Eat, pray, love: probably the three words readers most often associate with Elizabeth Gilbert. But the bestselling author had three new words to share with the crowd gathered for her Big Ideas session at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia on March 22.
“Priorities, boundaries, mysticism,” said Gilbert. “This is the path I’m taking.”
Gilbert, whose partner Rayya Elias died this year after a two-year battle with cancer, recounted how a deliberate approach to Elias’s illness and embracing the trauma helped her reframe what she wanted from her life. “It was extraordinary how galvanizing it was,” she said. “You can’t figure out what you care about if you don’t know what you don’t care about.”
Also drawing from her experiences as a struggling writer (“Twenty-five years ago, I was a young unpublished author in New York City, which means I was a waitress”), Gilbert urged the library professionals in attendance to “triage” their priorities and figure out what they are willing to give up to have the lives they want.
“You might even feel like your responsibility as a person of the world is to be anxious,” she said. “If your plan is, ‘I’m going to relax when everything is fixed’—how long are you planning to wait for that?”
She was quick to note the etymological and empirical differences between “worry” and “concern,” and how relaxation goes beyond stress reduction. Relaxation is not “white ladies getting hot stone massages” as the Google Image search results would have you believe, she said.
After figuring out priorities, Gilbert advised that boundaries are necessary. Conjuring vivid descriptions of the alpha mare in a herd of horses and her painful first divorce, she made the case for imparting a sacredness to one’s self-possession and the ability to say “no more.”
That final thing you need, said Gilbert, is mysticism. She stressed that mysticism transcends religion but concerns an interaction with mystery. “What we’re talking about here is a deep-rooted understanding that there is something going on here beyond what we can see.”
Gilbert’s advice had high application for the many public-facing and administrative employees at the session.
“The definition, for me, of mastery is the person who is most relaxed,” she concluded. “This is how you become an effective leader.”