Marianne Williamson is a best-selling author, former minister, Course in Miracles teacher, speaker, and peace advocate. Now 55, she has turned her fierce yet compassionate gaze to conscious aging in her new book, "The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Midlife." She talks to Beliefnet about how we can reclaim our inherent fabulousness and what the Boomers need to be doing in their pivotal next chapter--for themselves and the planet.
What inspired you to write a book about aging?
My soul has been grappling for several years with no longer being young. One of the shocks of a 50th birthday is realizing the fundamental fact that your youth is irrevocably over. In our society, as people pass out of young adulthood, they tend to relate to themselves more in terms of what they are no longer than what they are now, and that’s psychologically low-grade devastating.
Why do you think people are doing that?
[In midlife] it's as though we have a second puberty. In the first, the persona of the child fades away and the young adult begins to emerge. A wise culture knows to mark this for a child through a coming-of-age ceremony of some kind. Otherwise, the child is moved to subconsciously mark it anyway, often dysfunctionally. It could be body piercing, immoderate sex, drugs, etc.
The second puberty is similar. If we do not create an honorable marking, then that’s what the proverbial midlife crisis is. Somebody running out and doing something crazy or, in women, often an unacknowledged depression.
In the second puberty, you start reaching back in time. We need to create a psychic container to grieve, let go, forgive, and reconcile. Otherwise there’s too much baggage and we can't enter this new phase.
Look at sexuality. In the first puberty, it's like "Yippee! I got it now." Well, in the second puberty, it’s grieving an aspect of it that you don’t have anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like you don’t have something equally fabulous.
I remember I was walking through a store and I saw clothes a 25-year-old would wear. And the conversation in my head was, “I’m not young and fabulous anymore.” But, immediately, there was a voice that said, “No, you can be older and fabulous.” In other words, still just as fabulous, but in a different way.
Can you talk about the moment in the book when you’re looking in the mirror?
Most people, men and women, have had the experience of being 45, 50, 55, looking at a picture of themselves when they were young and thinking, “I thought that was inadequate?” When I realized I was thinking, “If only I was younger, it would be better,” I began to think about what was really true when I was younger. When I was younger, I was thinking, “If only I had another job, it would better. If I only lived in another place, it would be better. If only I was in a different relationship, it would be better.”
So, the real issue was not age. The real issue was the mind struggling against itself.
What makes people feel and look old?
Stress, grief, pain, suffering. By the time we're 45 or 40, few people are unscathed. We all fall down. The issue is not who falls down, it’s who gets back up and how. The new midlife is where you realize that even your failures make you more beautiful and are turned spiritually into success if you became a better person because of them. You became a more humble person. You became a more merciful and compassionate person.
This internal work is so necessary because, at a certain point, you either do this work and transform the energy, or you’re weighed down. You can look at people in their 50s and you can almost tell which choice they made, consciously or subconsciously.
And what if you find yourself with this hardened crust? Is it hopeless?
Absolutely not. First, you have to admit it and recognize it. You can be 20 and carrying around a lot of character defects, fooling a lot of people. But you get to a certain age where your racket is obvious. You have a choice. You can just saunter into this next phase of your life with this racket that’s pathetic and painful and aging and disease or you can realize, this is my spiritual initiation, and you do the work. Some people are saying, “I can’t rise up because of my husband who left me 20 years ago.” Well, who’s the real enemy there? The person who left you or the person inside you who’s let 20 years pass without getting over it?
So, you carry that hardness and that bitterness. From a consciousness perspective, there’s no mystery why love is not just rushing in. And so, there’s forgiveness of self. There's forgiveness of others. There’s allowing our failures to become our medicine because of what we learned.
How do we deal with our aging physical self?
As a woman, who wishes we didn’t have the same thighs that we had twenty years ago, or the same rear end or that our breasts were in the same place? Who doesn’t think wistfully about all that? You can’t just pretend that you don’t. You have to grieve it. Then, something else happens that’s pretty wonderful. I say in the book, “You can’t hold your leg up as high in aerobics class anymore, but you can lift your eyebrow in a way you couldn’t in those days.”
For myself, if I am trying to work on my body because I’m trying to make it what it used to be, I’m filled with angst and stress. But, if I’m working on my body to be a hip and cool and fabulous 55-year-old, it’s a whole different energy and a whole different joy in the process. My chances of even approaching what I used to be are far greater. You’re affirming life, you’re not staving off death. You’re living in the present.
How are the Baby Boomers changing what aging means?
The Boomers thought we were going to make the world much better. If we are honest with ourselves, as if we as a collective were in therapy, we would have to face the truth that, on our watch, things got much worse. The generation that thought that we were going to replace guns with flowers has, more than any generation in history, replaced flowers with guns.
We have one more chapter of our history in this lifetime. If we don’t get it right, we will die having gotten it wrong. For anyone who reaches a certain age, you don’t want to die feeling it was all for nothing. The Jewish prayer book says how sad is he who dies not having sung his song.
There is a confluence here--just at the time our generation feels, “I want to be a sane grownup,” we are living at a moment where, if a critical mass of people don’t become sane grownups, like, very quickly, there is going to be global catastrophe.
So, it’s really the opposite of retirement.
You better believe it. A friend of mine said to me, “Oh, I get it. Don’t retire, re-fire.” In the past you might “do a little something just to stay busy.” This is a whole different thing. This is people going, “You know what? No matter how flashy my career was, it just taught me what I need to do what’s really important.”