Photo by Paul Bednarski
Marianne Williamson is one of the world’s most widely acclaimed chroniclers of the human spirit. Of her ten books, five have been New York Times bestsellers, starting with A Return to Love (1992), which spent thirty-five weeks in the Times’s #1 slot and is considered one of the spiritual classics of the age.Marianne is a familiar face from appearances on such television shows as Oprah, Larry King Live, Charlie Rose, Good Morning America and The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, and a familiar voice through her daily Course in Miracles program on XM radio’s Oprah & Friends. She cofounded The Peace Alliance, a grassroots campaign supporting legislation currently before congress to establish a U.S. Department of Peace. In December 2006, a Newsweek poll named Marianne as one of the fifty most influential baby boomers.
We hear a lot about how advances in medicine and wellness are helping us stay younger longer—but what you’re talking about is a little different.
Yes, it’s not necessarily about life getting longer, it’s about life getting better.
I think it’s so important that we claim and redefine this new midlife time. It’s as if we now have a second puberty.
In the first puberty, the persona of the child fades away and the persona of the adolescent comes forward. In societies that mark this tradition through ceremonial ritual, such as the Jews with a bat mitzvah, there’s a psychic container created that makes the transition more appropriate. This transition involves some trauma, both psychically and hormonally, and it goes much more smoothly when it is acknowledged in a respectful and honorable way. In the absence of that traditional ritual, the young person often feels the need to act out the transition some other way, such as through body-piercing, tattooing, immoderate sex, drugs, and so forth.
I think this new midlife period is much like a second puberty. The persona of the young adult fades away and the persona of a new self begins to emerge.
I’ve never heard a fourteen-year-old bemoaning the fact they’re not nine anymore. Yet when we come to this second puberty, we tend to spend time being in reaction to what we aren’t any longer, rather than experiencing excitement about who we are now.
The message I seem to get from many people about life after fifty is, “Just accept it gracefully.” But that doesn’t seem to be what you’re saying.
What is it we’re supposed to “accept gracefully”? What does that even mean? If you’re fifty in the United States today, statistically speaking, you could have thirty or forty more years of running around and doing all kinds of interesting things.
In one sense, I think the issue of life is to accept every moment gracefully. But what is this message we get about aging—is it saying that we ought to accept the ego’s interpretation of aging gracefully? I don’t want to accept the ego’s interpretation of anything gracefully. The ego’s interpretation of aging is, “You’re in decline now.” I see no reason to accept that interpretation.
There is something in metaphysics called the Law of Divine Compensation, which is the idea that spirit can more than compensate for any diminishment of material substance—but you have to allow it to do so.
In a way, it’s about not accepting. It’s about making a stand against the ego’s interpretation of age. It’s not that we don’t accept the limits of age; it’s that we embrace the limitlessness of God.
Of course, we do accept the practical limits of age. That’s part of sober, conscious living. But as important as it is to accept the limits that exist within our own realm, it’s also important that we accept the limitlessness of God.
I love this story about Matisse. In his old age, Matisse’s arthritis got so bad he could no longer hold a paintbrush—but he could hold a child’s pair of scissors, and that led to what came to be known as one of the most brilliant periods of his art: Matisse’s paper cut-outs period, in which he elevated the paper cut-out to a transcendent art form.
Was he supposed to just accept gracefully that he now had arthritis and couldn’t paint anymore? No—he embraced the fact that his art, his genius, could not be limited by the constraints of his material body.
There’s this wonderful sentence in your book, “We’re finally ready to do something radical.”
Right. This is not the time to slow down, this is the time when we’re revving up. We’re slowing down on one hand, but on another hand, it’s anything but slowing down.
Our readers are not all over fifty, but most are self-employed, home-based networkers who are in the midst of creating a whole new definition of work.
This is the story of America today, and this is where spirituality becomes so important.
If you ask, “What slot is out there that might work for me?” then this is where age can become especially frightening, because they might not be hiring people your age anymore. And it’s easy to start thinking, “They don’t hire people like me—there’s nothing I can do!”
But God doesn’t operate from that viewpoint. Your ultimate work, your ultimate efforts in life, your ultimate future, does not emerge from your past, and it doesn’t emerge from your age, it emerges from your consciousness.
If you’ve got a business of your own, there is no, “They might not hire me because I’m older now.”
If I’m looking to the corporation for employment, I find them saying, “Sorry, honey, you’re fifty-five. We’re hiring younger people.” But if you’re sitting working on your computer at home, it doesn’t matter how old you are. In fact, nobody knows how old you are.
So in a sense, being shut out of corporate opportunities also means being freed up.
That depends entirely on what you do with it. And that’s really the point of the book, that everything you experience is in the context of a conversation—a conversation in your head and a conversation in the culture. The conversation in our culture may be saying, “I’m over the hill, they don’t hire people my age anymore, they don’t want me, I’m too old.” The issue is to change the conversation in your head.
In the book, you say that when 9/11 happened, those of us who hadn’t grown up yet, did so. There seemed to be this demarcation point, where we began saying, “What are we really up to? It’s time to do it.”
Our generation has been so irresponsible, in a way, and so casual about life. And all of a sudden we started saying, “What are we doing? What’s going on, on this planet? Where have I been?”
In our generation, there’s an incredible confluence of the personal journey and the global journey, of personal activism and the need for global change. It’s an extraordinary interfacing of the realms of internal and external change. There’s an integration of the two right now, among conscious people.
One of the things I love about your book is I keep laughing out of self-recognition. Do you find a lot of people slapping their foreheads and saying, “That’s me!”
