Gift From The Sea – An Exercise in Selfishness

You may remember my overly ambitious book list for the year.  One of the books that I committed to reading was Gift From The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  Even though I didn’t know what this book was about, I did expect to enjoy it because of the people who recommended it.

Wrong.  I actually hated this book.  Hate.  Not only did I not care for her style of writing but I found this book to be terribly selfish.  Like the stream of consciousness narrative of a whiny woman who spent her years in angry and bitter resentment of the time her family took away from her being able to “find herself”.

She has moments when she is almost brilliant, but those times are almost immediately cast aside for more selfish “introspective” drivel.

For example, she talks of the things that a modern American woman fills her time with:

For life today in America is based not he premise of ever-widening circles of contact and communication.  It involves not only family demands, but community demands, national demands, international demands on the good citizen, through social and cultural pressures, through newspapers, magazines, radio programs, political drives, charitable appeals, and so on.  My mind reels with it.  What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives.  It puts the trapeze artist to shame.  Look at us.  We run a tight rope daily, balancing a pile of books on the head.  Baby-carriage, parasol, kitchen chair, still under control.  Steady now!

This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of.  It leads not to unification but to fragmentation.

YES!  Absolutely!  There is SO much demanded of us and as more and more “modern conveniences” are given to us the more of our time is eaten up.  I see that every day!  I should call it the Pinterest effect.  Here is this great tool to help us organize our thoughts and ideas, only to have the time saved (for example, by having all of our favorite recipes in one place) eaten up by new DIY furniture or “how to grow your blog readership in 10 easy steps”.  All of a sudden I have less time than I did before.

See?  Brilliant!  Then…

With new awareness, both painful and humorous, I begin to understand why the saints were rarely married women.  I am convinced it has nothing inherently to do, as I once supposed, with chastity or children.  It has to do with primarily with distractions.  The bearing, rearing, feeding, and educating of children; the running of a house with its thousand details; human relationships with their myriad pulls – woman’s normal occupation in general run counter to creative life, or contemplative life, or saintly life.

What utter nonsense!  I am FAR more creative, saintly, self aware, and happy now that I have willingly accepting my motherly and feminine duties than I was five years ago when I spent far too much time trying to “find myself”.  It has only been by giving myself over to those very things that she says “run counter to creative life” that has led to, to use her words, the “unification” of my soul.  It’s not the keeping of a home or the rearing of a family that is the problem, it is allowing ourselves to be pulled AWAY from those important things by putting things that have no lasting value above that which does.  By being spectators instead of participants in our own lives.  By caring about what our friends, in-laws, or blog readers think MORE than what our family is feeling.  By letting the “good” and the “better” get in the way of the “best”.

I understand what she was trying to say: That simplicity is healing and will help you feel more whole than surrounding yourself with “things” and other distractions, citing the examples of clergy and our pre-modern convenience ancestors.  The problem is that she has done nothing but replace one pride with another.  How is finding hollow fulfillment in your possessions, any different than finding that same hollow fulfillment in your lack of them? Men and women of the cloth haven’t found “grace” because they have taken a vow of poverty, but because they have dedicated their lives to serving God’s children.  Our lives are not fulfilling these days because, as President Monson said, we find ourselves “immersed in the thick of thin things”.

Our ancestors led complete and fulfilling lives, not because they didn’t have washing machines, but because their lifestyle was one in which survival depended on serving one’s family.  As one of my favorite hymns says, “Love’s labor has merit alone“.  WORK, good, honest, hard work done in the service of one’s God and one’s family can heal your soul more completely than the quiet, simple, lonely life that she describes.

It is in service, not simplicity that “grace” happens.

Later she dedicates a chapter to relationships, focusing primarily on the marriage relationship.  Again we have a glimmer of brilliance, only to have it be snuffed out by selfishness.

She talks at length about the way relationships change and likens them unto the seasons.  We shouldn’t dread a relationship changing any more than we should dread Spring turning into Summer.  Relationships change as we grow together and that is how it should be.  The novelty of a new love can be exciting but excitement can only get us so far.  Love grows deeper and more meaningful.  It reminded me of the song “The Last Touch“. She chastises those who cast aside their maturing relationships for something “that seems easier because it is at an earlier stage”.  Beautiful and true sentiment.

Then she says, “But can one actually find oneself in someone else?  I believe that true identity is found… paradoxically, when one loses oneself.”

YES!

Then, in the very next sentence, “Woman can best refind herself by losing herself in some kid of creative activity of her own.”

So close… and yet, so far.  I’m sorry but it is impossible to “lose yourself” in your hobbies.  This book was originally written in the 50′s when opportunities for women were few and far between and while I can see why and how this advice may have been helpful and even necessary 70 years ago, it is  not the kind of advice that the vast majority of today’s women need in order to “find oneself”.  I know a few exceptions to the rule personally but most women are just like me.  My days are filled with children, and dishes, and laundry, and learning, and other motherly duties.  I homeschool my kids, I bake my own bread, I do a lot of things that most of my peers don’t do with/for their family and yet I still have more than enough time for myself.  I DO get angry, and overwhelmed, and frustrated and you know what?  It is NOT because I am spending too much time serving my family.  It happens when I lose myself in the “creative activities” of my own.  It is then and only then, that I start to feel uneasy and spiritually lost.

She rightly cites in a previous chapter the examples of traditional housekeeping as fulfilling saying, “Baking bread, weaving cloth, putting up preserves, teaching and singing to children, must have been far more nourishing than being a family chauffeur, or shopping at supermarkets, or doing housework with mechanical aids.  The art and craft of housework has diminished.”  But again claims the nourishment comes from the creativity of the work, rather than the act of providing service.  So close and yet so far!

