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Elizabeth Debold

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Marianne Williamson: Inspiring Women to Action

Posted: 04/16/2012 4:50 pm

Earlier this week, I listened to Marianne Williamson kick off The Inspiring Women Summit in a dialogue with Summit founder Devaa Haley Mitchell. Williamson had intended to speak about "Where Women Are Today," but ended up addressing more fundamental issues in the contemporary spiritual world. I was really struck by her message -- a direct kick in the pants to the ways in which ideas about being "spiritual" too often lead to a cloying "preciousness" about ourselves and our lives.

Marianne, with four books that have hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, has been one of the forces behind the whole "spiritual but not religious" cultural trend. Her spiritual framework comes from the neo-Christian path called "A Course in Miracles," although there is a certain eclectic, pick-what-works attitude in her work. Marianne has been named one of the most influential boomers by Newsweek, and TIME magazine has noted that, "Yoga, the Cabala and Marianne Williamson have been taken up by those seeking a relationship with God that is not strictly tethered to Christianity." While I can't say that I know Marianne's work well, her name has become associated with a very personalized and individualistic approach linked to prosperity, wellbeing, and success.

So, when a woman in the Summit asked Marianne what she should do because her unemployment is about to run out and she still hasn't found a job that nurtures her soul, I was surprised at Marianne's response. She said, well, there's value in just working -- that in itself is soul-strengthening. Over and over again, she attacked the notion that spirituality is something that you do to make yourself feel better. While she didn't use the "N" word (narcissism), everything she said was a direct attack on the ways that we use a faux spirituality to coddle ourselves and keep us from the realities that are knocking at the door. Spirituality should force us into a deeper confrontation with life, in its agony and ecstasy, rather than swaddle us against its sharp edges.

I found it significant that Marianne -- such an icon of personal spirituality -- would be advocating so strongly for engagement and action in ways that are politically and culturally potent. At a point when too many boomers in the spiritual marketplace seem to have their attention on experiencing pleasure, finding ways to comfort ourselves and maintaining our sexual vitality as we get older, Marianne's message to get out there and make a difference was truly refreshing.

Marianne was pushing her audience away from the excesses that thirty years of self-focused searching can create. Her call to action is very much in keeping with important themes of the Summit, which has adopted the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict developed by Nobel Laureate Jody Williams and Lynne Twist as their cause for this year. Devaa Haley Mitchell also spoke to the importance of taking action, mentioning her own work with women in the Congo.

It made me wonder: What could happen if boomers who have been following a personal path inward were to turn outward -- particularly us women? I presented at the Summit about Winning the War WITHIN Woman, with Mary Adams -- arguing that we need to change ourselves to ensure that the gains women have made in the last fifty years aren't eroded. Now that Gen X women are waking up to the fact that a postfeminist world is an illusion, we might now really get some momentum going for change. It's noteworthy that Jennifer Seibel Newsom, creator of the film "Miss Representation," was also part of the Summit. Her film asks us to take action to stop the damaging effects of media's sexualization of girls and women. Awakenings across the generations? I hope so. Together, we might just, once and for all, win the war against women so that collectively we can turn our attention to the other, pressing issues that face us on this planet.

The Inspiring Women Summit finishes on April 15, but you can sign up and get the audios now.

 

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