, or roommates? They may have seen friends go through the whole lifecycle–dating, marriage, and kids–but they still don’t own a couch together. Each thinks the other person is marriage material, but how can they commit when there are un-traveled continents and four more career paths to explore? Everything is great–but what if there is something better out there?

What if, indeed? It’s the classic conundrum–no one wants to make the wrong decision. And the easiest way to ensure we don’t is to avoid commitment altogether, to keep the doors open, to see for yourself whether that grass is greener. Or, at the very least–and more to the point–to reserve the right to take off to see for yourself about that grass at any time.

Interestingly, the issue of choice comes up in “Committed,” Elizabeth Eat Pray Gilbert’s latest, as well, albeit in a different context. Check what The New Yorker‘s Ariel Levy has to say:

For all the variability in the meaning of marriage, one fairly consistent element over time and place was that it had nothing to do with love. “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage,” [Stephanie] Coontz [author of "Marriage, a History"] writes. In fact, loving one’s spouse too much was considered a threat to social and religious order, and was discouraged in societies as disparate as ancient Greece, medieval Islam, and contemporary Cameroon. The modern Western ideal of marriage as both romantic and companionate is an anomaly and a gamble. As soon as people in any culture start selecting spouses based on emotion, the rates of broken marriages shoot up. “By unnerving definition,” Gilbert writes, “anything that the heart has chosen for its own, mysterious reasons it can always unchoose.”

Ultimately, Gilbert is clear about what she, like most people, wants: everything. We want intimacy and autonomy, security and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it.

So. The lure of what’s still out there makes it difficult for us to commit. As does the weight of the personal responsibility inherent in making a choice, especially one based on something as fickle as feelings–and then, by virtue of looking at it as a choice, the likelihood that at some point someone will decide they chose wrong. It all reminds me of something one of the women we’ve interviewed for the book said once–albeit while agonizing over another big question, that of What To Do With Her Life: Sometimes I wish I was born in some other country where everything from career to spouse would be chosen for me.

It would be easier that way, wouldn’t it? Maybe even happier. But, alas, here we are. For better or worse.

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