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The Gift of Change
By Marianne Williamson

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Excerpted with permission from The Gift of Change: Spiritual Guidance for a Radically New Life by Marianne Williamson (HarperSanFrancisco, November 1, 2004).


The times in which we live are difficult, more difficult than a lot of people seem willing to admit. There is an abiding sense of collective anxiety, understandable but not always easy to talk about.

When things aren't going well for you in your personal life, perhaps you call a friend or family member or go to a therapist or support group to process your pain. Yet when your feelings of upset are based on larger social realities, it's hard to know how to talk about them and to whom. When you're afraid because you don't know where your next paycheck is going to come from, it's easy to articulate; when you're worried about whether the human race is going to survive the next century, it feels odd to mention it at lunch.

And so, I think, there is a collective depression among us, not so much dealt with as glossed over and suppressed. Each of us, as individual actors in a larger drama, carries an imprint of a larger despair. We are coping with intense amounts of chaos and fear, both personally and together. We are all being challenged, in one form or another, to recreate our lives.

On the level of everyday conversation, we conspire with each other to pretend that things are basically okay, not because we think they are but because we have no way of talking together about these deeper layers of experience. If I tell you what happened in my personal life today, I might also mention how I am feeling about it, and both are considered relevant. But when it comes to our collective experience, public dialogue allows for little discussion of events of equally personal magnitude. "We accidentally bombed a school today, and fifty children died." How do we feel about that? Uh-oh, we don't go there. . . .

So we continue to talk mainly about other things, at a time when the news of the day is as critical as at any time in the history of the world. Not dealing with our internal depths, we emphasize external superficialities. Reports on the horrors of war appear intermittently between reports on box office receipts for the latest blockbuster movie and a Hollywood actress's vintage Valentino. I see the same behavior in myself, as I jump from writing about things that demand I dig deep to obsessively checking my e-mails for something light and fun to distract me. It's like avoidance behavior in therapy - wanting to share the gossip but not wanting to deal with the real, more painful issues. Of course we want to avoid the pain. But by doing so, we inevitably cause more of it.

That is where we are today. We are acting out our anger and fear because we are not facing the depth of our pain. And keeping the conversation shallow seems a prerequisite for keeping the pain at bay. Those who would engage in a deeper conversation are systematically barred from the mainstream: from newspapers and magazines, from TV, and especially from political power.

One night I was watching a news broadcast about the latest videotape purportedly sent by Osama bin Laden to an Arab television network. The focus of the American news story was not on bin Laden's message but rather on the technology by which Americans had verified the recording. His message was too horrifying; it was as though we were trying to emotionally distance ourselves from it by having a beautiful news reporter discuss the technology of the tape rather than its contents.

Visiting a medical office one day recently, I asked my doctor, a member of the "greatest generation," how he had been feeling lately.

"Fine," he said. "How about you?"

"I'm okay," I said. "But I feel like everybody is freaking out on the inside these days; we're just not talking about it. I think the state of the world has us more on edge than we're admitting."

"I think that's true," he sighed. "Things would get bad before, but you always had a sense they would ultimately be okay. Now I don't necessarily feel that way . . ." His voice trailed off, his sadness obvious. As unhappy as he was with the state of the world, he seemed grateful I had brought it up. The fact that we go about our lives as though the survival of the world is not at stake is not the sign of a stiff upper lip. It is the sign, rather, of a society not yet able or willing to hold a conversation about its deepest pain.

We are being challenged by world events, by the tides of history, to develop a more mature consciousness. Yet we cannot do that without facing what hurts. Life is not a piece of tragic fiction, in which at the end of the reading we all get up and go out for drinks. All of us are actors in a great unfolding drama, and until we dig deep, there will be no great performances. How each of us carries out our role will affect the end of the play.

