If you’ve never seen The Bachelor (though chances are you probably have), then you’ve missed some of reality TV’s best attempts to turn real people into caricatures. Whether it’s the intention of the contestant, the careful edits of the producers, or a combination of both, every person who steps out of the limo has a cohesive and clear-cut identity. Usually this is executed in the narrative portion of the show when we “meet” the contestant and get a nice video montage of her life, but it can also be done through behind-the-scenes commentary (“My friends all consider me the party girl of the group”) or other contestants’ feedback (“Oh Corinne, yeah, she’s a party girl”). However it’s executed, the audience will most likely be rooting for the Southern Belle, the no-nonsense lawyer, or the free spirit. Oh, or the party girl, whatever that means. And everything goes great until the Southern Belle turns out to be a Democrat, the no-nonsense lawyer gets drunks at the cocktail party, and the free spirit ends up winning because she’s the most cutthroat competitor. Everyone’s narrative unravels at some point, and if it doesn’t, they will resentfully unravel it themselves in their crying car interview on the way home (“I’m more than just a party girl,” she cries while blowing her nose).
Though it seems almost everyone would cringe at the thought of having their identity so narrowly defined, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn said otherwise in the latest edition of The Hedgehog Review. Lasch-Quinn argues that modernity’s idea of “self” is in fact an edited narrative; the problem, though, is that everyone wants to write their own. And they want to write it through their experiences and actions, similar to the Bachelor contestant who proves to us that she’s free-spirited by never wearing a bra or shoes (or rather the producers prove to us by not showing all the shots that include bras and shoes). In this way, people can choose exactly who they want to be through carefully selected experiences, and thus their identity becomes one of self-creation.
The problem with self-creation being the focus of identity, Lasch-Quinn continues, is that most people have no idea who it is that they want to create. This is where self-help comes in: to create your self, you must find yourself. And if you’ve ever wondered how it is that you “find yourself,” look no further than Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, the 2006 novel that documented one woman’s post-divorce journey of finding out who she was by eating gelato in Italy, meditating in India, and falling in love in Bali. Essentially, Gilbert heralds a cult of peak experience and individual self-fulfillment in order to establish identity. It’s a type of Epicureanism, the idea that life is about seeking out and securing “the good things for yourself,” while firmly believing that you are in control.
The flaws of Gilbert’s approach are jumping out at you, I’m sure. First, the amount of time, money, and lack of responsibility required for her ideas exclude about 95% of the world from having a shot. Second, this type of self-creation doesn’t account for any type of connection with others and puts no weight on the profound experience of relationships. But despite major flaws, millions of Americans have come to identify Gilbert as their healer, teacher, and guru. In fact, last year a sequel of sorts was published titled Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It, which is the selected responses of nearly 50 readers who took their own journeys in response to Gilbert. Something Gilbert said must have struck a chord. My guess would be Gilbert’s emphasis on effort. In her original book she said,
Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.
By contrast, Lasch-Quinn abandons effort for her approach, recognizing that something exists beyond ourselves and that external forces act upon us:
[Lasch-Quinn’s perspective] might take more sustained attention to alternative philosophical views than to those that elevate experience over all, as a kind of compensation for the derivation of the resources needed for a soul to sit still and glory in the realization that a universe and a world of others exists beyond ourselves yet is inextricably tied to our very being.
We can imagine how Gilbert’s experience of pain, the type that causes you to feel like you don’t know who you are anymore, would be approached differently through Lasch-Quinn’s perspective. For Gilbert, this moment was when her marriage was ending, and her response was to channel her uncontrollable weeping on the bathroom floor into the gusto required to strive—I will move forward from here, I will find another partner, I will define myself by something better than this. Lasch-Quinn’s approach brings us closer to the Gospel because she allows us to experience suffering and grief, free from the burden of self-identity projects.
Lasch-Quinn might even just stay on the bathroom floor for a while, surrounded by tiles and the chaos of life. Because for her, whether she buys a plane ticket to Italy and eats pounds of gelato or keeps blowing her nose in a puddle of tears, experience doesn’t have much to do with identity. Gilbert’s identity plays out in the volatile arena of the mind where salvation is only one positive thought away, whereas Lasch-Quinn embeds identity in relationships with the outside world and the forces that act upon us.
When it comes to identity, the problem is not asking the question, “Who am I?” but in asking the question, “Who can I make myself into? Who can I become?” Lasch-Quinn takes no issue with self-understanding, but the therapeutic ethos surrounding identity calls for more than understanding. It beckons for us to create an image and fuels the Bachelor Nation’s desire to create neatly packed narratives that we could easily tweak to reiterate to a new employer or our boyfriend’s parents. Gilbert’s model is seductive because it hides the fact that we are constantly changing and our narratives are haphazard, chaotic, and complex. The tidy identity that Gilbert offers is also what brings her crashing down on the bathroom floor so many times—once it falls apart, she is left at square one, needing to create something entirely new.
Spoiler alert, but Gilbert ended up marrying a man in Bali, only to divorce him after the book was released. I can’t help but wonder if, yet again, she was on the bathroom floor somewhere desperately trying to write another version of herself that made sense after another failed marriage. God offers all of us something better than picking up our pens again; He gives us the grace and freedom to be messy people with messy narratives.
When we feel the coolness of the tile in our own bathroom meltdowns, we don’t have to pick ourselves up and get back to work constructing our narratives. We can stay there, trusting that the narrative God has written for us far surpasses our own, knowing that our failure to get it together was hung on the cross and taken care of; that our identities ultimately rest in Him and have nothing to do with our painful or chaotic circumstances.