I must admit that I’ve always been a fan of Gwyneth Paltrow’s. I remember marveling at her performance in Shakespeare in Love — a movie that I continue to place among my favorites. I believed that she was the type of person who could inspire the bard. I wasn’t such a great fan of the Royal Tenenbaums, but I was happy to see her reappear in Iron Man — in my opinion one of the few superhero movies actually worth seeing.
You can imagine my surprise, then, one day, when my wife told me that people hated her. I shared Paltrow’s confusion over being named Star Magazine’s most hated celebrity in the world the same week she was also named People Magazine’s most beautiful person in the world. This was about the time she was going through her “conscious uncoupling” with Chris Martin — a development that saddened the eternal romantic that I am. But apparently, she can’t even end her marriage, something all of us should empathize with, without inviting criticism.
I get it. She is a child of privilege. She has been given gifts almost none of us could ever imagine. She is beautiful and talented and smart and lucky beyond most of our dreams. Jealousy is a powerful driver of resentment.
What’s more is that her newsletter, goop, seems to rub our collective noses in her blessings. She calls it “aspirational.” But in reality, none of us can ever really aspire to be like her. We have not been blessed in the same ways as she has.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that she has not rested on her laurels. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner reported today in The New York Times, she has worked hard for her success. While many people with everything she has would just enjoy the fruits of their inheritance, both financial and genetic, she has set goals for herself and labored toward them. Her self-discipline is really to her credit, and in truth, that may be what many of us envy the most about her. Where most of us have trouble saying “no” to that second scoop of ice cream, she has molded her entire life around self-improvement.
Her “conscious uncoupling” serves as an example. At the time of her marriage ending with Chris Martin, she was obviously in pain. She has two children with him and wanted to make sure that their lives were disrupted as little as possible by this change. Obviously, she was aware of the vitriol that accompanies most break-ups, and wanted to avoid that in her own life. So rather than simply accepting the way most people do things — a way most would agree is far from perfect — she decided to consciously change the approach aiming for a more positive outcome.
Obviously, to some extent it has worked. She and Martin co-parent together well, and appear to have a genuine friendship. It is the conclusion most of us hope for after a relationship ends, but all too often fail to find.
So you have to give her credit for her laser focus on self-improvement. The fact that she shares her experiences in her newsletter might not mean that she seeks to make others jealous. Perhaps her aim is to inspire, and to provide many of us without all her advantages the benefit of her experience.
By the same token, the direction her brand has taken also reveals some of the limits of what she can do. Maybe it’s the system — after all, people need to make money. But her focus on buying the best of everything seems to contradict her call to enhance our inner selves.
Buddha famously pointed out that suffering is inherent in life. Gwyneth Paltrow’s answer to this is to try to improve herself to reduce her suffering. But as anyone can tell you, no amount of material will ever end suffering. In fact, Buddha was quite clear about what causes suffering: the desire for things. This is the very essence of Paltrow’s “aspirational” brand. If we follow Buddha’s guidance toward serenity and enlightenment, we must let go of our aspirations.
Buddha’s not the only spiritual leader who has given us guidance on this point. Jesus said, after all, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” He wasn’t saying wealth, in and of itself, is bad. What he was saying is that making material gain our driving goal pushes spirituality out of our lives. Similarly, Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, emphasized that we should be grateful for what we have, rather than focusing on what we don’t have. As stated in one of his organization’s guidebooks, “ [c]ontentment comes from accepting gratefully the good that comes to us, and not from raging at life because it is not better.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “[c]ultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.” The list could go on and on. According to our greatest spiritual thinkers, true self-improvement comes not from aspiring for what you don’t have, but from be grateful for the blessings you do have.
So where does this leave us? Maybe a more nuanced way of viewing Gwyneth Paltrow involves acknowledging and admiring her hard work and self-discipline. On the other had, we should realize that her approach to well-being is inevitably limited.
But Gwyneth Paltrow is still just a person, imperfect as we all are. As with anything else, rather than perceiving her in a way that dismisses her complexity, we should take the good with the bad. As she keeps working toward her own self-improvement, so should we.