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The Birth of a New Human Story:
Keynote Speech from the
Women & Courage Conference

By Elizabeth Lesser

The following is from a speech given by Elizabeth Lesser at the Women & Courage conference held at Omega Institute, September 12-14, 2008. Elizabeth Lesser co-founded Omega Institute in 1977 (www.eomega.org). Omega is now America’s largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, social change, and creativity, drawing more than 20,000 people each year to its campus and urban conferences. Lesser is the author of The Seeker’s Guide and Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. For many years she has organized Omega’s Women & Power conference series, electrifying dialogues between women leaders from a variety of disciplines, including government, activism, religion, media, and the arts.

Elizabeth Lesser

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives and spending your weekend with us at Omega. This year I get to be here at the podium and also in the audience with you. I am looking forward to finally experiencing a Women and Power conference! It beats being backstage, clipboard and radio in hand, hair on fire, madly pulling the levers behind the curtain.

And yet, I also feel nostalgic for the behind-the-scenes role. I’ve spent 30 years behind the curtain, happily attending to the needs of our speakers and teachers. It’s a role I’ve been comfortable in…empowering others, creating nurturing spaces where other people can shine, taking care of the needs of others so they can grow—sound familiar?

Women have been creating, maintaining, and protecting the space for others—tending the human garden—throughout history. We’re comfortable in this role. We’re good at it. And that’s a good thing, because I’m here to tell you that this kind of leadership—the kind that empowers, protects, nurtures—is the only kind of leadership that’s going to work at this stage of evolution for our human community. That is not a pie-in-the-sky, idealistic statement. It’s reality. The march of human history has been one of great creativity and progress, but we are living with the wreckage of that story as well.

How do we step out from behind the curtain and co-author a new human story? A story where the skills and values women have honed for millennia, take their rightful place in the ethos that guides humanity? That is the big question.

We’re at the edge of something new. Whenever something is being born the labor pains can get intense—so intense that you one can be overwhelmed by fear and pain and confusion. Having been a midwife earlier in my career, I find the metaphor of labor apt for these transitional times. Here’s a brief primer in labor and delivery: the pain of a contraction comes from the uterine muscles thinning out and pulling open the cervix so that a space can be opened for the baby—the new life—to emerge. That’s all you need to know in regards to the labor pains we are now experiencing in the world. Something fresh and vital is begging to be born. Painful contractions are being felt on a global scale. Human communities and entire nations, species and vast ecosystems all are being stretched, changed, and rearranged. As in childbirth, the most effective way to cooperate with the times is to relax, to trust, to breathe, and to have courage.

I have spent all of my adult life caring about this subject of women’s wisdom, women and power, the Feminine. I was raised by a feminist mother—one of those women who navigated, for us, the confusing territory between the first and second waves of the women’s movement. We owe so much to those women.

My feminism came of age when I was at Barnard College in the 1970s. And it has matured and broadened throughout my life, as a midwife and birth educator, as a mother, and as a businesswoman and organizational leader. In all of these roles I’ve experienced something that women all over the world also report—I've had a viable vision of a different kind of world, but inadequate words to express it, because the language of power and commerce and courage was written in a foreign tongue. And so, when I've tried to speak my truth, in meetings, in boardrooms, my own home—I’ve sometimes had to play the game in a way that deceives my deeper instincts, or I’ve stayed silent, or gone passive-aggressive, or I’ve erupted in the frustration. Sometimes when I’ve known in my gut that what is needed is to slow things down, to feel instead of think about an issue, to ask the more intimate or longer range questions, I’ve been at a loss how to do this…How to be heard and seen and respected without betraying my genuine voice and values; how to foster change in a way that models the change I long to see; how to sync up the inner and the outer; how to be the change as Gandhi so beautifully put it; how to stand up strong for the soul of the world, without abandoning my own soul.

I know this is your story too. That’s why we’re all here. To seize the day, and to seize it in a way that befits our wisest selves. Because I do believe it is our day; I believe that the world needs women to dig deep, to speak new words, and to source our courage from a very different place within the human heart.

So this morning, I’m going to talk about that new kind of courage. We are going to need courage, because this is a confounding time to be a woman concerned about humanity and the planet. As one of my spiritual teachers, George Carlin, said: Just when I found out the meaning of life, they changed it.

