This episode was recorded as part of a live event hosted at Duke University as part of Convocation and Pastors School at Duke Divinity School. Learn more about Pastors School. Learn more about Duke Divinity School.
Read more great books by Elizabeth Gilbert by clicking here.
Elizabeth Gilbert gave a Ted Talk about Your Elusive Creativity Genius.
“Whenever you argue against reality, you loose.” Elizabeth mentions this quote by Byron Katie, from A Mind At Home with Itself.
Jack Gilbert was a poet who greatly influenced Elizabeth Gilbert. Kate references a quote from Jack Gilbert about “Do you have the courage.” Here is an Article from the Atlantic about Jack Gilbert’s influence on Liz.
Elizabeth mentions Martha Beck believes that the only purpose of life is to be with people you like, and doing things you like. You can learn more about Martha Beck’s work here.
Kate Bowler: I’m Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens. One day we’re kids who jump and play and imagine and dream. We build worlds that we live inside, sand castles and our own comic books, or we finger paint or build forts out of pillows. Or if you’re me, you write long chapter books about best friends who also love horses. But then somehow, some day we grow up, we stop playing, make believe and start worrying about our 401K’s, or if our kids are okay, or if we really found that job or purpose that we’re looking for in life, or if we’ll make this deadline, or get that promotion, or if our marriages or partnerships or friendships can make it through whatever is ahead, or if we’re ever going to outgrow that pain or that addiction, or just how to move forward without the people in our lives that we never imagined that we’d have to live without. Something somewhere along the way just gets pressed out of us. Maybe it’s wonder. Maybe it’s creativity. Maybe it’s a little bit of joy. But maybe those are the very things we need when life goes off the tracks. Wonder. Delight. Beauty. Curiosity. Play. Maybe that explains why when I started treatment for cancer, I started dragging everybody who’s ever loved me around to these world’s largest or world’s smallest statues within driving range. It’s just I needed to try to figure out a way to feel more. It was like I had to find that crack where the light gets in. Thank you, Leonard Cohen. And just kind of pry it open. The joy of doing something for no good reason at all except that it is beautiful, or funny, or ridiculous, or makes us laugh, is to me one of the great acts of humanity. But I just think it’s probably something that we have to make the space for even before we know what we’re going to put in it, maybe, especially when our lives are so pinched. I wanted to talk to someone about that, and I realized there was one person. I wanted to talk to more than anyone else. And she understands bounce and the joy of creativity for absolutely no reason whatsoever. And her name is Elizabeth Gilbert. Liz is best known for her 2006 memoir called “Eat Pray Love”, which chronicled her journey looking for comfort and change and something new after a really painful divorce. That book was an international bestseller, translated into over 30 languages, and it’s sold over 12 million copies worldwide. And it was later made into a movie starring the ineffable Julia Roberts. But the book became so popular that Time magazine named Elizabeth one of the 100 most influential people in the world. And since then, she’s written gorgeous fiction and nonfiction, like “Committed” and “The Signature of All Things” and “City of Girls”. But I especially love, it’s my very favorite book on creativity. It’s her book called “Big Magic Creative Living Beyond Fear”. I invited Liz to join me for a live conversation here at Duke University where I work and live. Basically live on campus. Such is life. But I really thought all of you, my dear listeners, should hear her incredible wisdom, too. I really hope you like our conversation. Here goes.
Kate: Hello Lovely. Oh, we may all be having that strange zigzagy feeling our lives get where we thought they would take a straight line. And then they kind of fell off a cliff. And then we look at ourselves in the mirror and we’re like, Oh. How’d that happen? And I guess one of the things that worries me right now is that one of the things that we can have as adults is that feeling of joy and beauty that is still possible, but that gets crushed out of us as adults. So I thought maybe we could start there. Why? Perhaps what? Our job titles such a terrible description of what we’re capable of. It’s going to trail off now.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Ellipsis And.
Kate: Why are we this way? And Go.
Elizabeth: Thank you for your question. And my job insight is about. Joy being crushed. Out of our souls. And spirit until we’re flattened with despair. Yeah. Let’s just start with that.
Kate: That’s exactly where we are starting.
Elizabeth: Great to meet you Kate. It’s just your work it’s so uplifting and, and
Kate: And yes, Lovely.