As sons and daughters created in the image of a Heavenly Being, we are creative, just as He is creative.  As Elder Uchtdorf said, “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.”

Creativity is so important, but our creativity becomes a cancer when and if we let it come in between our relationships or don’t use it to benefit the world around us.  I love building and refinishing furniture, and I love writing.  But, like most things “just for me” I have to be very careful of how and when I use that creative gift.  I could fill my house with nothing but beautiful pieces of refinished and hand built furniture and I could have a very successful writing career.  Or, I can fill my house with children who know they are loved and appreciated.  I choose to spend just a little time on the creative pursuits that don’t include others, because they don’t fit the vision of that I have for my family.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that women don’t need creative pursuits.  We absolutely do!  What I am saying is that todays society and the feminism revolution has given us a culture in which we ALREADY have more than enough time for it!  Most of us don’t live on farms or lead other lifestyles in which we need to physically work hard for our daily bread.  That is, I believe, unfortunate for the human race.  We have FAR more time than our ancestors did and unfortunately a lot of women (and men) have chosen to fill that time with meaningless entertainment rather than wholesome recreation and we have let that meaningless entertainment take over our family lives.

We live in the post “Women’s liberation” society.  Long gone are the days when women need to be encouraged to spend more time on herself.  I can only draw from my own experiences but I doubt I am the only one who found nothing but anger and bitterness when I think only about myself.  I found myself when I lost myself in serving and educating my family.  To be fair, only you can know for sure if your weariness is because you are spending too much or too little time on serving your family… but you owe it to yourself and your family to be perfectly honest with yourself.  You will only hurt everyone around you if you choose the wrong solution.

So to answer her question: Yes, one CAN actually find oneself in someone else.

In the same chapter on relationships she talks as if the moments that nurture yourself or your relationships must be stolen, as if they are a necessary evil that can only happen when consciously ignore your spouse, children, or responsibilities.  My experiences have shown me that nothing could be further from the truth.

Not five minutes ago I watched my husband play peek-a-boo with my one year old.  That moment was not stolen or taken at the expense of something else.  He saw a baby who was rubbing his eyes and made it into a game.  In that moment they had no interaction with me at all, and yet I felt my love for each of them grow.  Nights away and one on one time are enjoyable and necessary, but they are not, as she implies, the only way to nurture or deepen your love for someone.

While the second half of the book wasn’t nearly as painful as the first, there was only one chapter that didn’t rub me the wrong way.  In it she spent far too long comparing an established and busy marriage/family to an oyster shell, but I didn’t have any problems with what she said.

Her afterward (in the 20 year anniversary printing) finally shows some sanity in the final sentences when she says, “For the enormous problems that face the world today, in both the private and public sphere, cannot be solved by women – or by men – alone.  They can only be surmounted by men and women side by side.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh had tragic and heartbreaking things happen to her and her family.  She had to live through things no parent should ever have to live through and no doubt it shaped her view.  But if I were sitting next to her while she wrote this I would take her by the shoulders and shake her.  I would say, “Look Anne, I know you are tired.  You are exhausted.  I get it!  But you aren’t going to find peace by cutting yourself off from the people who love you the most.  By all means, write your poetry, get published if you can, but for heaven’s sake please don’t think that it is the only thing that can refresh you or make your life worth living!  Drop your kids from soccer and dance.  Get out of the PTA.  Have your kids help around the house and teach them how to cook for the family.  Spend more time TOGETHER instead of living your separate lives in the same house.  A week in isolation every year is not going to compensate for letting the ‘distractions’ take over your life.  Distractions are just that, distractions.  They aren’t necessary!  Get rid of them!  Focus on your husband and your kids and stop being so self-centered!”

With over 1 million copies sold, this book must resonate with at least a few women, and if you have found it helpful and gleaned only positive things then that is wonderful!  No doubt a few of you will read this book and think that I completely missed what she was trying to say.  That’s fine.  It’s possible that I’ll read it again in a few years and think that this original criticism is extremely sharp and uncalled for.  Today however, through the filter of my own life, there is very little that I can appreciate from this book.

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Comments

  1. Love your review! You’ll have to post this on amazon. I completely agree with your statement that you CAN find oneself in someone else, didn’t Jesus say whosoever loses their life shall find it? I agree with your sentiments, I have found myself in my husband and my children, without them I would live a hollow, selfish and meaningless life. I am who I am because of them, they have taught me how to love and how to feel, things hobbies can’t ever do.

  2. I was going to read this book (recommended by the 71toes.com blogger), but my gut told me not to. I had the feeling it was going to be gibberish. Well, what ya know? It turned out to be so! All hype.
    Thanks for the review and keep them comin.
    Norma :)

  3. I’ve never been able to finish this book–I’ve started it more than once. I never got far enough into it to make an intelligent judgment of its correctness, but it always rubbed me the wrong way.

    I actually agree with her statement that “Woman can best refind herself by losing herself in some kid of creative activity of her own,” because I interpret it to mean different from what the author may have intended. I consider myself lost in creative activity when I am pregnant–creating life, changing a diaper on a wiggly baby–creating cleanliness, laughter, relationships, making dinner–creating nourishment and family community, or any of the other myriad tasks which fill my day. I lose myself in the creative activity of motherhood and service, and I find joy. Which I think is the same message you’re championing.

  4. This is a brilliant post. I’m going to read it more than once.

  5. ” I DO get angry, and overwhelmed, and frustrated and you know what? It is NOT because I am spending too much time serving my family. It happens when I lose myself in the “creative activities” of my own. It is then and only then, that I start to feel uneasy and spiritually lost.” This is one of the statements I wholeheartedly agree with. I can keep patience with my children (two of the very most important parts of my life) better when I choose to lay aside my own creative projects. And, “It is in service that grace happens.” So right.

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