Over these past five years, just when I thought I’d finally figured out what it means to be a woman in our times; what is asked of me as a woman; what I have to give because I am a woman—the world has gone topsy-turvy and I’m left with some very important and intriguing questions. Like:
*When we talk about the necessity of empowering women, are we talking about just some women? …Specifically, the women we agree with?
*Are there values most women share? “Caring” more than “conquering”? Empowering others rather than holding power over others? Communicating? Listening?
*Or, maybe we shouldn’t even be using the word “women” here—perhaps we should be talking instead about something more elusive: The Feminine, which, like The Masculine is an archtype—an energy, a set of values—that lives in both women and men. Perhaps we are talking about that sacred marriage within all humans between the The Feminine and The Masculine.
*Then of course, there’s the question, does the Feminine dwell more in women because of nature or nurture or a little of both, or is that question even relevant anymore, given how periolous things have become? Is the more important question: How are we going to dignify and amplify a more feminine value system and soon?

These questions have kept me up at night this year, and caused me to change my mind, and switch directions several times. If I had been asked to deliver a speech on the subject of “women and courage” one year ago, I probably would have talked about the exciting fact that women were being elected heads of state all over the world: Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, president of Liberia, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, and others in India, Argentina, and now Israel. And I would have ended the speech with my elation at the prospect of a woman running for the president of my own country.

If I had given the speech six months ago, I would have tried to find words to wrap around my conflicted feelings about Hillary Clinton’s campaign—how the tactics seemed to mutate in order to function within the dominant power structure. If I had given my speech 4 months ago, I would be telling you that I had switched my allegiance from Hillary—the woman candidate—to Barack Obama—the man—because after long thought and much talk with friends and colleagues, I had to follow my inner compass.

It hurt to do this. I had dreams where Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth and Betty Friedan and my dearly deceased mother were coming after me.

Things have heated up even more over the past couple of weeks. I’ve been in constant dialogue with friends—many of whom have stood at this podium over the years. The one place where we all agree is that some of our most cherished concepts have been turned on their heads.

Even Marie Wilson, the head of the White House Project, the nonprofit group committed to seeing a woman elected president, wrote in Time Magazine “Obama’s the girl in the race. Clinton came out tough; she voted for the war. Obama came out as the person bringing people together and offering messages of hope and reconciliation." You don’t have to agree with that statement to agree that it’s a confusing time to be interested in this subject of women and power.

I started the year excited that a woman was running for president. Now I am terrified that a woman might BE president. George Carlin was never more right—just when I found out the meaning of life, enter Sarah Palin, an empowered woman whose image shouldering a semi-automatic rifle was on the cover of Time Magazine; a woman whose words indicate she has not studied the research about Iraq, global warming, Russian foreign policy, or sex education; a woman who cherishes the life of a human baby, but seems not to understand that the very web supporting all life is in grave danger.

And to add to the world gone topsy-turvy, the most unlikely people have gone all PC on us. Like Rush Limbaugh chiding the press for being sexist. Like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who has made it his career to discourage mothers from working outside the home. Now he says Sarah Palin is the new American heroine. I don’t understand this: Isn’t she the one using motherhood to define herself, but didn’t she go back to a very demanding job just three days after her 5th child was born?

I had a mind-boggling experience the other day on the grocery store line. I wondered aloud to a conservative friend of mine how a woman with a newborn baby and 4 other kids could find it in her heart to be away from them on the campaign trail.

Right there on the checkout line, my friend chewed me out for having double standards. He’s a guy who’s a construction worker and a rugby player, and he said, “If Sarah Palin’s husband was running would anyone even think to ask this question?” I was suddenly alarmed by my own point of view, and then amazed by his, and sort of hopeful about the whole conversation! Change comes in strange ways…

I told you it’s a very confusing time to be at women’s conference! Does anyone else in the room find her head swimming?

Well the first thing I want to say about this is that its OK to be confused. Take a big breath in and sigh, and move your shoulders down from your ears. Remember that we’re in labor. Something new is being born. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed. Fully feeling and admitting that nothing is as simple and sure-fire as we thought it was, is a sign of mature intelligence. I trust people who question their beliefs, who change and grow, way more than those who are rigidly sure of themselves. One of the most dangerous human behaviors is what my daughter-in-law calls MAS—Male Answer Syndrome. This knee-jerk reaction to always have an answer, to never admit not knowing, to be a know-it-all. No one knows it all; if we were truly honest, all of us, men and women alike, would admit to frequent bouts of befuddlement. So let’s give ourselves a break, relax, and feel part of the on-going human story.