Elizabeth: I don’t know anybody who after the age of, like, 35, at the most, maybe 40, could not write a memoir with the same title. And that title would be not exactly what I had planned, right. Like I feel like that’s literally the description of everybody’s life. And I don’t know why we were kept in the dark about that, because we, and maybe it’s this culture that just continues to believe that you can create a purpose driven life and that you can and that you can chart and curate your life. And it can go exactly the way that you want it to. And we. But why does anybody believe that? Because their lives aren’t like that either. The people who wrote those books have terrible losses and divorces and crushing illnesses and deaths in the family and impossible things. So I guess the first thing is to normalize. There is no solid ground under our feet and the futility of making long term plans with anything but the lightest touch. Like maybe I’ll stay with this person forever. Maybe they’ll leave me for my best friend. Maybe I’ll have children. Maybe I won’t be like, We don’t know. What’s it like? It’s there’s so much uncertainty and so start there. Like, instead of starting with trying to especially now, instead of starting with trying to wrench control out of chaos, which I feel like is the soul crushing thing. I feel like that is where the spirit gets pancaked is when you’re like Byron Katie says. Whenever I argue against reality, I lose. One of the things you lose is joy. Yeah, right. Because you’re just in such a ferocious argument against life on life’s terms, or as non addicts apparently call it, life, like you’re in such a ferocious argument against it that that’s all you’re doing. Yeah, it’s like wrestling against it. And then how can you possibly find joy in that? So I think, yeah, the acceptance of the chaos and the groundlessness is the beginning of the possibility of joy.
Kate: It’s such an anti-American thing that you just said though, because self-help is our I mean, they they invented the poor New York Times in 1984. It was like, screw it, we’re just going to have to make a category for this genre because it’s all of the books that anyone reads. It’s the Formulas. It’s the checklists, it’s. The mastery, certainty, feeling that we get hooked on. And then I imagine when it becomes sand, we feel purposeless and, well, like, just like a fate, like a failure.
Elizabeth: And maybe. Well, here that here’s the other thing I have problem with that it makes me very anti-American. This is my very like if you think I was anti-American, it’s there is a pathological obsession. And I don’t use the word pathological pathology lightly here in this country with making sure that your life has a higher purpose, than just having a life. Which is already pretty incredible. Like just having a life is already pretty amazing. But that’s not good enough. It has to be a purposeful life. So this is the formula that we’ve all been fed and we’ve been fed it our entire lives. You’ve heard it in every commencement speech. You’ve heard it in every inspirational speech. And it’s each of you is born with a special gift. Each of you has one unique offering. That’s why you were sent here. To find what that is. The one thing that you can do that literally nobody else can do. It’s your job in life, your purpose to uncover what that thing is. And then once you find it, you must foster it and master it and curator until you are at the top of that thing that only you can do. And then you must monetize it. Because if you don’t monetize it, you’re not really successful at it. It’s just a hobby. You must monetize it, but it’s not enough to monetize it and be very successful at it. You must be an opportunity creator for other people within this purpose that you created, so that you bring other people who uplift other people with your purpose. And it’s not enough that you uplift other people and you monetize it. You must leave a legacy. You must leave a legacy so that when you are gone, generations after you’re gone, the world is a changed place because you were here. No pressure, but that is literally what you have been taught. Am I wrong? Is that not literally what you have been taught? So everybody that I know is struggling from so much purpose anxiety that they can’t live? And what if that’s totally wrong? Nobody ever questions it. But what if that’s totally wrong? What if I have literally no idea what my purpose is? I don’t know. I can take some guesses at it, but I can remember walking down the street one time in Los Angeles before an event and I had an hour to kill and I was just noodling about and there was a guy and he had a ladder and he was standing at the top of a ladder painting a sign on his awning. And the ladder was unstable, I could clearly see. And I grew up with a jackass father who was always at the top of a dumb ladder doing ridiculous things. So I’m programed to like hold the ladder like. So I ran across four lanes of traffic in L.A. and I held the ladder for 45 minutes for this guy. He didn’t even know I was there. I had nothing else to do. I just, you know, and I was like, this is such a like, really great way for me because I don’t have to worry about him, you know? So I held the ladder and like it was a nice day and it was fine. And as he came down, when he reached a period of safety, I peeled off and I walked away and he never knew I was there. We never had any interaction. And as I walked away, I thought, this is when I gave up purpose, anxiety. I was like, What if that was literally the purpose of my life?
