by Robynn James
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
Many people have mis-attributed these words to Nelson Mandela. The late leader of the fight against South African Apartheid chose them as part of his inauguration speech, after having triumphantly gained his freedom and ascended as President of South Africa, an international symbol of courage and resistance. After having lived in the darkness of a prison cell for 27 years, he understood the many reasons there are to hide from greatness. The cost of shining your light can be enormous.
The actual author is, of course, erstwhile Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. It begins an iconic passage from Ms. Williamsons’ best-selling book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of ‘A Course in Miracles’. A book that catapulted her from obscurity to fame when Oprah publicly claimed she experienced “157 miracles,” after having read it.
There are a lot of people and things to be legitimately afraid of these days. “Donald Trump – Leader of the Free World”, is a phrase that strikes panic in the breast of everyone who knew him as a punch line in the 1980’s and ’90’s–when he haunted Studio 54 as a cartoonish cross between Richie Rich and Mr. Magoo; an impossibly tacky, gold-embossed real estate developer who specialized in bankrupting his investors; and finally playing the role of the “tycoon” in the faux board room of the Trump Corporation (who even knew that was a real thing?) in his own reality TV show.
Now he holds court on Twitter daily from his newly installed, gold-plated toilet in the West Wing, sending the markets into a frenzy, putting toddlers in cages, and variously harassing celebrities and members of his own Cabinet with often nonsensical rants read round the world.
Putin is testing nukes and sending clouds of radiation into the sky. North Korea’s homicidal leader is the object of the President’s bromance. Measles is making a resurgence. Oh, and the Earth is trying to kill us in self-defense, with unprecedented, violent storms. Our environment is buckling under the greed and avarice of the fossil fuel industry. Our kids can’t go to school, and we can’t go to Walmart, without fear of being shot by a disenfranchised youth.
But what we are really, really scared of, according to Smart-People-Who-Stay-on-Twitter-All-Day, is Marianne Williamson. She, it seems, is not to be tolerated.
Today Twitter is all abuzz with particularly cruel and dismissive one-liners aimed at the true author of those inspiring words: Marianne Williamson. She is being caricatured as a vapid flower-child, living in romance with the Spirit World, without a brain in her head. Did I miss the part of the Democratic Debates where she pulled out crystals and did tarot card readings about the future of America? Did she offend you by taking a stand for embracing a politics of love, forgiveness, and compassion? What is it about those concepts that is so frightening to so many of us? So many critics, so few tired, old, dismissive stereotypes for American pop-spirituality. Rather than be redundant, many Twitter critics just resort to soft porn GIFs.
Twitter cynics live in the shadows. In our society, we are so comfortable with darkness. From the darkness we can lash out at others, spewing a smugly superior wit across the empty void of social media. Lurking in the shadows of anonymity, we risk nothing, we offer nothing, we gain nothing. Somehow it makes us feel powerful to join the insult brigade—tearing down anyone who dares shine light. Still we hunker down in the shadows of our clever epithets. We don’t even need to use words to show our disdain—we can pick some filthy GIF or other. Better to join the angry mob than risk having them turn on us.
The next part of Williamson’s passage is perhaps the question all these internet shamers seem to want to throw at her today:
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?
Yeah, MW! Who are YOU to be all those things? Those are scary words to those who dwell in darkness. It’s safer to hurl insults from the shadows than it is to give praise. Because we are all mere mortals, and we live in an era where even our most beloved idols are eventually outed for scurrilous misdeeds.
I don’t pretend to know what Marianne’s motivations were for putting herself up on that stage. I have met her a few times. She has always struck me as very poised, generous and self-aware. About a year ago, she graciously agreed to headline a fundraiser I was hosting in Manhattan and waived her considerable fee, although she didn’t know me and had only vague familiarity with our work. She came, she spoke, she stayed, she had dinner with us, and she was one of the last guests to leave the party. She was not the least bit self-promoting and there were no big names in the room (aside from her) for her to ingratiate herself to for her own benefit. She was, for want of a more descriptive term: a very nice lady. When the fundraiser was over, she refused to collect any honorarium. To this day she never asked us for any endorsement of her campaign.
What I learned in promoting her as the headliner for an event was that there were at that time two kinds of reactions you got when you mentioned her name:
1. “OMG She is amazing! I totally love her!” is the typical response from thousands who have read her books once upon a time during a particularly difficult period in their lives and experienced a profoundly positive shift as a result;
2. “Who is that???” Mostly from those under 40’s, Millennials too young to remember her as an American Icon from the 1990’s, promoting love and positivity, spirituality-lite, alongside other soothing voices such as Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Neil Donald Walsh (look them up, kids, you may find something to like there).
Now there is a 3rd group: the Marianne Mockers—mostly formerly of group 2. Someone like Marianne Williamson triggers their disdain. They see her as a particularly safe target, as her pinnacle days as a Thought Leader (she was one before there even was such a thing) are likely behind her.
This is sad, because while the Marianne Mocking crowd is busy thinking up clever insults based on some episode of the Simpsons or Family Guy they once saw, they are missing out on the possibility that she has something meaningful to say to us all, even those who think she’s not qualified to be Leader of the Free World.
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
Tweet what you like about Marianne Williamson. She walks her talk. She does not play small and I daresay she doesn’t give a damn if you are comfortable with what she has to say. It would be surprising, given her grace and resilience in the face of withering dismissive comments from media pundits and talk show hosts, if she didn’t anticipate that people would make fun of her. Having lived her values openly and in the public arena for over 30 years, she has nothing to prove to anyone. So why she chose to take up that lonely outpost on the far left of our TV screens during the first Democratic Primary Debates remains a mystery. But rather than vitriol the other candidates on that stage might actually owe her a debt of gratitude. If she hadn’t put her flag squarely in the ground on the fringe of political ideas, any one of them might have been cast in that role instead of her. A proposal to defeat Donald Trump with “The Politics of Love,” after all, makes Andrew Yang’s Universal Basic Income and Bernie Sanders’ Free College for All proposals seem downright mainstream.
The last line of the passage may shed light on what really motivates her to step forward now. It’s a challenge to all of us to come out of the darkness—let your light shine, even if it scares you. The passage concludes:
“It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Imagine what might be possible if we took this call to be our best selves and put it into action? We might actually be able to do really big things–like turn around climate change, promote humane immigration policies, give universal access to quality healthcare, education and clean drinking water. A world where those things are impossible is rather a dark place. So say, or if you lack the courage of your convictions, tweet, what you like about Marianne Williamson. She is letting her light shine, and invites us all to do the same. If you have a problem with that it says more about you than it does about her.