There’s never been a time in history that wasn’t full of contradictions and shades of gray and ambiguities and exciting new discoveries to be made. The best discoveries are made by I-Don’t-Know-It-Alls. Let’s be explorers together.

Let’s start our exploration by going back a few years—like 50,000 years—and draw a time-line from then to now, and take stock of how we humans got to where we are, here at the edge of the cliff, with our planet earth hanging in the balance. We are in new territory for our species—the dawning of a global consciousness brought on by threats to our shared home. Not threats from something out of our control—like a meteorite or an alien invasion. No, this is not a science fiction story. It’s real, and it’s pressing, and there’s no one else to pass the buck to. It’s ours. All of ours. If opportunity always comes imbedded in crisis, well humanity has one fantastic opportunity! And there are hints that people are waking up to this new opportunity, but our society is still organized around old myths, and we have a lot of changing to do.

About 50,000 years ago our earliest ancestors—the Cro-Magnon people—began painting their mythology on the walls of caves. And we’ve been a story-telling species ever since, using myth to give meaning to our lives and values to our cultures.

Ten years ago, my husband and I traveled to the Périgord region of France to see the cave paintings. They’re like the Sistine chapels of prehistory. You go deep into these dark caves and when lit you see gorgeous symbols of female fertility painted on the walls, as well as the images of panthers, bison, wooly mammoth, rhinoceros, and horses. The paintings are believed to be remnants of a mythology, a religion that centered on the Earth, the mother of all forms of life.

The caves are located high above the beautiful Dordogne River, near towns built in the Middle Ages. In the caves, you’re immersed in Cro-Magnon consciousness. When you step out into the light of day, you see all around you the artifacts of the on-going human story. In the layering of towns on the riverbanks you see signs of the ancient Celts and Romans, evidence of periods of renaissance, creativity, and innovation… and periods of war, famine, and peasant revolts. In one little town we stood in the garden of a simple stone church with a statue of the Virgin and her child. We looked across the river to a towering castle, fortified to protect against invasion. A sign in the church garden paid homage to people who had died during the Black Plague, when 60% of Europe’s population was wiped out. Standing there I had an experience like those deathbed visions when your whole life passes in front of your eyes. In this case I saw the whole march of history pass before me.

That trip shifted something in me. I saw how what we have come to accept as “human nature” is just a story. Our earliest ancestors organized their lives for thousands of years around one story, which was a fundamentally different story than what we have been telling over the last thousands of years. My journey into the caves fortified something I had been thinking for a while—that the prevailing myth of our own times was changing, could change, and must change.

The big story that has dominated human history since our ancestors left the womb of those caves about 12,000 years ago has been the story of conquest.

The plot of this story has been humans as dominators of the earth; and the main character has been the warrior; and the animating energy has been machismo—the energy that goes forth, that takes, that prevails…Let’s not only be critics of this storyline.

There’s a lot to be said for the myth of conquest. I for one am glad that when we leave the conference hall this evening we won’t lose a few of us to a hungry pack of woolly mammoth. There’s other good things too—the myth of conquest has helped us conquer diseases, protect us from floods and famines, and create a multitude of opportunities for the human species. I am grateful for many of the advancements made by the warriors among us.

But here’s the thing about conquest—it also leaves a trail of destruction. Especially when its counter-myth, the story of the healer and the nurturer—is pooh-poohed as soft, unrealistic, irrelevant. The old myth told some tales that are turning out to be false:
*Like, the tale of endless growth based on the limitless abundance of the natural world. That may have seemed true way back when, but we know it isn’t anymore.
*Or the tale that war is essential and noble and the only option when the going gets tough; that violence can somehow lead to peace. This has been disproved over and over and over, and yet still, we tell the same story.
*And then there’s the tale that was necessary to keep the warrior myth alive: That women are capable only of housework and childrearing. That we aren’t suited to analyze, decide, vote, make art, innovate, or lead. And that men shouldn’t and can’t raise children, tend the hearth, or tend the hearts of the people in their lives at home and work.

