Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2011) Year: 2011
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Robert Frost said, ‘In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.’ For some people, like Elizabeth Gilbert, the going on of life comes with a formidable successor to her literary achievement of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’.
‘Eat, Pray, Love’ was about Gilbert’s odyssey of getting over a bad divorce, breaking through pathological relationship patterns, and somewhere, finding the method and wisdom of being good to herself. In the last portion of her journey (in Bali), she meets Felipe who she falls in love with. Felipe is a Brazilian trader of gemstones. He is also, in a way, the rasion d’etre of ‘Committed’. Here’s how.
Felipe and Gilbert spend great segments of time with each other (and also apart). Mostly, they stay together in the U.S., at times in Australia where Felipe has his business, and South-East Asia where he sources his gemstones. One day, though, the U.S. Immigration Department has plans. They decide that Felipe will not be allowed to enter America unless…Gilbert and Felipe get married.
Now, neither of them wants to marry. They have both gone through rough, soul-searing divorces. But something has to be done. The U.S. Immigration had ruled out every other possibility. Gilbert and Felipe were ‘sentenced’ to get married within a year.
From here begins a tender, wise account of how a skeptic of the institution becomes a part of it. Given Gilbert’s nature (i.e. – of someone curious about everything), this journey of reconciliation begins with research. At the outset, she lays down the framework of this research. She’d only study mainstream Western marriages. (A year would be too short to cover everything.) She’d study important academic papers on the subject (leaving out anything that was ‘indie’ or really specialized). She’d study her friends and family. And she’d tackle the toughest bit – her past experience of a failed marriage.
All that plumbing into depths of history and data result in interesting findings. Like there’s a piece where Gilbert traces the path of how marriage came to be considered a sacrament. It wasn’t always that way. Her initial investigations show that at one time, the Church actually scowled upon marriage, regarding it as an impediment to spiritual journey. (Marriage = wife = sex = impurity = No God.)
She also touches upon this custom amongst the ancient Chinese of ‘ghost marriages’ where a sacred union was allowed between a living woman (usually of rank) and a dead man. Iran, she observes, permits a ‘special 24 hour marriage pass’ that allows a couple to be married for a day and even legally have sex.
In her own family, she sees the marriage sentiment tied up in knots rather inconveniently. Her grandmother sheds light on the traditional virtues of marriage. Yet she tells Gilbert that it mustn’t get in the way of her writing. Her parent’s marriage displays an uneven equation. Her mother has clearly sacrificed more for her father but has also, in the bargain, controlled more of her father.
Friends (male, female, single, couples, rich, not-so-rich) recommend marriage, denounce it, seek it, avoid it.
At a societal level, more and more heterosexual people want to stay single. Yet more and more homosexual couples want to be married. (Gilbert makes an astute observation on how pointless opposing same-sex marriages is. In a world where people have become so disillusioned with marriage that they want to have nothing to do with it, here’s a group that is fighting to be members of that club. If anything, the survival of that institution hinges on such ardent participation. Why block it?)
Gilbert then pores over a study by Rutgers that lists down factors of resilient, successful marriages. (The study enumerates factors that predict how ‘divorce-prone’ a couple might be.) Some factors are age and religious commonality. (Younger couples are more likely to get separated while the same religion glues partners together.) Gilbert would tally up points against this list and see where her marriage with Felipe would stand in the scheme of things.
But marriage wasn’t a tidy little affair.
There was another, mysterious shimmering mass of paradox that had to be understood as an element of successful marriage – love. Felipe and Gilbert were moving from one small village in South-east Asia to another small village in South-East Asia. (They couldn’t be together in the U.S. because America wouldn’t have them. Felipe was broke so every other place was too expensive to pass a year in.) They fought on long travels in broken buses, they had heated arguments in cheap hotels, angry words were exchanged in public places. And in that prickly tangle of ego and hurt feelings, their love and relationship seemed to grow.
There are instances where Gilbert writes about what it means to understand – to really understand someone else. Like she understands how she and Felipe would always be different kinds of travelers. (She loved visiting places while he liked to go some place and live there.) Like how she knows his childhood stories and how they shaped him. (Young Felipe would be cold and snuggle up to his sister, begging for a warm spot on the bed. He would plead: “Me da um cantinho – give me a little corner. Now, through his exile in South East Asia, having no home of his own, moving from one province to another, all his tantrums were really pleas to Gilbert – to give him just that – a little corner.)
In a rather heartfelt section, Gilbert lays down her innermost fears and faults and asks Felipe if he really knows what he is getting into. He says he loves her ‘still’. And she asks “But how?” That, perhaps, is the one of the most admirable insights that Gilbert touches upon.
How do we accept someone so much that we flex out lives together? How did marriage, so commonly seen to be a rigid social obligation, become so accommodative to ride over the demands of every age? How?
Gilbert, somehow, gets these answers before Felipe and she ‘get hitched’.
Committed is a beautiful, deep book because it says many new things about marriage. And because it says many old things about marriage too. Marriage is often what you can make of it, sure. But the real gift though, as Gilbert explores with such temerity and kindness, is what marriage can make of you.