Who we ourselves become, how we grow and change and face the challenges of our own lives, is intimately and causally connected to how the world will change over the next few years. For the world is a projection of our individual psyches, collected on a global screen; it is hurt or healed by every thought we think. To whatever extent I refuse to face the deeper issues that hold me back, to that extent the world will be held back. And to whatever extent I find the miraculous key to the transformation of my own life, to that extent I will help change the world. That is what this book is about: becoming the change that will change the world.

Yet we seem to have great resistance to looking at our lives, and our world, with emotional honesty. And I think we are avoiding more than pain. We are avoiding the sense of hopelessness we think we will feel when confronted by the enormity of the forces that obstruct us. Yet, in fact, it's when we face the darkness squarely in the eye - in ourselves and in the world - that we begin at last to see the light. And that is the alchemy of personal transformation. In the midst of the deepest, darkest night, when we feel most humbled by life, the faint shadow of our wings begins to appear. Only when we have faced the limits of what we can do, does it begin to dawn on us the limitlessness of what God can do. It is the depth of the darkness now confronting our world that will reveal to us the magic of who we truly are. We are spirit, and thus we are more than the world. When we remember that, the world itself will bow to our remembrance.

Returning to Love

In 1978 I became a student of a self-study program of spiritual psychotherapy called A Course in Miracles; in 1992 I wrote a book of reflections on its principles called A Return to Love. Claiming no monopoly whatsoever on spiritual insight, the Course is a psychological mind training based on universal spiritual themes. It teaches people how to dismantle a thought system based on fear and replace it with a thought system based on love. Its goal is attaining inner peace through practicing forgiveness. You will notice it referred to throughout this book, and many of its teachings will be reflected in what I write. When there is no specific reference for quoted material or concepts from A Course in Miracles (published by the Foundation for Inner Peace), I have added an asterisk to mark A Course in Miracles principle.

Although the Course uses traditional Christian terminology, it is not a Christian doctrine. Its terms are used in a psychological context, with universal meaning for any student of spiritual principles, regardless of whether they have a Christian orientation.

Spiritual principles do not change, but we do. As we mature through the years, we access more deeply information we had only abstractly understood before. Twenty years ago, I saw the guidance of the Course as key to changing one's personal life; today, I see its guidance as key to changing the world. More than anything else, I see how deeply the two are connected.

That is why I have written this book. It is, once more and hopefully in a deeper way, my reflections on some of the principles in A Course in Miracles.

Looking back at A Return to Love several years after writing it, I was struck by the example I used of how hard it can be to try to forgive someone. I told a story about a man who stood me up for a date to the Olympics in Los Angeles and how I struggled to work through my anger and resentment. I'm incredulous now that I ever thought someone standing me up for a date was a profound example of the ego's cruelty. In the words of Bob Seger, "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." It's pretty easy to espouse forgiveness when nobody's ever really hurt you too deeply.

Life was more innocent for all of us not so long ago. Today the world seems filled with such sorrow and danger; it's not so easy anymore to simply spout off metaphysical principles and expect everything to be okay by morning. These are times that challenge our spiritual assumptions, as the power of darkness seems to be taunting us, demanding, "So where's all that love you believe in now?"

The answer is that love is inside us, just waiting to be unleashed. The darkness is an invitation to light, calling forth the spirit in all of us. Every problem implies a question: Are you ready to embody what you say you believe? Can you reach within yourself for enough clarity, strength, forgiveness, serenity, love, patience, and faith to turn this around? That's the spiritual meaning of every situation: not what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us and who we decide to become because of what happens to us. The only real failure is the failure to grow from what we go through.

The Challenge to Grow

Whether we like it or not, life today is different in ways we never expected. The speed of change today is faster than the human psyche seems able to handle, and it's increasingly difficult to reconcile the rhythms of our personal lives with the rapidity of a twenty-four-hour news cycle.