That’s what any writer always hopes for, that somebody will read a passage and go, “Aha!” The writer is thinking about the same things everybody else is thinking about, but putting it on paper sometimes coalesces a thought form. It’s like for everybody else, it’s hanging out in the air, in this kind of mental sky, and the writer’s job is to catch it and write it down, so it can be harnessed and given more focus for everybody else to see.
Joan Didion said this beautiful thing. “I write to find out what I think.” But it’s also fun when somebody else hears what you think and says, “Right! That’s just what I think, too, only I hadn’t put it in those words.”
I read to find out what someone else thinks, but in finding out what someone else thinks, sometimes that makes me more aware of what’s going on inside my own heart and soul.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for people in getting the message of this book?
I think there’s a lot of grief as we age. I think the conscious person does have things to grieve. The longer you’ve lived, the more opportunity you’ve had for bitter experiences.
Most young people—and this is part of the beauty of youth—don’t really know about remorse and regret and betrayal, because it hasn’t happened to them yet. But by the time you’ve reached your mid-forties, the chances are good you’ve had at least one serious emotional body blow. It could be a divorce, a bankruptcy, a financial or career loss, it could be addiction or some health issue, or even something with your kids.
If you let that blow sink you, you could have thirty or forty more years of cruising in the mode of bitterness, pain, despair and victimization.
This is why it’s so important to become conscious, to know that the issue is not whether or not you’ve fallen down. By this age, most everyone has fallen down. By the time you reach this point, you’re reaping your karma.
The issue is not whether you fall, but whether or not you get back up, and how you get back up. And you can not only get back up again, but also realize that you can become a better person for all that having happened.
As you say in the book, aging happens to everyone, but some people age with sorrow and others age with joy.
Exactly. If you stay with interpreting your past in a painful way, then your future will reflect that painful interpretation.
But if you look at what has happened to you in light of what you might have learned from it, if you say, “I’m a better person now,” now your future is based not on your past but on your present consciousness.
For example, you might realize that you were irresponsible before, but now you’ve become more responsible; or you might have been too casual about life before, but you’re less casual now; or you might have gained a humility about life that you didn’t have before.
Living with learning instead of remorse.
Yes, and even in the situations where your pain is around something someone else did to you in the past, sometimes it’s about facing the fact that, while they may have done you wrong, perhaps you made it easy for them.
Part of this process is learning to reflect on what part we may have played in our own disasters. Another part of it is forgiveness, learning to forgive ourselves as well as forgiving others.
My point is that by this age, we’ve all experienced some grief, and we have to go through that grief. There are some opportunities we may have missed that will not be coming back again, not in that form, not in this lifetime, and we need to embrace that and not beat ourselves up or punish ourselves for what we might have missed.
Midlife is also the time when all our lessons start to come back around again. It will be in another town, with different people, or in some way in another form, but there it is—that same lesson again. How are you going to play it this time? The issue is not to say, “Well, it’s over, there’s no point in my trying to learn anything from it.” You want to learn everything from it.
When I look at people in their fifties and sixties, I notice a good number who seem to have embraced a sense of defeat. How do we pull ourselves out of that feeling? How do we face the grief, as you put it, and not feel beaten by it?
By reading books like this! By expanding your sense of what’s true. That’s what books are all about.
And also, by realizing that God is an eternally renewable spiritual resource. The last thing that could slow God down is you being older than you used to be.
New beginnings are always available, in any given moment. Like Matisse, when he was unable to hold a brush, finding in a pair of children’s scissors another channel for the God-given genius within him.
The power of God within you does not lessen or diminish with age.
Do you think the work environment has shifted in a way that has opened up much more freedom of individual expression?
Absolutely, for the very reasons your readers are experiencing with the nature of the work you do. Because more and more people are self-employed, more and more people are working from home in their own home-based businesses.
This is pioneer territory. The old limits aren’t there anymore; there is no 9 to 5. The world doesn’t work that way anymore.
In your book, you write that the planet needs a new story…
Yes, and so do we. And because we are rethinking who we are and what we can do, what we want to do and what we’re here to do, how we can best serve, this rethinking is transforming our sense of what it means to be alive. And that will transform the entire planet.
The world we have, while beautiful, is also fraught with danger, and this is a reflection of the current state of consciousness of the human race. The state of the planet will not change until our state of consciousness changes. As Gandhi said, “The problem with the world is that humanity is not in its right mind.”
As we make this quantum leap within ourselves, from who we are to who we know in our hearts we can be this lifetime, that—and only that—will generate and guarantee the same quantum leap in the state of the world.
Sometimes I’ll ask audiences, “On a scale of one to ten, what state are you living in right now? How’s your life?” When I ask American audiences, the average I get is typically a six or a seven. The other day I asked this same question to an audience in London, England, and most people said nine. I thought that was so interesting.
Whatever that gap is, between where we are and where we could be, whether it’s six versus ten, or three versus ten, or even nine versus ten, that is the point and the mission of this period of your life.
Because this is the last time around. The revolving door will be coming back around again, but this is the final chapter. This is the third act. That shift, from who you have become to who you know in your heart you’d like to become before you die, that is the key to the transformation of the world. All the world is, is a reflection of where we’re stuck.
You write, “What we’re experiencing right now is not a failure so much of politics, but of imagination.”
Exactly. It’s up to us to imagine a world in which everyone is fed, a world in which there are no nuclear bombs, to imagine a world without war. And you can’t with conviction imagine a peaceful planet until you can stand with conviction in a peaceful place within yourself.