Elizabeth: Like, what if not that kind of thing? I literally that. Like, what if. Like they put me here because like they needed somebody in sector eight, you know, like neighborhood 11 and 0900 hours in order to make sure that that guy didn’t fall off his ladder because he’s really needed for some little piece of the cosmic puzzle. And what if my purpose has been served and now I can just hang out. You know, like it? And and what if all this other stuff I’ve done was just me killing time before they needed me at the ladder station that moment. You know what? What if you lived that way? You know, like, truly, what if you lived that way instead of the other way that I just laid out? That makes me break out in hives. And you just looked for the next right thing to do. And while you were waiting to be notified of a ladder to hold, you could just do some, like paint by numbers and garden and hang out with people that you like.
Kate: Your right, My favorite moment in Bill Murray’s character for Groundhog’s Day, where every day at a certain time he catches someone, that falls down from a tree. And I imagine the rest of his day he was like, Well, I’ll just come and.
Elizabeth: And now I’ve got my appointment to catch the guy
Kate: I do worry for one of the things that is a pretty unifying experience for Everything Happens type people is that they have either gone through something really difficult and then there’s an intensity around, well, what I have left is really precious to me. And so I think a lot of a feeling of desperation to make the most of everything which can be heavy and light depending on how it feels in the day. And then also a lot of people who are what I love describing as emotionally expensive professions. So they do they feel deeply called to teaching, nursing, pastoring, a lot of showing up when they don’t want to. Linda needs you there on Wednesday. Linda doesn’t care how you feel Wednesday morning and if you slept you know. And I I love hearing them describe the feeling of being called from outside of themselves. And yet I do feel the weariness of then not being able to do anything for no reason. Like I asked my beautiful, beautiful community. Yes, yes, you are to maybe write in some of the things that you used to do when you had free time and there was a lot of, surprising amount of piccolo. But climbing trees, finger painting, Irish dancing, writing poetry, a lot of like just doing it, but being not afraid, embroidery, gardening. People were very committed to rollerblading and I don’t think the nineties it felt current. When I was reading it. But just the sense of or dumb team sports like there’s I mean maybe this is maybe we’re explaining pickleball right now, but the feeling of not having everything be quite so burdened, especially for people who have like a lot of obligations.
Elizabeth: I have a friend who always says to me, Liz. She says, because that’s my name. Why am I like an old timey raconteur right now? She says to me, In my long life, I’ve learned. She says to me. Is there anything you can’t do? Just a little bit of? Like, is there anything, no matter how good that you can’t figure out a way to overdo? Like, is there any like. Like, so even the really good things that I do for my life, it’s like I’ll always cranked up to ten, you know? And so if you’re calling is to serve. But you turn it into a grind. I’m not sure that’s what the call was. Right. And now I’m not saying that that’s easy. Everything in this culture is a grind because it’s a very pushy grind, hard hardcore culture. Right, so it’s difficult to do anything a little bit like the culture doesn’t want you to do anything a little bit either. So. So, you know, when you were saying about, like, getting the most out of life, you know, the thought that that ran through my head was like, what if you tried getting the least. Like.
Kate: Liz. Liz. Liz. Liz you are just getting to know me but I can ruin anything.
Elizabeth: I mean, me too, you know, and, and, and I have a really I have a very strong connection with the God of my understanding who is very affectionate and very funny because that’s the God I need. And, and, and when I’m like, am I doing enough? Like, that’s a whole thing of mine is am I doing enough? Have I produced enough? Have I helped enough? Have I left a legacy? Have I like? Am I serving your purpose God? Like do you, you know, are you satisfied with me, Lord? Have I have I have I taken too much and given to whatever, you know whatever, I always have this feeling of this very affectionate presence saying, Yeah, when I’ve got something for you to do, you’ll be notified. And it will be very clear. Oh, and until then, be cool for 2 minutes. Like, be cool for 2 minutes because you can’t hear me when you’re grinding so hard at trying to be so good, right? Like, you actually can’t hear me calling the call that I’ve brought. It’s not a one and done like God doesn’t call me once and then set me on my path. God’s like, Hey, I’m going to need you to hold that ladder for 45 minutes. Like, Hey, I’m going to need, you know, but I need to be available to that and for me to be available to that. Honestly, I have to say no to a lot of things. I have to say no to a lot of opportunities to prove what a good person I am, in order to be rested enough to be available to hear where what I think of as my higher, higher power wants me to be next, which might not necessarily be where my ego wants me to be next. Does that make sense?
