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.”
Do you have recommendations for people who want to transform for the next step in life?
People want step one, step two, step three. That’s not how a life changes. A life changes because you go, “Oh, wow. I get it.” And that is followed by something else that happens, and you go, “Right.” It’s layers of understanding.
When I was younger, Otis Redding sang "Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay," with the lyric, "sitting here resting my bones." And I thought that was silly because who rests their bones? So, years later, one day I hear myself saying to my daughter, “Honey, you go outside. Mommy’s going to just sit here and rest her bones.” I freaked out. I panicked. It’s like, it’s all over if I’m resting my bones.
I did this whole study within myself of what it meant that I was sitting down, and I thought about the Buddhist meditation, which I used to do, in which the goal was to enjoy sitting. When you’re younger, there is this hormonally-based adrenaline rush pulsing through your veins that makes it difficult to achieve a quiet mind and a quiet body.
Later, the evolutionary process is such that you find you’re just sitting there and it means something. If in fact the highest, most powerful work is the work of consciousness, then what we could do from our rocking chairs could literally rock the world.
Our generation is becoming contemplative. We are becoming reflective. I look back on so many of the mistakes I made. I would not have made them had I not been moving so fast.
So, we all become yogis by default.
That’s the thing--or we don’t. If we don’t, it’s called a slow cruise to death, and it can be really rough. That’s exactly the point. You either become a yogi or you become pathetic.
How are you taking care of your body and your spiritual practices? How has that changed as you’ve gotten older?
I’ve just taken it more seriously because there’s a higher price to pay for not doing it. At a certain period of life, your karma is more instant. That which you get right bears even greater fruit, and that which you get wrong bears harsher consequences--your ability to forgive, your ability to let go, or your physical exercise or yoga or whatever.
What's the most important spiritual practice?
Pray. The second most important thing, meditate. Third most important thing, do physical exercise and yoga. Then, the fourth most important thing, if moved to do so, read my book.
Do you feel like you’re reinventing yourself for a second life?
Reinvention doesn’t really say it for me. Nature doesn’t reinvent itself every spring. It does what it does. God invents you. As you get older, the spiritual opportunity is to drop that which is false and to reclaim your true self. T.S. Eliot in "Four Quartets" says, “You’re always going home. You’re going back home.” So, it’s not so much that you’re going forward, you’re coming full circle. You are dropping this artificial self that accumulated--the burdens, the disappointments, the fears, the falsehoods.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand how Emily Dickinson basically never left town and could know so much, but I do now. Everything is here.When you’re younger, you just want to go out and get rich--whatever that means. When you’re older, you realize that the issue is to know how rich life is. I think that’s where our nation needs to go, too, because this gargantuan drive to just expand is unsustainable.
That’s what I feel I’m going through in my life. I’m sitting in a room now, and I look at this lamp, and I remember I bought it in Los Angeles. Those silver candlesticks, they were my grandmother's. That bowl, my mother brought to me from Paris. That little ivory piece my girlfriend Victoria gave me for my birthday. That book over there my publisher gave me when I wrote "A Woman’s Worth." That statue over there, the board of directors of the church I was at gave me.
You realize, oh, my goodness, there’s so much in what’s here because once you’ve lived enough, it’s these things that matter. It’s not getting more. It’s learning to just be in such joy with what you have.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would want to tell Beliefnet readers?
When the mirror is no longer telling you what you thought you would like to hear and the culture is no longer telling you what you thought you would like to hear, sometimes that’s when you finally have ears for what God wants to say to you. That’s when you hear him say things sweeter than the mirror ever told you and sweeter than the culture ever told you. That’s when you finally realize that you are loved, and you finally realize you are enough.
When you have really allowed that in, you emerge into a different place within yourself, and from that place life rocks.