Love & Liberation Require Listening: An Open Essay to Marianne Williamson
Content Warning: Suicide; mental illness; sexual abuse and trauma.
Please take care of yourself when engaging with this piece. I chose to use a personal story as an illustration, largely because I wanted to make it clear that this isn’t a lecture, but a process I’ve had to work through myself.
“The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” — James Baldwin
August 3, 2017 was set to be a personal nightmare.
In the weeks prior — Twitter mentions in shambles, inbox overflowing with unsolicited retorts and a few kind notes — I was preparing to play dinner hostess to the one person I was least eager to see at the time, on the absolute worst day to see him. There wasn’t enough deep breathing or meditation in the world to help make me feel like I wasn’t drowning in a sea of my own making.
My mother, Hilly, was a violently difficult person to be in relationship with. Not only was she complicit in covering up the years of sexual abuse and rape I endured at the hands of her father (by, in part, forcing me to hug, kiss, and be in the same space as him for several years after), there were all the behaviors that came with untreated BPD and NPD, including physical threats and psychological + verbal abuse.
She ultimately chose to end her own life in a protracted, gory skit: she tortured herself to death. It was a slow-moving suicide that emulated and amplified the powerlessness and struggle of her abusive, pain-filled term as my parent. My last words to her before she transitioned were, “Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.”
The morning after that phone call, on that sunny August 3, 2016 in Huntsville, Alabama, I cratered into cream-colored carpet as my chest sharply contracted and seemed to cave in on itself. Disembodied screaming found its way out of my choking lungs and into the phone as my brother watched her body being removed from my grandparent’s condo, trying to console me from several hundred miles away. At some point, I fell completely into the dark as the grief ate my body whole and broke the marrow out of my bones.
I didn’t get out of bed for three months.
So a year later — on the anniversary of this horrific occasion — it would’ve been easy to say no.
It would’ve been convenient to not listen to the rage that made me willing to swallow my ego, and to forsake doing the legwork of bridge-building with someone I sharply criticized. Nobody who mattered would’ve blamed me for stepping away, especially because it involved engaging with someone who, in many ways, operates in direct confrontation and conflict to my beingness in the world. Let alone the idea of me asking me to do that type of emotional labor with an open wound on my mind and spirit that still needed tending.
But it was witnessing and embracing the rage that followed from my mother’s death and life that compelled me to act. It was the rage of wanting to build a better world from the ashes of hers, and the destruction she wrought in mine, that spurred me to step up in the first place. It was the deep rage I carried for the little Black girl who was betrayed, sold, and dehumanized by her family and society that created capacity for me to hold space without waivering. The rage facilitated my lucidity, and grounded me in service to Love and Liberation, whether or not I was heard or seen in return. As long as I had my feet planted squarely towards justice, nothing else mattered.
Choosing to honor rage — to follow its directive, even in the face of your own severe personal discomfort — calls on humility and trust in your own humanity. It requires wrestling with failure, coping with frailty and fragility, and the fear of not being the self we believe we are or wish ourselves to be.
It’s about doing this even when your own ego is on the line.
Rage is visionary, transformational, and healing: rage is the pressure that births diamonds.
Rage is a reminder that God is Change, and that actively shaping God is the way we find each other again.
Rage is a way we can return to love.
“A gift of God
May sear unready fingers.”
— The Book of the Living, Verse 3
Two years ago, the knowledge that what I’d felt for most of my life was the world dying around me, was liberated from the depths of my bone memory.
You were the same age I am now when you first found your way to A Course In Miracles, carrying the same echo in your chest:
“…I was a total mess. I believed other people were dying inside, too, just like me, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it. I kept thinking there was something very important that no one was discussing. I didn’t have the words myself, but I was sure that something was fundamentally off in the world. How could everybody think that this stupid game of “making it in the world” — which I was actually embarrassed I didn’t know how to play — could be all there is to our being here?”
I had been steadily unpacking and interrogating that same dull, aching pain, plastered into my ribs and spine, from very early on in my childhood. It was just this thing that covered me wholesale, and acted as an oppressive veil over the solace I could find within myself. In fact, it was trying to discern my thoughts from this miasma that was the catalyst for my journey with writing, and as an adult, on to spiritual mysticism and contemplation. I mention this because in many ways, our paths have trod over similar ground, so I understand where the impulse to grapple with the world comes from.
But while we were both trying to parse breath from between the cogs of a machine, our conclusions about it and the game that it hosts now live worlds apart. In reality, the game was built for the benefit of your amusement and enrichment, and is still well within your control whether or not you actively and gleefully press its buttons. It can and will, however, dismember you as readily as you help to operate it, but only when you choose to not acknowledge the truth that your hands aren’t chained to the controls.