Kate: I, how would I then experience the fatigue that lets me know what a good person I am.
Elizabeth: There’s a line in Big Magic there is a British wit who said You can always tell people who live for others by the exhausted expressions on the faces of the others. There’s also that.
Kate: I’m helping you, damn it. I hope will be my very last words.
Elizabeth: Yes, I am being good at you. I am being helpful at you.
Kate: You can pry this good out of my cold dead hands.
Elizabeth: You’ll never forget this thing I’ve done for you.
Kate: Yes, yes. That is. That will be my legacy. Yes, exactly. Yes. it will be death by Ennegram 2.
Kate: You have this beautiful line from the poet Jack Gilbert that I just I think about about once a week. And it is. “Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.” When you describe wanting, needing to say no, just picture like putting things down in order to even notice the little glitter of something else that is beautiful, that shines that discernment, that prudential wisdom, that sounds like it needs a certain kind of courage.
Elizabeth: It does and again, everyone will be against it. Like this is the thing. Like it requires a kind of fortitude to disappoint people a lot. Yeah, and I did Quentin’s podcast recently, and she said, We always ask our guests for like, one thing that you can do to make your life better. And I was like, Disappoint somebody today, disappoint somebody today, get used to it. It’s good for them. It’s good for me when I get disappointed. I it’s I don’t like being nobody likes hearing the word no. I don’t like hearing the word no. And then I have to process that and I have to learn how to be okay with the fact that I can’t have everything I want when I want it. And that’s a good thing for me. So it’s actually mutually beneficial to learn how to say no. And and there’s a line I read I wish I could remember was in the New York Times. There’s an article recently and there was and she was a female artist who died recently and she said, this is a really important thing for me as a creator. She said, My solitude has absolutely no intrinsic value to anybody but me. I am valued in my community and in my relationships by how much of myself I give to people. And nobody gets anything out of me being alone and quiet except me. And therefore I have to be the guardian of that because no one else is going to protect it for me, because they don’t want me to be alone and quiet. They want me to be doing stuff for them. And so you have to get sort of ferocious about, I won’t function correctly if I don’t have this amount of time to sleep. I won’t be able to write books, if I don’t say no to 90% of the invitations that I have. I won’t be able to hear my higher power if I’m serving everybody else’s needs too much. And there is a wisdom, I don’t know. I’ve gotten better at it as I’ve gotten older. Going through losses has helped. When my partner Reya was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I got really good at it, you know, because suddenly I was like, boy, are my priorities clear? Like, this person is my priority. And that’s about it right now. You know, the world will eat you like moths and you won’t be available for hearing the call. You won’t be available for loving the people that you truly love. I really have to decide who I don’t care about and what I don’t care about, because the honest truth is, there’s a lot of people I don’t care. I mean, I care about them in a general way as human beings, but I don’t their urgency is not my emergency. Their thing that they want me to be doing, that they want me to lend my mine. I’m like, this isn’t my mission. You know, like I’ve got these people who I care about. I’ve got these political causes that I care about. I’ve got this work that I care about, and I’ve got to keep it small or else I’m not going to make it. And I’m going to be one of the 70 to 80% of Americans who are suffering from chronic anxiety right now. It’s not working right. Like, can we just agree that? And how slavishly do you want to follow the mores of a culture that is literally destroying itself and the world? Like how sincerely do you want to be obedient to what that culture teaches you about how you have to live? Look what that culture is doing to our actual planet and everybody on it. It’s not working for anybody. So there has to be a certain level of rebellion. When you said courage, I feel like it’s almost more like it’s rebellion against that. It’s a stubborn rebellion against that. Like, I’m not joining you on this definition of like this martyred living of.. just I can’t do it. (clapping) People are selfish says author Elizabeth Gilbert when she comes to speak to the Duke Divinity School.
