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MARIANNE WILLIAMSON, DEMOCRACY AND THE STORIES WE TELL
AND WHY IT SHOULD MATTER TO YOU
For those of you who might be familiar with my work as a psychotherapist, writer and speaker on mental health and wellness issues, you know that since the 2020 election, I have stepped away from writing about politics, and social media in general, choosing instead to focus primarily on my work as a humanist in psychology – and my passion – for helping people explore “the stories they tell themselves about themselves” and the “stories other people tell us” that we internalize and believe – and all the ways in which those stories can either lift us up in meeting our potential - or shame us, shackle us to our past and keep us playing small. It is some of the most rewarding work I have ever done – helping people tell better stories about themselves – and questioning the limited stories told to them by others.
How interesting it is that, once again, a political moment has aligned so uniquely with my wellness world. As I have found so often, particularly in the aftermath of 2016, what is happening on the national stage as we struggle as a country to fulfill our potential - reflects what is happening in our own lives as we seek to do the same.
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I am talking of course about some of the reactions to a new presidential run by Marianne Williamson (which are remarkably similar to the reactions to her prior run.) The unfinished business of 2020 giving us the chance to respond with fresh eyes in 2024.
And while Ms. Williamson herself is the pivotal figure in this political and social moment, if we pull back the curtain on that particular conversation, we have an opportunity to look at the ways in which the quality and content of these negative reactions - about this woman - at this time - play out on a much larger scale that should matter to all of us; on a personal level and a political one.
In terms of my work as a therapist, the personal, is, by far, more pressing and present than the political.
On the political level, it is your right to dismiss Ms. Williamson if you disagree with the values she holds for our country, for our planet and for the world.
Dismissing the personal however, is far more concerning.
Because in many ways, the negative reactions to Ms. Williamson are about so much more than one woman mulling a choice to run for President. They are also about American democracy, gender and threats to power in all of its various forms, and critically, the stories we tell about other people to try to contain them.
It is also about the limiting stories people try to impose on all of us.
The limiting stories people try to impose on you.
And while it has been troubling, but not surprising, to see all the ways in which Ms. Williamson’s “story” has been diminished, dismissed, and ridiculed – in ways that go far beyond whether or not you agree with her vision for America - I am not worried about Marianne Williamson. She will be just fine. She has sustained a career as a thought-leader for decades, positively impacting millions of lives, written countless books and articles, and as a human rights activist, taken her fair share of punches along the way (and landed more than a few herself). Having met her many times through her work in human potential and having volunteered with her AIDS support organization Manhattan Center for Living - I can say with certainty – Marianne Williamson was built for these times.
What I am concerned about, and what should be concerning to you, is the particular form of resistance to candidate Williamson. The deliberate shaping of a story that seeks to contain and dismiss - and the ways in which that “story” is consumed, catches fire and gains an air of legitimacy that will insure its success.
Because what is at play here on a national level, I have found at play in many people’s individual lives.
Who is telling your story, what is the tale they are telling and why are they telling it? And why is it that so often the story that is being constructed about you is built to keep you small?
Marianne Williamson ran for President in 2020. Enough people supported her politically and financially to allow her to qualify for two nationally televised debates – a high bar and no mean feat. She met a standard that meant people were listening. She met a standard that legitimized a platform.
Marianne Williamson is running again in 2024.
Marianne Williamson has every right to run for President.
And so do you.
And so do I.
And so do her critics and opponents.
To believe anything less flies in the face of democracy itself. It is a sentiment ingrained in us as children. “One day you could grow up to be President.”
It is an uplifting and powerful “story” we tell about human potential and individual possibility in our country.
But apparently, for some, for those threatened by change, the disaffected, the jaded, the twitter ninjas, and certainly the political gatekeepers of all stripes, the “you” in that sentiment does not apply equally to all.
“Look at where you come from - or didn’t come from”
“Look at what you did - or didn’t do”
“Look at what you said - or didn’t say”
“Look at what you look like”
“Look at who you love”
“Stay in your lane”
“No one wants to hear from you.”
Throughout history how often have those sentiments been directed at anyone who questions where we find ourselves and puts a hand up to share a path forward that may offer more hope to more people?
And for our work together, how often have those sentiments been directed at you in your life as you have tried to do it differently, learn from your mistakes, raise yourself up, have a say and step out of the narrative assigned to you?
And how often did you believe them?
How often have you had a feeling that you had something to contribute – only to be made to feel that your vision – your ideas – your hopes – your lived experience and your wisdom were unwelcome and not worthy of consideration?
“Who does SHE think she is?”
The dreaded “she.” Said with such venom – pronoun as weapon - revealing so much about those who use it in this way.
She. Whoever the “she” may be in any given situation.
The implication of course being “she” is “too…something” - and we fill in the blank with whatever will help us dismiss someone’s humanity, intelligence, achievements and purpose. “She” is too much… too ambitious, too aggressive, too cocky, too entitled, too bitchy, too fat, too silly, too serious - too angry! Too – the death knell for all women - unattractive.
