If you haven’t read The Mermaid’s Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, or Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, than you’ve missed some pretty writing. If you have, then you’ve missed some crucial wisdom. The theme of these books, and the reason they resonate with real women, is a hearty dose of self-love. In them is a kind of truth, but only part of the truth, and therefore dangerously misleading.
Kidd, in particular, holds a mirror to the heart as she describes that numbly shocked feeling when you stop deciding thoughtfully and start deciding passively. When you simply allow one path to unfurl itself. Have you seen Donnie Darko? It’s like the pearly ribbon of what is about to happen stretching out before you, and you follow it, shakily, as if it were the only thing you could have done in that moment.
It is a partial truth because I think every woman has felt that tug of inevitability, and been an observer of her own life. Watched herself with the same fascinated horror with which she’d observe a car crash. In those moments, the action observed is all there is. Pasts, consequences, others, are remote. It is a world of feelings.
What these books do, by exploring only this first awakening of truth, is to glorify the idea of self-actualization, of destiny-by-emotion. Though Kidd’s heroine first feels the “peculiar vertigo, the peculiar humility, that comes from realizing what you are really capable of…” she soon finds a “sense of being out on the furthest frontier of [her]self. It was, despite those intermittent convulsions, a surprisingly beautiful place (p. 202).” The authors, and perhaps the readers, see this journey as complete, a discovery of self and transcendence over the shackles of an ordinary life.
In Romans, Paul views this self-discovery differently. For the believer, realizing the power of one’s passions catalyzes an awakening, but is not the awakening itself. Next comes the perspective by which we recognize not the sublime wisdom of the senses, but the culpability of passive acquiescence to them. In other words, we recognize sin and our powerlessness over it.
Kidd’s characters, Jessie and Whit, and Gilbert in her memoir, believe they have arrived at self-knowledge through this submission to their own impulses. And they have, but they have misinterpreted the knowledge. If you stop here, if you are delighted to see your new, uninhibited self, then you have chosen an ordinary marvel over an eternal joy. You have chosen to live inwardly, to be your own Platonic cave. Kidd calls this “an actual holiness;” Gilbert finds divinity within herself. Both have chosen the creature over the Creator.
In short: discovering this tendency in ourselves, the one that fills us with butterflies as we follow that pearly ribbon towards catastrophe, should lead to the rest, the vital part, of truth. That we are desperately in need of saving. Because without this, there is no gospel. Christ’s work is not for the blissfully self-absorbed. It is for those who, looking inward, found rot. It is for those who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, have been shown the dismal future to which they were enslaved and have reached, anguished, upwards, to the truly extraordinary.