Kate: Well, I think People I think it was pretty overwhelming to suddenly then. I’m just thinking of if someone’s a pastor of a congregation to suddenly then be a televangelist and the tech person and tried desperately to make themselves during the worship portion. And, I mean, it’s been very difficult to have these. Who are our people? Where are they? How do I know if my efforts are being poured into the right places and how and how do I allow people to then pour into mine? It’s so hard when we’ve got such a endlessly instrumentalized language for everything. I remember the first time I thought I would try to write creatively instead of alone, instead of write history books which are difficult. But it was just like it felt like a shirt being turned inside out all of a sudden, and it felt very strange. But then when I was done, the comments were, wasn’t that very therapeutic? Or or didn’t you just write that so you could help people? And the truth was, I was only just trying to learn to be alive when in my world felt so small and impossible. And I was desperate to to have a witness to whatever this is that we get. And writing can just slow it down and make it suddenly shimmery again. And it feels lovely to have anything to discover right now instead of just, like, just keep pace all the time.
Elizabeth: That’s so beautiful. And I mean, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’m going to. When I say, it sounds as though you wrote that because you couldn’t help it, right? Like you couldn’t help it. Yeah. Like you needed to, wanted to and longed to be in the sweetness that that strange pulling sweetness of like. Gosh, there’s something I’m trying to say about something that can’t be spoken. Let me see if I can do it. Yeah, I know.
Kate: And it was usually terrible. Like the worst thing I ever wrote, which is sentence I don’t know why I’m finishing right now. But people, I think because the promise of heaven is great and beautiful. And but I knew that leaving a kid behind would be impossible. So I wrote the promise of heaven to me is this. One day I will grow a new set of lungs and I will swim away. But first I will drowned. And like,.
Kate: Sometimes we just, like, we just kind of, like, dig out life for whatever it is. So I. The noticing you’re very good noticer. Earth has a very sparkly. It’s the digging I want everyone to still have in our culture that just likes it when we’re moving.
Elizabeth: Well, you can’t do it if you’re thinking, Am I having an impact? Well, also, you can’t know. You can not know. I mean, I think the most humble way to move through the world is. I can’t know. Yeah, I can’t know. I can’t know why I’m here. Like, that’s what’s so arrogant about the purpose driven life. There’s such cultural arrogance in it to assume that you can know why you were born. Like you can take some guesses, but we don’t even know what consciousness is. We literally have no idea what’s going on here. It’s very Jobian in terms of like have you. Have you seen the have you measured the breadth of heaven? Were you there when light was invented? Like, do uou have any idea? Do you feed the wild raven? No, I do not. You know. I can barely. Fucking feed myself, you know, like, so I. I just think, like, I feel the angst. I see this in so many people I see. And it makes me want to cry. They won’t make a thing because they are convinced that it won’t make an impact. And so they stop before they begin because they’re like, Well, this already exists. Somebody already did this. Nobody wants this. My voice isn’t needed. I don’t have it, you know? And it’s like, who gives a shit? Like who literally. I’m sorry. I’m going to get all cursey here in front of your pastors, but like. But who literally cameras what the impact is. I said it a million times to people. I’m like, You will be a different person at the end of this creative experience than you were at the beginning of it. Why is that not enough? Why does it then have to, like, land on everybody? Like, do the thing you can’t help doing? That’s it. That’s what God wants you to be doing. Because the thing you can’t help doing is actually God’s voice saying, come and do this thing with me like and don’t worry about why we can’t know why anything or why anything.
Kate: It is a strange act of God’s bizarre love that we feel stirred to make things that don’t always have a why anywhere near them. I mean, I just. I watched my kid make up things that are just useless all day.
Elizabeth: And they’re great.
Kate: They are. Yes, absolutely.
Elizabeth: They’re Great And Useless is the title of my next book about creativity.
Kate: For no good reason.
Elizabeth: That is actually what I think creativity is. And I think it’s, you know, the evidence that when I hear people say, I don’t have a creative bone in my body. First of all, I say, you’ve just taken a stand on that, like you just took a stand on that. When you said that, like sometimes it’s like, think of the things you’re saying that you’re taking a stand on. You know, I’m standing on this ground. I don’t know if.
Kate: You can you can’t prove to me I am creative.