Dramatic endings and beginnings seem more prevalent than usual. Birth, death, divorce, relocation, aging, career change—not to mention the fact that the world itself seems so irrevocably altered—all seem to hail some kind of sea change. Things we thought stable and secure seem less so, and things we thought distant possibilities have come strangely close. Many people feel right now like we're jumping out of our skin. It's gone way past uncomfortable into a haunting sense that we might be living a lie.

It's not that our relationships lack integrity or our careers don't truly jive with our deepest soul purpose. It's deeper than that - some sense that reality is like a layer of cellophane separating us from a truly magical existence. We feel some loss of meaning like a sickness we can't shake. We would love to burst out, as though we've been crouching in a small box for a long time. We ache to spread our arms and legs and backs, to throw our heads back, to laugh with glee at the feel of sunshine on our faces. We can't remember when we last did that. Or when we did, it was like taking a vacation, visiting a tourist attraction. The most marvelous things about life don't seem to make up the fabric of our normal existence anymore. Or maybe they never did. We're not sure.

Most of us live with a deep, subconscious longing for another kind of world. We sing about it, write poetry about it, watch movies about it, create myths about it. We continue to imagine it though we never quite seem to find it. Our secret desire is to penetrate the veil between the world we live in and a world of something much more real. One thing we know for sure: this world can't be it.

Many of us are ready to make a break for freedom, to find that better world beyond the veil and no longer buy into the absurdity of a pain-laden world that takes itself so seriously. The question is, how do we do that? If the world we live in isn't as real as it's cracked up to be, and the world we want is on the other side of the veil, then where does that leave us?

Who among us doesn't feel displaced at times, in a world that's supposedly our home yet is so completely at odds with the love in our hearts? And how do we make the world more aligned with who we are, instead of always having to struggle to align ourselves with the world?

Perhaps we are living in a magic hour, like that between night and day. I think we stand between two historic ages, when a critical mass of the human race is trying to detach from its obedience to fear-based thought systems. We want to cross over to someplace new.

When we look at the innocence of children, as they love and learn, we wonder: So why can't people remain like that? Why must babies grow up to face fear and danger? Why can't we do what it takes to protect their innocence and love? You're not the only one feeling so concerned; the world is on a self-destructive course, and our children and their children's children are pleading with us to change things.

The times in which we live call for fundamental change, not merely incremental change. Millions of people feel called in their souls to the task of global transformation, wanting to be its agents in a monumental shift from a world of fear to a world of love. We can feel the time is now, and we know we're the ones to do it. The only problem is, we don't exactly know how.

How can we best participate in a task so huge and idealistic? We sense new energy rising up everywhere, calling us toward more enlightened ways of seeing, living, thinking, and being. Books arrayed in bookstores proclaim a better way to love, to lead, to live. Seminars and support groups keep us working on ways to improve ourselves, practicing spiritual disciplines and religious rituals. We get involved in causes and politics, licking envelopes, sending money. But somehow, still, we don't seem to be hitting the sweet spot, the miraculous key to turning the world around.

We can't avoid the news, the war, the terror alerts, the fear. We're doing what we can to change the world in our own small way, but new ideas and more compassionate forces seem overwhelmed by their opposites. A few things seem to be getting better, but many things seem to be getting much worse. Just when love seemed to be the hot new topic, hatred sounded its clarion call. And the entire world could not but hear.

The Eternal Compass

The most important thing to remember during times of great change is to fix our eyes anew on the things that don't change.

Eternal things become our compass during times of rapid transition, binding us emotionally to a steady and firm course. They remind us that we, as children of God, are still at the center of divine purpose in the world. They give us the strength to make positive changes, wisdom to endure negative changes, and the capacity to become people in whose presence the world moves toward healing. Perhaps we're alive during these fast-moving times in which "the center does not hold" in order to become the center that does. I've noticed in myself that if something small and ultimately meaningless has gone wrong - I can't find the file I left on top of my desk, my daughter failed to do what I asked her to do before going to a friend's house - I can easily get rattled. But if someone calls to inform me of a serious difficulty - someone has been in an accident, or a child is in trouble - I notice a profound stillness come over me as I focus on the problem.

