I remember when I first received the email. I was sitting in my cubicle—a place that didn’t reflect my inner life. I don’t remember who the email was from. But, it was one of those inspirational emails that starts off lifting your spirits and then lets you down by saying that you have to send it to ten of your friends. Very often when I get those emails, I say to myself, “This ends with me.” Then I delete them. But this one was different. This email was about Nelson Mandela—“Madiba”—the man who went to prison sentenced as a terrorist, but emerged to become the President of the very country that oppressed his people through a horrible system of segregation known as Apartheid.
Ever since I heard about Mandela, I was inspired by how he overcame unimaginable odds. During the time of his imprisonment, my aunt sold “Free Mandela” T-shirts in her store. But I didn’t really learn anything substantial about him until he became President of South Africa. After that, I, like many people, saw him as a model human being in terms of how he handled coming into power. So when I read the words attributed to him in the email, I had no reason to think that they weren’t from the man himself.
When I read the words, they went straight to my heart. They revealed to me what I knew in my inner being but didn’t know how to admit to myself or articulate—that my deepest fear was not that I was inadequate. It was that I was POWERFUL BEYOND MEASURE.
OUR DEEPEST FEAR
“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. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. 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.”
After reading this, my mind filled with people that I thought would benefit from this message. In fact, I couldn’t think of anyone who couldn’t benefit from it because it resonated with me as the most fundamental truth of the human struggle. When I read the words, I could easily acknowledge the fact that on many occasions I made myself small under the false premise that by doing so I was in some way serving others. I thought of all of the times when people told me that I “made them look bad” when I did my best. Or when I felt embarrassed to receive compliments in front of others or was compared to people I cared about in a way that put me is some relatively higher position. And the writer was absolutely correct, I was under the impression that there was something enlightened about what I was doing. After all, I had heard often in church that Christ had all of the power of God but showed up as a mere mortal. Was I more enlightened than him? And Paul taught that we should always think of ourselves as less than others. So wasn’t I just being a good Christian? But, at the same time, in reading those words, I couldn’t deny that it hit me in my heart in such a way that I was convicted. And so in that moment, I decided to follow the advice of Mandela and shine my light in such a way that it honors who God created me to be and to “give other people permission to do the same.”
The only thing was, it turned out that Madiba never said this. One of the people who I forwarded the email to wrote back letting me know that, in fact, a woman named Marianne Williams had actually written the life changing statement. Now you would think that knowing this wouldn’t have made that much of a difference, but it did. In some small way, hearing that Mandela hadn’t said this deflated me a little. Somehow, thinking that a black man said this gave it a little bit more authority in my own life. I felt like because he came from a system of oppression that mirrored what I could relate to, his ability to say it made it more powerful. Whereas, my imagination of Marianne Williamson—someone who admittedly I had never heard of—was that she was making that statement from a place of comfort and privilege. And so perhaps it was easier for her to believe that about herself and others.
The Truth that is always True
Once I learned this information, I decided to go back to my policy of deleting forwards like that. And, I decided that I wasn’t going to refer to that quote again. If Madiba never said it, for me it was never said. Or so it was my intent. But that’s the ting about the truth. It’s persistent. It turned out that once I heard the statement, I could never unhear it. Every time I caught myself playing small to make others feel better, Marianne came into my mind telling me that that there was nothing enlightened about it. And the truth is, she’s right.
As I reflected on what she said over the years, I remembered that I didn’t come into the world thinking that I had to play small. I was taught it. And in fact, even though I told myself that there were instances when I should have played small, in reality I never really was. What I did was find areas in my life, like my Christian practice, where I could put the energy that I otherwise would have put into something else. But on some level, I knew that hiding in religion was not my calling. Shining my light had to manifest some other ways that I would never know until I faced my deepest fear.
Over the next several posts, I am going to work with Marianne Williamson’s message to go deep into what I believe is still causing me to hold back in some areas of my life. At one time, I had an alarm set on my phone to remind me to read Williamson’s words every day. I kept it up for months and can say that I experienced positive results in my inner life from doing so. But where I started to falter was when I started feeling compelled to share with others. It was then that I started making internal excuses for once again conditionally dimming my light. Recently, when I noticed my daughter starting to dim her light, I decided to print the poem out for her and asked her to memorize it. She did and it once again convicted me. For weeks we said it to each other on the way to drop her off at school. It was very special. But again, I started making excuses to dim my light.
At first I couldn’t figure out why I was doing it. But now I think I know why. It is an inverse method of trying to have some control over something that I fear—that if I shine my light too bright, people in my life will try to make me dim it. And like ripping off your own band-aid, somehow the pain seems more manageable if you do it to yourself. But no more. I have to get beyond these fears. And I will. I must, by the perfect love that the Bible teaches casts fear out. And so the journey has begun. I’m curious to see what I will learn.
To be continued…