Elizabeth: Ok, you didn’t listen. I’m not going to you know, I don’t want to get a fight with you about it, but I will because you’re wrong. And because the evidence we are the creative ape, it it’s what it’s literally what we do with every single inch of this planet has been altered by human creativity. We we make things. We change things. We alter things. Every single one of your ancestors was creative. Every single one of them. Every single one. You know, your children show up and you put like colors in front of them. Then, like, I know how to do this. Like they know how to do like they know how to do it instinctively. They want to do it. They want to play with form. They want to play with shape. They want to play with stories. They want to play with songs. They want to play with imagining that there’s something else. Like it’s what we literally do. And one of the great tragedies is that this culture has professionalized it. And the term like there’s a term I hate so much, “a creative”. I’m a creative. It makes like it makes me flinch because it’s like, first of all, who isn’t? Secondly, like, that’s a class now. Like we’ve put it into a class that if you’re not in that class, then you don’t get to be in that class. And that’s just really wrong. Yeah. And I think about my grandparents, my, my grandparents are were depression era farmers in northern Minnesota during the Depression, Lutherans, Scandinavians. These are the least happy people who have ever lived. Like these are the least free. Let me put it this way. These are the least free people who have ever lived. Like these people are strict.
Kate: Pizza, no you never eat pizza.
Elizabeth: NO, You don’t have like salt is something you use sparingly and pepper. You hide from the children like you don’t. These are not risk taking people. These are very, you know, these were not people who would call themselves artists or bohemians based on, you know, like there’s none of that spirit. But they made things that were so achingly beautiful, and they were far more beautiful than they needed to be. Yeah. These are the most pragmatic people who have ever lived. My grandmother and my great grandmother’s quilts are so beautiful that their descendants put them in frames and hang them on walls. They didn’t have to be that beautiful. Yes, they had to make quilts because their kids were cold and they couldn’t afford to buy new fabric. And it was a good use of scraps, but it didn’t have to look like that. Yeah, right. What is that? Like, that these people have no free time. My grandmother was pregnant nine times, lost multiple children. They were always on the brink of losing the farm. Their life was nothing but strain. Why did she take time, she didn’t have to make something more beautiful than it needed to be because she couldn’t help it.
Kate: Yeah, that’s right.
Elizabeth: The same reason that you wrote your book. You couldn’t help it. The same reason I went traveling for Eat, Pray, Love. We can’t help it. Beauty is part of our inheritance and it’s you get to do it. And if you don’t do it, I don’t mean this threateningly, but if you put it aside because you’re like, nobody wants this. No, I can’t monetize this. I can’t leave a legacy with this. It’s already out there in the world. Yeah. There’s a part of you. This journey through this very difficult experience in human form is even harder if you don’t allow yourself to give in to making something that you can’t help making because it’s so beautiful. It’s even harder.
Kate: It’s so good. That’s so good. Because I love it when you call it like, creative is like amplified living. That’s how the every time I look at you, I want to do shimmery. I’m trying to do shimmer hands because it feels.
Elizabeth: Is this shimmering hands?
Kate: This is the like ahhhhh. And it’s just like
Kate: That reminds me of every time I have the greatest grouchy grandfather in the in all of the whole of the world. And and but he kept a rock polishing machine, which is enormous and very loud around just because when I would pick one up and then he would put it in the machine, then after we could just stare at the way the facets or something lovelier than they were before. And then we noticed every dumb beautiful rock. And when you describe creativity, I think, yes, I would like to notice more dumb, beautiful rocks.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And make nothing out of it. You know what I mean?
Kate: Oh I own all these rocks now.
Elizabeth: Well, There you go. But like, oh, that’s what you and your grandfather did was literally the whole thing. It was like I found of rock. Let’s polish it. Now, we’re going to look at it and that’s it.
Kate: Yeah. No one. Which I did try sell a rock. He lived in a trailer park right near the border, and I tried to sell them, try to see. People were like, rocks are already available.
Elizabeth: Please read Kate’s new memoir “Selling Rocks on the Border” coming out this time next year. Dumb, beautiful rocks another great time for a memoir. Yeah, like, why does there have to be a reason?
Kate: Yeah, I last week, I just met Thomas Lynch, that incredible poet and funeral director. Amazing, amazing combination of words together in a sentence. And I’m obsessed with him. But we were talking about why build beautiful coffins? And this feels like a good because he’s I mean because in half of his book, he’s like the dead don’t care. They don’t need that. And he said, well, if we do good and beautiful things, then it gets the dead to where they need to go and the living to where they need to be.
Elizabeth: Oh, Katie
Kate: The argument about where where we what happens when we polish all our dumb rocks, you know?
Elizabeth: Wow, wow.
