In Common

In Common May 3, 2010

I fully admit I haven’t been writing here as much I I should.  Or as I want to.  It has something to do with this little hobby I have called work . . . but also, I’ve been writing regularly for the Associated Baptist Press and, let’s just be honest: even I don’t have that much to say.  I’ve decided, though, that it’s not so much about having something to say, at least for me, as it is about the discipline of shaping the words.  So, I’m going to try to do better.

Here are some thoughts based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Committed, that I got to thinking as I was studying the Acts 11 passage this week and thinking about how our differences often divide us when, ironically, we share so much more in common than we even realize sometimes:

If coveting is a sin, I’m guilty.

A few years ago Elizabeth Gilbert had a moderately successful career as a published author.  She could list a few published books on her resume and spent most of her professional life writing articles for publications like GQ Magazine.  Not too shabby.  After living through a particularly difficult personal crisis a few years ago, Gilbert somehow got the go-ahead from her publisher to spend a year traveling the world writing her next book.

(Insert coveting here.)

The end result of that year of travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia was the blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, in which Gilbert documents her personal recovery and discovery of a different way of looking at life.

As you might imagine, her life changed a little bit after every single person in the literate world bought a copy of and voraciously read her book.

(Again, covet.)

Soon after that, Gilbert began work on her next book, Committed, which is something of a sequel to Eat, Pray, Love.  The subtitle of Committed is: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, and it is, in effect, Gilbert’s anthropological psuedo-study of marriage in different cultures around the world.  She had to travel all over the world for ANOTHER year to write this book, poor thing (more sinning for me here), and it’s a really good read.  I recommend both if you haven’t read them.

At the beginning of her new book, Gilbert tells the story of starting her exploration of marriage in the various cultures of the world by traveling to a very remote village in North Vietnam, where she met a twelve year old girl named Mai.  This particular village was populated by the Hmong, a very small ethnic minority that live in the highest mountain peaks of Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and China.  Their culture is independent of the countries in which they live, and Gilbert describes encountering them to be maybe like what it might be like to walk into a community of Mohawk Indians who are still in upstate New York today, dressing in traditional Mohawk clothes, speaking their original language, and living just as they had when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

In an effort, then, to begin her research, Gilbert asked 12 year old Mai, to introduce her to some of the women in the village.  After hiking up a little path over a steep hill they arrived at Mai’s stone house, in which a group of women were weaving, cooking, and cleaning.  This was a perfect group to which Gilbert could pose her questions, so, with the translating help of 12 year old Mai, she began.  First, she asked the group, “What did you think of your husband the first time you met him?”

The response she got was foreheads wrinkled in puzzlement and the thought that perhaps something had gone wrong with the translation process, so Gilbert tried again: “When did you realize that your husband might be somebody you wanted to marry?”

Bafflement.

One more try: “Did you know that he was special right away, or did you learn to like him over time?”

Still none of them seemed to be able to understand the questions.  Finally, Gilbert asked: “When did you fall in love with him?,” to which the entire room erupted in peals of laughter.  It was in that moment that Gilbert began to discover what she would find almost everywhere she went: that different cultures around the world take wildly divergent views of the institution of marriage.

There was no question that this was the case, from the very beginning of her exploration of the subject.  However, by the end Gilbert would discover, ironically, that the concept of romantic love is a universal human experience.  That is, in every single human culture across the history of the world, across every possible social, religious, gender, age, or cultural boundary, people live the thrill of an attraction and the despair of a broken heart.

Poignantly, Gilbert tells the story of a concert of Mongolian throat singers, who sang songs with words no one could understand but that sounded deeply, unbearably sad.  After the concert the lead singer answered the question, “What are your songs about?” with the answer: “Our songs are about the same things that everyone else’s songs are about: lost love, and somebody stole your favorite horse.”

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  • jess

    hey now, didnt you go to hawaii all summer to write?? =)