It turns out that when your blood is meant to oil the machine, you become acutely aware of the looming weight of it all. You anoint your descendants with mitochondrial anticipation, an anxiety they have to learn to shake off like chains. They inherit a fine-tuned awareness of the grind that may steal them in the dark as they yell into empty space, “I can’t breathe.” You do this all because your wildest dream is to see them live.
I’ve spent years watching this machine, and so have you.
But being within it — and unable to transcend its conditions in any intentional, tangible way outside of my own joyful resistance — has forced my spirituality and my politics to avoid the intrinsic cruelty of disembodiment and transcendence. The only path to joy and inner peace in these conditions has been to critically engage with my world through the lens of rage, to find my own wholeness in wrathful love. I do not have the luxury of ignoring with hubris or passive aggressive sweeps when I’m out of integrity with my own freedom, because it’s a matter of life and death.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” — James A. Baldwin
Reckoning With Failure
Recently, it was brought to your attention that you were out of integrity with your own prayerful words, political statements and commitments, and spiritual intentions by committing to participate in an event that raised concerns about colonization, diversity, and inclusion.
Ashley Turner and Sianna Sherman, together known as Urban Priestess, organized this virtual summit centering around the idea of “modern priestesshood” and the themes of rebirth and emergence. The line up of advertised speakers, however, was almost exclusively white and white-presenting people, with very little in the way of discernable or obvious diversity in viewpoint or background, professionally or personally. This was brought to their attention through a large amount of substantive, thoughtful feedback, but the initial batch of discussions and critiques were removed and obstructed by the Urban Priestess team in an attempt to control the narrative and protect their reputations.
The issues with cultural appropriation and other dimensions of social justice were evident from outset. Both of the hosts [2, 3] have practices & training in colonized forms of yoga that inform their philosophy and practices. Additionally, a large number of the speakers are either direct students or grand-students of Yogi Bhajan, whose behavior and teachings — which include statements by former followers of abuse, sexual impropriety, exploitation, and misogyny — call into question how that influence shapes their beliefs and teachings. This is without going into the complex deculturalization, political abuse, misrepresentation, and exploitation Yogi Bhajan brought to the Sikh faith, and how that continues to be perpetuated with even more complex political ramifications by these white and non-ethnically Indian Sikh practitioners.
There are also meaningful + substantive critique to be had around de-contextualisation, colonization, and inclusiveness for trans and non-binary women. These concerns bring up questions as to whether or not the summit was as progressive, welcoming, and expansive as it was marketed as being.
But more than that, the thing the majority of these speakers have in common — besides being largely white or white-presenting, and cisgender — is that their spiritual credentials are rooted in a legacy of appropriation and exoticisation of East Asian philosophies, religions, and culture. Orientalism amongst White Westerners, in particular, is a fundamentally exploitative and violent institution. It has served as a vehicle for ‘entertainment’ and ‘enlightenment’ for the powerful whilst simultaneously being at the expense of their cultural communities by virtue of othering, alienation, and silencing.
As far as I’ve been able to determine, virtually none of the speakers have directly or publicly confronted, interrogated, or examined their privileges in this context or at length. Further, there appears to be no substantive reflection by many of these participants on how their socio-economic power and privilege enables them to freely adopt — without an expectation of accountability to the communities of origin — religious, philosophical, or cultural practice with which they now earn money. All of which they do without having to directly engage with political persecution or personal harm, bigotries, or loss.
Taking these observable factors together as a whole — along with the lack of inclusivity among speakers (in femme gender identity, socio-economic status/class, nationality, ethnicity, religiosity, ability, *and* race), the criticisms are valid, reasonable, and warranted. It doesn’t matter if anyone involved received these things in a package they felt was too hostile, uncomfortable, abrupt, or angry. Systems of oppression are themselves hostile, uncomfortable, abrupt, and angry — and that is if we’re using extremely generous descriptions. We do not have the luxury of opting out.
Everyone involved with contributing to the container of this summit is responsible for their consent. Everyone involved are also responsible for the ways they were complicit in how this structure feeds and supports oppressive norms, regardless of their initial intentions. Making excuses and framing up the community highlighting these facts as abusive is not only disingenuous, it’s destructive.
Further: these are oppressive systems that you, yourself, have both intuitively registered and directly spoken in your work. You, yourself, have decried the ways they contribute to the pain and suffering of the planet:
“…From slavery, to lynchings, to white supremacist laws, to the denial of voting rights, to all the ways both large and small, that abuses have occurred — all of them evil, all of them wrong. For all the oppression and all the injustice…I apologize,please forgive us. For the denial of human and civil rights, for inequities in criminal justice, for instances of police brutality, for the denial of opportunity, for economic injustice, for all ways that racism has fostered these wrongs… I apologize, please forgive us.” 