Kate: I want was wanted like a cure for like perfectionism, because when I see it in people, the lightness of it, even when they are doing things and it’s almost like they just look at it like my friend, Will, who I suspect. Oh, Will, every talk I’m going to talk about, you know, I’m so sorry, but this is the friendship for a thousand years. And my friend Will writes a new book every year and he doesn’t seem to be bothered by how no one else knows how that’s possible. And but he does stuff like this where he’s like. Just like like I made you this wooden snake. Like no one, no one asked for a wooden snake. There’s great pride. He’s doing a lot of, like, dangerous woodworking, a lot of just light amputation. And like a mountain home which feels further from medical care. But I think the secret of Will Willimon, I think is the mmhmm hmm hmmm ha ha ha ha. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. He just, like, does something else. Like, he went through a very long stick phase where, like, everything was made out of sticks. Uh huh. And like a strong watercolor. Several years. And like a mermaid made of shells. And you’re like, why? But he knows why.
Elizabeth: Like, does he know why? Yeah. I don’t even know why I make the things I make.
Kate: When I look. I just. There has got to be some people who have figured out how to turn down the volume of perfectionism. And then regardless of whether they make, I mean, unnecessary. I mean, I guess all beauty is wonderful
Elizabeth: Do you ever tell your friend, Will, you know, I could go to the store and buy my own wooden snake, and you could have more time to be productive in other ways.
Kate: But it says on the back and he wrote it marker. Kate’s snake, and then I put it up.
Elizabeth: See, I want to live in that world. It’s such a better world. And I think, yeah, so I think like for about perfectionism, I think we, it helps to call it by its real name, which is terror. Oh. And, and it’s and it’s a, it comes out of a place of tremendous lack and and tremendous fear that you’re not enough. That you don’t have enough. That you’ll never be enough. That you’re supposed to be more. Yeah. That your life has to be constantly proven and earned. Yeah.
Kate: Proven and earned those are good words.
Elizabeth: Are aren’t they? Yeah. You know, and, and you have to prove it and earn it through all these torturous tests that never really succeed. And the freaky thing about perfectionism, and it makes sense, but this culture really honors it. And it’s often considered to be a good trait when you’re at a job interview. I care too much about anything, you know, like. Like, you know,.
Kate: You never let us go. Like, you’ll.
Elizabeth: Like. I just I won’t let the job go till it’s done right. You know, there’s so but it’s so fear based. It’s so lack based. It’s so. Yeah, yeah, it’s. And it’s a it’s a real joy killer. Yeah.
Kate: I have a lot of questions about fear because it feels like it’s the byproduct of the really good things and the really terrible things. I’ve been really struggling to like. I always try to imagine right sizing it to the room I’m in, but that takes so much work because if something terrible happens. Diagnosis, just even scan intervals, then everything is terrifying. Not enough time or friends who get, you know, relationships and or friendships atrophy and like, oh, I guess I’m never going to love again. So all the terrible things like constrict us, but then the good things can have the same effect too. You know, I did something lovely. That’s. Yes, that’s a one and done one hit wonder. That’s never going to happen. I’ve Peaked. How many times do you hear people say that?
Kate: Like totally. That’s right
Elizabeth: Yikes! Peaked? On who’s scale? Who’s measuring?
Kate: Just an avalanche downward, now. It does. How do we stay in that kind of softer, gentler, more open place when fear feels like the most natural byproduct of all things, bad and good?
Elizabeth: So I’ve got a friend who’s working on a book about this right now. My friend Martha Beck, but she’s working on a book about this because she’s like, Why has fear taken over so ferociously where, like, anxiety really is the true pandemic and and it’s spreading so much and it’s so why are we so incredibly terrified? And anyway, what she’s been sharing with me every I’m always like, tell me more, because I’m a very fearful, anxious person. But my saving grace is that I have this much more curiosity than I have fear. And I have a lot of fear, but I have a lot of curiosity, too. But she just tips the scale. All you have to have is like 1% more curiosity. And I wrote that in Big Magic because that’s just been my own lived experience. But Martha called me the other day to say, It turns out you’re right. It turns out that the mirror the mirror opposite. So fear lives on the left side of the brain. And it’s like down here and it’s like, oh my God, we’re all going to die. Everything’s terrifying. It’s lack. It’s it’s like there’s a there’s a clock ticking. Everything’s going to be taken away. Even if it’s good, it’s worse because then you lose the good thing, don’t you know? It’s like, be careful. You’re only like, just horrible. And then wrapped around that center of the brain, there’s another part of the brain that sees that fear and is like, I will fix this by controlling everything, right? And that’s where the perfectionism comes in, where it’s like all all the perfectionism is trying to do is to control the fear. Yeah, right. So it’s like I will learn everything about this subject so that we don’t have to be afraid of it. It turns out that there are very few things you can do that are worse for anxiety than learning about things like learning about things is apparently very bad for your mental health. And we’ve now created a culture where we have the Internet, so you can just go on these dives so that like learning. Apparently it doesn’t take fear away. You think it seems like it would be.
