As we go through life, each one of us embarks upon a perpetual quest in search of ‘meaning’: a meaning that will inspire personal transcendence and rationalize our existence in relation to the universe. Seemingly beyond the conception of humanity, this elusive and mysterious sense of ‘meaning’ is typically thought of in terms of God and divinity. Oftentimes, we seek this divine revelation through exterior outlets such as religion, marriage, parenthood, careers, and the acquisition of material objects; believing they will initiate personal growth. Prior to studying abroad in Bangkok, Thailand my junior year, I wholeheartedly subscribed to a tentative life plan I naïvely believed would guide my path to personal fulfillment. After graduation I would go to law school, become a lawyer, and attain true happiness through professional accomplishment. However, while in Thailand I was privileged enough to take part in a variety of informative experiences that forced me to reevaluate this plan, particularly my time spent volunteering at a local orphanage. Twice a week I would work with children ages 4-10, many of whom had developmental disabilities and had been entrusted to the ‘government wards’. Through my bi-weekly excursions to the orphanage I developed close friendships with the kids, firsthand encounters with the countries severe disparity of wealth, and, most importantly, I reached a period of profound self-discovery. When describing study abroad many students describe their experiences as “life-changing,” an adjective that I consider inadequate. My interactions with the children I worked with didn’t change me, but it did open my eyes to aspects of myself that I had either never noticed, or never fully appreciated. In tutoring students and helping them with their homework, I not only discovered something I was good at, I also encountered genuine happiness: a homeland. Internally, I had always known that a career in education would be fulfilling, but it took this firsthand experience to initiate an honest and open dialogue with myself. At that moment, I understood myself. By establishing my life plan before Thailand, I was bending to societal expectations and repressing my personal happiness, much like Elizabeth Gilbert.
Prior to her journey of spiritual enlightenment, Elizabeth Gilbert had descended into a dark, self-destructive existence. Disregarding her intuition, she made the mistake of allowing society to impose its expectations upon her: causing her to search for some sense of identity and self worth through her relationships with her ex-husband and David. Much in the same way that I organized my life in according to what I thought society wanted me to be, Liz settled for a life she knew she was ill suited for. However, she begins to liberate herself from this cycle of depression as early as Bead 4, when in a desperate appeal for help she enters into “an open and exploratory dialogue that would, ultimately, bring [her] very close to God, indeed” (Gilbert 16). In doing so, she is surprised when she directly addresses herself, saying, “go to bed Liz:” hinting at the remaining shreds of her autonomy. One of the central themes of Eat, Pray, Love is an individual’s ability to recognize the presence of God within them, as Liz later learns at the Ashram in India. According to the Yogis “we don’t’ realize that, somewhere within us all, there does exist a supreme Self who is eternally at peace. That supreme Self is out true identity, universal and divine” (Gilbert 122). This ‘supreme Self’ is evidence of the divine aspect within us all, that Liz begins to unravel as she journeys through Italy, India, and then Indonesia. Much like the open dialogue that my volunteer experience at the orphanage forced me to have with myself, Gilbert’s depression and subsequent journey helped her remember a part of herself that she had suppressed for far too long. Although beaten down and degraded to a point of hopelessness, she recognized that the only one who was capable of helping her progress to a sense of meaning and happiness was herself. When she finally finds her spiritual and physical homeland with Felipe in Bali, she remembers that “[she] was not rescued by a prince; [she] was the administrator of [her] own rescue” (329). Thus, you can only come to terms with your own reality once you are capable of honestly addressing your flaws, mistakes, and true ideas of happiness.