And at Sister Giant:
“When it comes to racism and genocide…no one is asking you to accept blame. We know YOU didn’t own slaves. We know YOU didn’t steal the land. We know YOU didn’t initiate genocide. But what we ARE asking is that YOU take responsibility. We inherited a debt. America has a debt…humanity has a debt…just pay it. Address the humiliation and insult at the deepest level.”
Coping With Fragility & Frailty
“Some pain is simply the normal grief of human existence. That is pain that I try to make room for. I honor my grief.”
— Marianne Williamson
White supremacist, colonial-imperialist kyriarchy are all rooted in the politics and ethics of capitalism. Digging further into the roots of capitalism, we discover an essence known to some Indigenous people as wetiko — and this bottomless, ceaseless void originates, it could be argued, from a profound fear of death, be it of the physical body or the image-identity, that keeps this engine of terrorism and torture fueled.
This fear also shows up as fragility and ego frailty, and an unwillingness to witness suffering you’ve been complicit to. Witnessing this type of suffering threatens to kill an image you may have of yourself: as immortal, powerful, good, kind, compassionate, progressive, inclusive, thoughtful. Recognizing that ideology and behavior are choices, and those choices can change — as you’ve said elsewhere, we can always choose to perceive things differently — plays in sharp contrast to the idea most people feel when being held accountable for their oppressive complicity. This is often read and received as a pronouncement of ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, rather than a declaration of boundaries and the inherent dignity of another. This moral binary is both reductive and not useful, and ultimate supports systems of oppression to the benefit of the powerful by allowing them to derail the conversation when their abuse and exploitation is brought to the fore.
Rather than making space for the grief of failure — to bear witness to the ways that your choices and complicity in this event were out of integrity with your commitments — you pushed it away. Rather than exploring your own feelings of disappointment, and the resentment that arose from being shown an honest portraiture of what you were accountable for contributing in, you deflected and projected this harm onto others.
Worse yet, you took that resentment and denial one step further and compared marginalized people advocating for more liberatory ways of being to the ideologies used to justify and advocate for murdering them and their beloveds.
(Stop. Read the last sentence again. Let that sink in. Think about the power dynamics of that sentiment, and the action of expressing it.)
The only apparent motivation for this behavior is the fear that rises from being asked to untangle your sense of self and identity from the power-drunk, abusive pinnacles of white supremacist kyriarchy. This death of identity, and the death of the privileges that enable parts of it whether we consciously consented to them or not, creates fear.
That’s why equity, inclusion, and liberation feel like oppression to those who are given power.
The only solution to this fear is active rejection, and in order to actively reject something, you have to know what you’re fighting again. Being able to articulate the problem requires deep listening, both so that we can unlearn our limited sense of perspective on the world, but also so we can respectfully center and follow the people who see the whole picture.
None of that happened here, largely out of an unwillingness to acknowledge that seeing and listening are both learned skills.
Listening & Seeing Through Fear
“The art of seeing has to be learned.”
— Marguerite Duras
In the months after my mother committed suicide, I re-discovered this article from Brain Pickings discussing writing advice from the inimitable James Baldwin. This piece describes the moment in which Baldwin recollects how his ability to view the world changed forever:
“I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was the water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
If we operate on the assumption that love is the antidote is fear, it stands to reason that a unilateral interpretation of love is, itself, a form of fear.
Acknowledging rage as a wrathful dimension of love — fierce, proactive, decisive action , the hard labor of accountability grounded in the inherent dignity of harmful actors — is the only way to bring integration and wholeness to the table. Rejecting rage means alienating a vehicle through which we extend and act upon compassion for fellow beings.
Love is not always doves cooing in the morning.
Love is also a lioness disemboweling a threat to her cubs without a moment’s hesitation.
To truly witness and ameliorate suffering, you are required to hold present, attentive witness rage: The rage that springs from your complicity. The rage that springs from being confronted over your complicity. The rage that springs from the dying breaths of a part of your self-identity. The amplified rage that comes from intentionally orchestrated violence to repeat acts of microaggression and invalidation.
But you must learn how to see the world and everyone in it first, something systems of oppression actively suppress, and that requires resilience and resistance to avoiding falling prey to pride and frailty.
Fragility is what rears when we’re confronted with an opportunity to step into equitable community and justice but instead demand — as you did — refraining from blunt discernment. Rather than simply accepting things as they are, there is instead a demand to lean into and insist upon preferential, deferential treatment at the expense of the harmed. This can mean giving the benefit of the doubt to people who have not demonstrated good faith, or diminishing people in their pain if they don’t recount their wounds in a softer, gentler tone of voice with people content to not hear them, no matter how loud or quiet their stories are recounted.