So, to recap…a brief history of the human race: we started in the womb of the caves, painting stories on the walls about our species’ interwoven relationship with nature and animals and birth and death. We moved out of the caves, began to domesticate animals and cultivate the land and explore and build and divide and conquer. And now, we’ve come to the end of the usefulness and sustainability of that myth of the conqueror. A new one is rising—one we may not see fully realized in our times, but one we must help write for our children and grandchildren and the generations to come. Its plot is about men and women from every nation and every race coming together to restore the earth, our shared home. Where the arc of the dying myth has been humans as dominators, the new myth is about humans as collaborators; where the main character has been the warrior, now it is the restorer; and where the animating energy has been machismo, now the energy is Mamisma.

Not Machisma, which would be a big mistake. Machisma is angry and self-centered and shortsighted. Mamisma is a new word coined by the social scientist Harriet Rubin, who describes it as “femininity defined by mature and maternal qualities.” Now in case that makes younger women feel left out, here’s my definition: Mamisma is the energy a mother bear has when she senses her cubs are in danger—and in this case, she’s the mother of all creation. Her actions can be fierce, but they not vengeful and they are not about her—she puts her passion and her power in the service of love.

Imagine way back when, after our ancestors had left the cave, if the myth makers had included the wise women of the tribe. What if the storyline had led the people to believe that it was a sign of strength and nobility to cry and feel and empathize and talk a lot instead of keeping things tightly wrapped up, standing one’s ground, not showing your cards, fighting instead of communicating? What if the urge to care for children had been chosen as THE most important task of any society? I can tell you that one of the outcomes would be a Homeland Security Advisory System devised for reasons other than war: The ticker tape under the TV news might read: Orange Alert! Danger! Our schools are failing our children! Red Alert! The ice caps are melting!


What if caring for these kinds of issues were seen as a sign of virility? And that resources and respect were granted to the people with the highest levels of emotional and spiritual intelligence?

It used to be that when we said someone is intelligent we meant they were good at retaining and using logical information. Certainly that is a form of intelligence, but brain and social scientists now speak of up to 10 forms of intelligence. Here are 5 of them:

1. Logical-mathematical intelligence
2. Bodily kinesthetic intelligence—accessing the wisdom and information stored in the body.
3. Natural intelligence, which involves understanding patterns and systems found in nature. Our cave ancestors were naturally intelligent.
4. Emotional Intelligence, which also called Inter-personal intelligence, which involves knowing what other people are feeling, empathy, and communication.
5. And Intra-personal intelligence, which I call Spiritual Intelligence, that’s the ability to be introspective, to explore inner landscapes, and to experience a sense of Self that is free from ego, which, if you ask me, is the greatest intelligence there is.

All humans have these intelligences, yet only one—logical-mathematical intelligence—has been emphasized as something to be taught and valued as intelligence.

There’s a study—first published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2005—based on standard IQ tests. Remember: standard IQ tests rate only mathematical/logical intelligence. The data showed that up to the age of 14, there was no difference between the standard IQs of boys and girls. But beyond that age, men—on average—scored slightly higher than women. But the study also revealed that women at the same levels of IQ are able to achieve more than their male IQ counterparts "possibly because they are more conscientious and better adapted to sustained periods of hard work" (to quote the very British study.) I would say it’s because of women’s highly developed multi-intelligences that women are “able to achieve more” and are taking off as leaders in the world today.

The new human story will be fueled by multi-intelligences. And that means women will be well suited to write the script. An analysis of some 30 studies by British researcher Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology at University College London, shows that men and women are fairly equal overall in terms of standard IQ. But women, it seems, underestimate their own intelligence (and that of women in general), while men overestimate theirs. And when asked to rate their parents' intelligence, both males and females rated their fathers' higher than their mothers’. Furnham’s data revealed that the females had less confidence in their intelligence, even though they were scoring higher. It’s time to change this. And I’m not only talking about becoming more confident.

It’s time that we put our effort into dignifying and elevating in society the full range of human intelligence, especially two that are most needed to jump-start the new human story… Emotional Intelligence and Spiritual Intelligence.

