In HBO’s ‘White Lotus,’ Self-Care Has Become an Idol

There’s a great recurring joke in HBO Max’s hit series The White Lotus that gets close to the heart of its theme. The razor sharp satire is set at the titular resort, a dreamy Hawaiian getaway where anyone who can afford it can spend a few days in the lap of luxury. Wealthy guests are treated to a plunge pool, scuba lessons, a resort restaurant where guests can gawk at locals dancing a luau and a spa.

The joke in question involves the reading material of our guests. Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), a newlywed and wannabe freelance journalist, is digging into Elena Ferrante’s very good My Brilliant Friend, while two witheringly cynical college students (Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady) flip through critiques of capitalism and colonization. And then there’s Shane (Jake Lacy), the entitled, boorish bro who married Rachel. He’s got Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking with him at all times, but he never seems to be making any progress in it. Throughout the series, other characters move on to new books. By the finale, Shane still seems to be around the first chapter of Blink.

Blink just felt like such a normie book,” series creator Mike White told the Wall Street Journal. “It seems like he’s stoking his curiosity, but it hasn’t gone very deep. [Gladwell] is the kind of writer that makes you feel smart while you’re reading it whether you are or aren’t.”

You may not have the sort of checking account that lets you head out to luxurious resorts in Hawaii, but you may be familiar with Shane’s struggle. He’s not a big reader, but he wants to be. Or, maybe more accurately, he wants to be seen as one. Welcome to the age of wellness. While the idea of self-care may have started out as a good and necessary corrective to America’s ceaseless need for endless productivity, it’s now been wholly adopted by consumerist culture as just another box to check as proof to your friends that you really do have it all.

The guests in White Lotus have correctly identified that they all need a little getaway. Nicole, a Sheryl Sandberg-type girlboss played by Connie Britton, is determined to help her family connect but is too shrouded in neoliberal detachment to know how to have a human moment with any of them. Meanwhile, her husband Mark (Steve Zahn) faces one existential crisis after another, questioning his masculinity, his worth and his place in the shifting values of society. As a married couple, the spark is long dead. As human beings, they’re too wrapped up in their own observations about the world to see anyone else as real. That goes for their kids too. Their daughter Olivia, one of the aforementioned college students, is cooly convinced that she’s socially aware enough to separate herself from the privilege that clings to the rest of her family like cobwebs. Their son, Quinn, is just interested in his phone.

Meanwhile, Shane and Rachel are looking forward to the honeymoon of a lifetime after a whirlwind romance that blew right to the altar. Rachel’s unconcerned when the couple ends up at in a different suite than the one they booked, but Shane can’t let it go and his attempts to speak to the manager and get his way are bitter seeds that produce ugly fruit. Rachel starts to realize that falling in love isn’t the same as getting to know someone, and Shane …well, Shane just wants to get busy in the honeymoon bed he had in mind.

And then there’s Tanya, played with excellence by Jennifer Coolidge. She’s come to spread her mother’s ashes, but doesn’t know how to be alone, latching onto anyone within earshot like an emotional leech. She thinks she’s finally processing her mother’s death, but for everyone else around her, she’s only ruining a good time.

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These people are all under the impression that if they can just get away for a little while, they’ll finally have time to do the things they want. But the real problem is, they don’t know what they want. Their idle time finds them all frantically searching for ways to fill the void. Mark wants to connect with Quinn, but finds all his best attempts bedeviled by his own insecurities. Olivia wants to prove her friendship to her friend Paula, but can’t escape the myopic Whiteness of her lived experience. They turn to self-care because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Beach days, spa treatments, Instagrammable scuba experiences and, if all else fails, a good book. But none of it works because they’re not really asking themselves what they need. They’re just doing mindless, rote “self-care.”

It’s very good to take care of yourself. Goodness knows most of us need to be doing more of it. The problem is, we think that self-care is a natural state that will happen organically if we just put in enough effort to get away, lay out by the pool and pick up a good book. The truth is, rest — like any biblical commandment — takes real intention. We have to do the hard work of interrogating our own hearts and finding out what we truly need. The answer might be surprising, as “self-care” often means looking beyond your own life. As Jesus said in Matthew 16, “whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

Like anything, self-care can become an idol — an end to itself that we end up serving instead of the other way around. It can trap us in yet another consumeristic trap, where we’re buying books we don’t intend to read in an attempt to be seen as someone who is healthy. For the guests of the White Lotus, the refusal to learn that lessons has some tragic consequences. But for us, it’s not too late to learn what it really means to care for yourself. And it starts by recognizing where the real focus ought to be.

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