Wanderlust, Eckhart Tolle and Autonomy

OK. So I am one of the forty-five people who watched Paul Rudd and Jennifer Anniston in Wanderlust, last weekend, before the bomb blissfully sank into the red ink, unexploded. US Magazine will no doubt try to keep it alive for the sake of Jennifer falling for her co-star Justin Theroux. I thought the movie was amusing, even though one character ran around in a prosthetic penis the whole time making normal penises seem abnormal, even though the beloved Alan Alda was inexplicably present, and even though the state of Georgia was accurately portrayed, which isn’t usually a nice thing to do.

Jesus followers should be students of pop culture

That being said, there isn’t much a Christian can receive from the pop culture that isn’t very instructive. There is more philosophy in the typical rom-com than in The Tree of Life. Just looking through the Jennifer Aniston window, herself, is usually a great look at what is infecting and motivating normal people. For instance, I opened up my Facebook page on the same weekend I watched Wanderlust and there was a quote from Oprah’s buddy Eckhart Tolle infecting one of my “friends”:

Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.

Essentially that quote could have been the guiding philosophy being taught by Wanderlust, and is more likely the guiding principle for some people in my church than anything Jesus is talking about or demonstrating. Such postChristian ideas are so common they are the center of little fables on the big screen (or almost immediately DVD in this case).

Wanderlust is teaching the meaning of life

If you know me, you know I think meeting God in the present moment is a crucial skill for having a true self in Jesus. So there is some “truth” in what Tolle says. The people in Wanderlust are having the Eckhart Tolle mystical experience with “Life,” not Jesus, and they get “conscious” and “evolve” before our eyes in ninety-eight minutes. It is a comedy, but you can’t write a script without a philosophy someplace. It has one.

Paul and Jennifer play characters who are sick of being abused by New York (also accurately depicted, which is also not nice). Paul’s high-flying finance company goes bust in a scandal; Jen’s documentary on penguins is rejected by HBO. They evacuate the Manhattan microloft they just got suckered into buying and move in to his brother’s McMansion outside Atlanta – the brother who made his fortune renting porta-potties, of course.

I can feel this. What we learn about them is: they hate corporate America and they hate entrepreneur America; they hate being enslaved and they want to be themselves; everyone is a jerk.

“Life” gave Eckhart Tolle a similar experience. He said in an interview: “I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or ‘beingness,’ just observing and watching.”

Back to the movie – Paul and Jen return to the commune they stayed at overnight on the car ride down to Atlanta. They remembered their night there as so peaceful they thought they could make that moment last forever. Drugs, sex, nakedness, and sharing toilet-time follow. On top of that, add Justin Theroux as a yoga-esque guru. They have a commune experience.

I can really feel that. I’ve been there, in my own way. They want to feel something. They want to be honest. They want to experience relationships. Everyone should be friends.

Tolle is there too. According to his official website, “At the core of Tolle’s teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. An essential aspect of this awakening consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic on our planet.”

As it turns out in the movie, Paul and Jen don’t get to transcendence; The commune doesn’t work any better than the McMansion.

The autonomy industry is powerful

The movie ends up with a much more conventional happy ending than the “next step in human evolution.” Paul and Jen wander, like Tolle, through a narcissistic breakdown and emerge with a new image better suited to their passions. They start a small publishing firm back in New York that exploits all the people they have met on their journey up and down the East Coast for mutual profit.

Their solution to their unhappiness is better autonomy. At the end, they are not beholden to a big financial product company or to HBO; they make their own way, selling media products in a much more hippy-like atmosphere. They couldn’t live with themselves; they had a collapse and epiphany and, like Tolle, created a media company to teach what they learned. John Stackhouse says Tolle “gives a certain segment of the population exactly what they want: a sort of supreme religion that purports to draw from all sorts of lesser, that is, established, religions.” It is a religion of self, and a self that is defined by one’s own interpretation of experience.

So it was not a good movie. But it was an instructive movie. At the end of it I had to say, “That’s it?” What you learned from your breakdown is that everyone is bad in their own way and the only solution is to be autonomous, create a little pod with your mate (assuming you can find this marvel who will stick with you through infidelity and financial ruin) and create a small niche where you can do what you want by selling deconstructive thoughts about the monster you hate?

For a lot of people I know, that is, indeed, their dream. The movies taught it to them, with a lot of help from Oprah.

4 thoughts on “Wanderlust, Eckhart Tolle and Autonomy

  1. I saw the movie. I read your review. We shared a similar reaction except my confusion is to your review, “That’s It?”.

    I want to feel something. I want to be honest. I want to experience relationships. Everyone should be friends.

    I didn’t see anything wrong with Aniston & Rudd’s solution to their disconnected lives. They worked together, they believed in their community and supported their voices.

    To a certain extent isn’t Circle of Hope, a small niche where you can do what you want by selling constructive thoughts about the monster you hate (commercialism, individuality, self-reliance)?

    Also: is autonomy not possible within Christianity?

    Also: Hi! This is Aryon from Frankford & Norris who moved to Albuquerque with his wife Olivia and currently attends a Mennonite Church.

    This is the Internet so I hope my reply promotes a constructive dialogue. I often feel like your tone and message is accusatory and mocking without providing an alternative. I remember a sermon at F&N, early last year I think, where you spoke out against the younger generation’s inability to budget and their embarrassing debt burden. I left feeling embarrassed and lost.

    1. Thanks for reading Aryon. I think you have a good point. I do have a mocking tone, to a degree, in the post. I can see how that might rub you the wrong way. I am being disrespectful. And yes, I hope I am speaking to Circle of Hope with what I am saying, not just from it.

      As I say in the post, being one’s true self is a goal of faith in Jesus. In that sense “autonomy” could be considered a good thing. The autonomy I think is being suggested by the movie is autonomy from God and community, an autonomy based on an autonomous self, which could be considered the original sin.

      I do think I have tried to provide an alternative, however — it is Circle of Hope. Sorry to leave you hanging in post and speech. I’ll think that over.

  2. You make me want to see the movie! Not only to better join you and Aryon in the discussion, but to see what you think is an accurate depiction of the state of Georgia. 🙂

  3. Hey, John Stackhouse is my cousin! Well, cousin-in-law. He’s Steven’s cousin. I took a class on culture and vocation with him at Regent. He’s great…. 😀 – Vanessa

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