Let’s talk about emotional intelligence. Most human societies discredit the value of the emotions, believing they are best kept in check, that emotions are enemies of rational thinking, that they would lead to anarchy, weakness, or life in some extended chick-flick. That’s crazy! Every child should be taught and every adult should know how to communicate well with others, how to handle conflict without resorting to violence, how to feel what another is feeling, how to grieve when things are sad, how to cultivate happiness, how to give and get love, how to parent well so that children know they are loved, and that they belong here in the human family. Clearly, these topics are more important than driver’s education, or woodshop, or even reading, writing, and arithmetic.

And what about Spiritual Intelligence? What exactly is that? Spiritual intelligence might also be called wisdom, and wisdom is a perspective free from the clouds of one’s personal ego. What is the ego? The part of us that is fearful, clutching, and uptight. It’s our inner problem-child. We all have one. It has gotten humanity into the fix we’re in. The ego is so blind to any story other than the story of ME and MINE, that humanity is much more like a room of cranky kindegardners, than the wise and expansive beings that we really are. Freeing ourselves from the prison of ego is what it means to walk a spiritual path, and it’s the most effective way of contributing to the new story.

I had the privledge this past winter and spring to work with Oprah Winfrey on the creation of a web seminar featuring the work of the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. While preparing one of the seminar workbooks, I came across a passage in Tolle’s book, A New Earth, that explained a phenomenon I have been seeing for years at Omega—how women seem particularly interested in developing and using their spiritual intelligence. Tolle writes: “Although women have egos, of course, the ego can take root and grow more easily in the male form than in the female form. This is because women are less mind-identified than men. They are more in touch with the full intelligence of the organism. If the balance between male and female energies had not been destroyed throughout human history, the ego’s growth would have been greatly curtailed. We would not have declared war on nature, and we would not be so completely alienated from our Being…The suppression of the feminine has become internalized, even in most women. But things are changing rapidly now. With many people becoming more conscious, the ego is losing its hold on the human mind. Because the ego was never as deeply rooted in women, it is losing its hold on women more quickly than on men.”

I’ll end with lines from a poem written by that spiritual genius, Rumi, the great Persian mystic:

Out beyond ideas Of wrong-doing, and right-doing, There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

It takes courage to meet the other in the field. It takes the greatest kind of courage for any human—of either gender—to leave the ego stance and to learn from others, to validate others, to actually experience our oneness and not only talk about it. It may end up being a long walk from where humanity is now to the field that Rumi points to. But don’t despair. Remember what Gloria Steinem says: “Hope is a form of planning.” So here’s to hope, and here’s to courage…

I’ll meet you there.

The above is a transcript of the keynote speech delivered by Elizabeth Lesser at Omega Institute's 2008 Women & Courage Conference.

To order audio CDs from the Women & Courage conference, please order online at www.eomega.org/omega/mediaworks, call 845.266.4444, ext. 317 or email [email protected]

Related links:

  • Conversation with Elizabeth Lesser: Interview by Marianne Schnall
  • Gender and Self: Gods and Goddesses Within (Excerpt from The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure)
  • Open Secret (Excerpt from Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow)
  • Feminist.com's Archive of Features from the Women, Power & Peace Conference
  • Speeches from the 2004 Women & Power Conference

    Elizabeth LesserElizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of Omega Institute, this country's largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, social change, and creativity www.eomega.org. She is the author of The Seeker’s Guide and Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow (both from Random House). For more than 30 years she has studied and worked with leading figures in the field of healing—healing self and healing society. Her recent work includes helping Oprah Winfrey to produce the 10-week webinar for Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth; acting as a senior advisor for Omega Institute at the board and staff level; and creating Omega’s successful Women and Power conferences, which offer a dialogue between women in leadership positions in a variety of areas—government, religion, media, the arts, and more. Ms. Lesser attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University. Previous to her work at Omega, she was a midwife and birth educator. The mother of three grown sons, she lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband. www.eomega.org

    Omega Institute is the nation's largest holistic education provider, highly regarded for its pioneering work in holistic health, meditation, yoga, transformational psychology, bodywork, spirituality, world music, and art. Founded in 1977, Omega fulfills its mission to provide learning environments that awaken the best in the human spirit through its broad-based curriculum and unique community spirit. www.eomega.org

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