Kate: Like pre-worked
Elizabeth: Like if I could master this, then I wouldn’t have to be afraid of it anymore. Yeah. And like so that’s the Google deep dive at 4 a.m. when you’re trying to get all the information about something so that you won’t fear it anymore. But you wake up and you’re you’ve never been more afraid. Right? So these two things just get in this feedback loop where it’s like fear, control, fear, control. Like panic, learn more, panic, learn more. The learning just fed the panic. And now there’s more things to be worried about and and what. But the right side of the brain is, like, Pretty. Soft. What’s this? Does it smell like something? What happens if you put like these, like this and you like. I might take this? Like, what if I make a like. And where the left side of the brain is like, don’t do anything like shut it down. The right side of the brains like, what happens if I poke that? Like, what happens if I smell that? What happens if I eat that? What happens if I kiss that person? What happens if I go to this country? Like, what happens if I and all it wants to do is play? Like all it wants to do is what we would might like maybe call play. And the right side of the brain activities include cooking, and going for walks outside like, and and drawing and actually reading is a right side of the brain activity as long as it’s not learning. So learn it like don’t learn, just read you know.
Kate: Your right side is so frisky. I love it.
Elizabeth: No more learning. You’ve done enough. What if, so going back to what I started with with all of us could write a memoir called Not Exactly What I Planned. Yeah, the ellipsis after that could be. But but this is interesting, you know, like, wow, that’s interesting. I didn’t see this coming, but, like, what? What could this unfold? You know? And so if you can stay interested, yeah, apparently you can stay out of panic attacks.
Kate: So interesting. Like it pulls the little thread and then it, and then it kind of pulls you into the bigger experience of because then you’re back in love and then the desire to be known again and then all the things that kind of pull you back into that horrible interdependence that makes our lives.
Elizabeth: Horrible interdependence. You have the best book titles. That’s also great book title.
Kate: It’s a gift. That curiosity you’re describing where reminds me of Lanecia Ross Tinsley is this lovely abstract artist and also a Duke Divinity School person. She just lost her baby and she had been commissioned to make all these really enormous abstract pieces. And so she bought these just ridiculously big canvases and they just sort of sat around accusing her of not being productive. And she would walk by them, but she felt so in that terrible place where she was. In a world surrounded by loves she can’t live without. And but she felt the nagging feeling of that big story. And she said something to herself that I that’s always stuck with me. She said, I look at them and then I am reminded that these blank canvases will not remain blank forever. And like that, our creativity pulls us into curiosity and into hope, and then back around through all the work of beauty and despair. And Liz, you insist that we pay attention to the absurdity, the pain and the glory of our lives. And for that, I am so grateful that you’ve been with us tonight. We keep our lovely guests around.
Kate Bowler: Inspired by the words of our dear Liz Gilbert. Let’s bless you before you go. Okay. In your best thought and in your most boring one. Bless you. In your fear and in your courage. Bless you. Bless your reaching for more and bless your paying glorious attention to the wonderful ordinariness and shocking miracle that is your life. Bless you. Go in peace, my loves. I’ll talk to you next week. A really special thank you to our generous partners who make this work possible. Lilly Endowment. The Duke Endowment. Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And to my wonderful team. Jessica Richie, Harriet Putnam, Gwen Hegginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Keith Weston, Jeb and Sammy. Thank you. And I would love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you do me a favor and leave a review on Apple Podcasts? It really, really means a lot to us when we get to hear what we do well and also might even do better. You can also leave us a voicemail and who knows? We might even be able to use your voice on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online at Kate C. Bowler. This is Everything Happens with me. Kate Bowler.