As Baldwin writes in his essay, “The Creative Process,” it is the responsibility of cultural actors (artists, writers, other vocational visionaries) to embrace with an unconditional acceptance the voices of those who fight for the inherent dignity of all:
“The human beings whom we respect the most, after all — and sometimes fear the most — are those who are most deeply involved in this delicate and strenuous effort, for they have the unshakable authority that comes only from having looked on and endured and survived the worst. That nation is healthiest which has the least necessity to distrust or ostracize these people — whom, as I say, honor, once they are gone, because somewhere in our hearts we know that we cannot live without them.”
As a writer who has publicly committed herself to the mission of justice, you, too, are called to defer and amplify those voices. Especially when they hold up a mirror to rage and ask you to peer deeply at yourself and your behavior, so that your platform and voice are used compassionately and wisely.
If one wishes to be a messenger for truth, fully taking in rage is a non-negotiable dimension of embodying that leadership. It means accepting — without guilt, despondence, or delusionary recoil — the existence of suffering, acknowledging that this truth is shameful, and that its experience is wholly optional. Restorative justice is a justice that places these things at the heart of reconciliation and accountability, focusing on the pain of the victims before turning its eyes to the conditions that surround the person doing harm. This is what you are responsible for helping to envision and build through your body of work if you want to say with sincerity that you are a servant of liberation.
To be a custodian of love, justice, and community means discharging this task faithfully, even if it means challenging your own identity and ego in the process.
It means making a decision to prioritize this duty over your own comfort and the pain of addressing where you’ve been complicit in oiling the machine.
“To get along with God,
Consider the consequences of your behavior.”
— The Book of the Living, Verse 14
Back to the fall of 2017.
In the heat of the autumnal dreamscape of Chicago, I dialed my co-strategist and business manager to debate our options.
My Twitter mentions had once again fallen to shambles and my inbox was treated to a glut of contact form submissions. It was a shitshow. But at the top of the pile was an email that was predictable and frustrating: an inquiry about rescheduling dinner.
A couple of weeks before, after an unexpected, last minute cancellation, I had Facebook messaged her with mug in hand to vent. Between sips of coffee, I told Dani that something rang hollow in the given explanation by my would-be guest’s team about the no show, delivered over a weekend and outside of business hours. I nonchalantly stated that if the wind caught my words again, and the heat came back onto my dinner companion’s reputation, we wouldn’t have to follow up. It turns out I was right.
At the time, I had just started re-reading the groundbreaking work of Octavia Butler. As I meandered and struggled my way through grief counseling, the words of her Earthseed Trilogy — along with adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy — were helping me come to terms with blossoming fully into adulthood without the benefit of rest or transition, in a world built on a foundation of trying to crush me and my beloveds.
In Lauren Olamina and her fate, I felt a striking chord of comfort and haunting. I learned that the rage at the injustice of the world was actually burning a way through me for liberated dreaming, like it did Lauren. That I could walk in the world inspired by the hope and possibility of Earthseed, its observations and consequences delivered into my arms as the terrifying gift it was. Reckoning with change forged and nurtured both of us, it facilitated our evolutions, calling us both forward into embodying leadership rather than engaging it as an abstract prop or artificial trapping. As Verse 1 of The Book of the Living states, “All that you touch/You Change./All that you Change/Changes you./The only lasting truth/Is Change./God Is Change.”
Those words eased themselves into my fingers as I debated my options, rage tingling up my spine in a warm, inviting embrace. It would be easier to simply go along with playing the game, to prioritize comfort over the truth. Nobody would have blamed me for biting my tongue and holding back the rage of recognition at the dynamic unfolding: that the only time power is willing to listen to those without is when they threaten their sense of self-goodness, or the tenants of their branding. This uncomfortable realization extended to me, too: I had billed a reputation, however unwanted, on bold courage. Walking away from a dinner table where it was abundantly clear mutual respect may not be served flew in face of my own sense of self, and being in integrity meant opening myself up to questions about my identity, convictions, and principles.
But love and liberation require listening — and that day, I was forced to listen to the truth that our integrity is directly tied to our Divinity, that our integrity’s truth is not in our heart but in our hands. That servitude to the world from a place of kindness is not marked by what feels nice, but by how we act to shape ourselves in response to what challenges our desire to make permanent the impermanent, evolving nature of our self. We have to confront the death of who we think we are, so we can live fully and presently in who we are and are becoming. That is the way we get to freedom.
As I sit here today writing this essay to you, I do so in the same spirit I wrote my email response a year ago, declining dinner. It’s not easy, or comfortable, to confront grief or pain.
But hidden in those things is a holy invitation I now share with you in hopes that maybe it will help you see what you cannot see, transmitted through Octavia Butler’s blunt, alchemical beauty:
To shape God
With wisdom and forethought,
To benefit your world,