And now include – too young, too old, too gay, too brown, too yellow, too butch, too queer, too soft, too hard, too basic, too intellectual, undereducated, overeducated - and anyone else we are trying to contain and keep small in order to keep change at bay.
As a humanist in psychology, I find it interesting that rather than greet anyone who feels that they have a vision for this country that would lift people up and help them become all they might be, rather than listen with eager ears to anyone who thinks they can unify a divided country, a fractured world and aid a planet on life support – there are those – with a shaky sense of self and a fear of losing their place in the power hierarchy - who cynically stand by – eagerly awaiting to offer their “thumbs down” – their dismissal of, not just someone’s hopeful vision for our world based on policy, but dismissal of their right to have and express a vision at all.
That is a dangerous place for all of us.
Everyone has a right to disagree with Ms. Williamson’s view of America – where she feels we got it right – where she feels we got it wrong – and her vision on how to get back on track. Read, question, debate – and then decide if she is absolutely wrong and that someone else’s view is a better fit for you.
All of that is healthy.
But we all too rarely get to that level of analysis. And that is deeply troubling.
Before we can even get to vision, too many in the current political establishment, the people who should be most invested in our country’s progress, have decided “you” - and your ideas – do not warrant serious consideration. And they work very hard to craft a narrative that insures you will never get it.
That is a story – that not only seeks to keep individuals deflated and small – but America itself.
On a national level, now more than ever, the echo chamber across the entire political spectrum is not working. We need more voices and more ideas that we can consider and evaluate, not less. We need to encourage people to give the gifts that only they can give, in only the ways they can give them.
And in our personal lives, the same is true. Every single person is needed with the gifts they have to give, to themselves, to their families, their communities, to our country and to the world.
That means you.
We do not have time for anyone to stay trapped in a narrative that holds them prisoner to their past or pedigree – that diminishes or dismisses them.
All hands are needed.
In order to become all we might be, we need to look more critically at the stories being told that seek to hold us hostage to a narrative that no longer fits – or never fit at all. If the story being told is one that is meant to diminish and contain you, we need to write a better story - and look for better stories about others.
Becoming more acutely aware of how this is playing out on a national stage, can help us see how it is playing out in our personal lives. We need to be mindful of the insidious ways we become willing participants in the stories that seek to silence others and in the ways people are minimized and dismissed… It’s the wink… it’s the snark… it’s the punchline that we allow to overtake the substance.
For Ms. Williamson – so uniquely suited for this particular challenge – it is the tired “crystal lady” trope – the attempted denigration of the impact of her decades long career as a thought leader, philanthropist and human rights activist - and it is a denigration of a philosophy that is not “new age” at all – in fact – it is “old age”… with a rich lineage reaching from Marcus Aurelias’ “Meditations” through Lao Tse, William Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Viktor Frankl, Gandhi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Buddhist Psychology and on and on and on – she is part of a legacy of people who have attempted to change our collective world by speaking to our individual souls and spirits.
But that story does not suit those who resist change and they cast a suspicious eye towards anyone they do not recognize asking for a seat at the table. So they change the story - with partial truths and deliberate misinterpretations hoping we won’t cast too critical an eye and expose the false narrative for what it is: Undermining and cynical and meant to keep people from claiming their power and seeking change.
This moment is only on a surface level about Ms. Williamson. She has spent most of her adult life fighting this fight and has become adept at refusing to become a character in a false narrative that someone else is writing. She is too busy writing her own – as should we all.
But what does it mean as a country, when we hear, accept and repeat limiting stories aimed at exclusion without questioning who is doing the limiting and why?
What does it mean for you, when you hear, accept and repeat limiting stories about yourself aimed at excluding you from being all you might be without questioning who is doing the limiting and why?
As this moment continues to unfold nationally, and it will, as other candidates emerge who are not adhering to their assigned narratives and threaten “whoever it is they are threatening”, let’s start looking more carefully at the stories we listen to, the stories we believe about ourselves and others - and the stories we repeat that seek only to make people small.
When the other Marianne Williamson’s step up, with hopeful visions to lift up more people not less, in this election cycle or future election cycles, rather than greet them immediately with suspicion and bar the door - what would it look like to welcome them in, sit them down and hear what they have to say?
We need more hope and less cynical dismissal, nationally and in our own lives.
Politically, let’s be more mindful of the stories being told to us and cast a critical eye when attempts are made to stop you from seeing someone, from hearing them. Who knows where the next great ideas are going to come from that will help us fulfill the American Promise! Encourage an analysis of their policies – weigh the evidence – and leave room for the belief that someone’s vision could actually work.
For yourself - be more mindful of the stories designed to contain and limit you - and cast a critical eye when attempts are made to shame you and keep you small. Be mindful of the ways you have come to believe those stories - and create a better story - a more hopeful story - about who you have been, who you are and who you were born to be. And leave room for the belief that you will step into it.
In Right Speech, before speaking, or repeating a story, Buddhist philosophy asks us to consider three things:
Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it necessary?
The tales we tell, the tales we listen to and the tales we repeat matter.
I find myself considering that in my own life as I hear people speak - and before I speak about others.
Let’s commit now to insisting on better stories for you, for the country and for the world.
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