In the former case, my temptation to become frantic does not attract solutions, but rather hinders them. There is nothing in my personal energy that invites help from others, nor do I have the clarity to think through what I need to do next. In the latter case, however, all of my energy goes toward a higher level of problem-solving: my heart is in service to others, and my mind is focused and clear. When I am at the effect of the problem, I become part of the problem. When I am centered within myself, I become part of the solution. And that phenomenon, multiplied many times over, is the force that will save the world.

When things in the world are troubling, our need is not to join in the chaos, but to cleave to the peace within.

The only way to gain power in a world that is moving too fast is to learn to slow down. And the only way to spread one's influence wide is to learn to go deep. The world we want for ourselves and our children will not emerge from electronic speed but rather from a spiritual stillness that takes root in our souls. Then, and only then, will we create a world that reflects the heart instead of shattering it.

The time is past for tweaking this or that external circumstance. No superficial change will fix things. What we need is more than behavioral change and more than psychological change; we need nothing less than for an otherworldly light to enter our hearts and make us whole. The answer lies not in the future or in another place. No change in time or space but rather a change in our perception holds the key to a world made new. And the new world is closer than we think. We find it when we settle deeply into the hidden, more loving dimensions of any moment, allowing life to be what it wants to be and letting ourselves be who we were created to be. In what A Course in Miracles calls a Holy Instant, we're delivered by love from the fear that grips the world.

Each of us is connected to a cosmic umbilical cord, receiving spiritual nourishment from God each moment. Yet in slavish dedication to the dictates of a fear-based ego, we resist the elixir of divine sustenance, preferring instead to drink the poison of the world. It's so amazing that we do this, given the extraordinary pain that underlies so much of daily living. Yet the mental confusion created by our dominant thought forms is so intense, and we are so trained by the world to do fear's bidding, that deliverance comes at most in flashes. Fortunately, there are more of those flashes than usual today. While darkness seems to be all around us, an understanding of a deeper nature is emerging to light our way.

That light - a kind of contemporary, secular star of Bethlehem - indicates newness on the horizon and beckons us to follow it to the birth of something fantastic. The wonders of the external world are as nothing compared to what's happening inside us. This is not an end time but a new beginning. What is being born is a new kind of human, played out dramatically in each of our lives. Freed from the limitations of the ego, free to see and hear and touch the magic we've been missing all our lives, we're becoming at last who we really are.

Toward the end of his life, the literary giant George Bernard Shaw was asked what person in history he would most like to have been. His response was that he would most like to have been the George Bernard Shaw he might have been and never became.

A New Beginning

It is an article of faith that God always has a plan. No matter what craziness humanity has fallen into, He has always delivered us ultimately to the peace that lies beyond.

Today, we can stand in the midst of the great illusions of the world and by our very presence dispel them. As we cross the bridge to a more loving orientation - as we learn the lessons of spiritual transformation and apply them in our personal lives - we will become agents of change on a tremendous scale. By learning the lessons of change, internally and externally, each of us can participate in the great collective process in which the people of the world, riding a wave of enlightened understanding, see the human race on a destructive course and turn it around in time.

To some this might feel like the period of a Great End, perhaps even at times an Armageddon, but in fact this is the time of a Great Beginning. It is time to die to who we used to be and to become instead who we are capable of being. That is the gift that awaits us now: the chance to become who we really are.

And that is the miracle: the gift of change.

Excerpted with permission from The Gift of Change: Spiritual Guidance for a Radically New Life by Marianne Williamson (HarperSanFrancisco, November 1, 2004) .

Copyright © 2004 by Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson is an internationally acclaimed author and lecturer. She has published eight books, four of which -- including the megabestseller A Return to Love -- have been #1 New York Times bestsellers. Her titles include Illuminata, Everyday Grace, A Woman's Worth, and Healing the Soul of America.




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