on being, not being someone

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.

– Marianne Williamson

You know, I’m going to go against popular opinion here and say that I think Marianne Williamson was wrong. Or maybe she was right for the group of people she was originally talking to – and maybe Nelson Mandela was right when he quoted this in his inaugural speech to an entire race of people who had been told for hundreds of years that they were inadequate and worthless. But, to be honest, regardless of who this quote is spoken to, I do not think that being a child of god has anything to do with being brilliant, gorgeous, talented or fabulous.

I’m reading an utterly terrifying book on narcissistic cultures at the moment, called The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement, written by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell. I first heard about the book on an Insights program on narcissism a few weeks ago, which had me had me wanting to go hide under a rock. It frightens me for many reasons – not least that one of the primary symptoms of narcissism is a lack of empathy – an absolute inability to grasp the idea that another person may encounter the world differently to us [and it’s not just ‘young people today’ who fall into this with facebook and celebrity idealisation… blow me down if that description of lack of empathy doesn’t describe all that’s ugly about australian politics at the moment].

But it’s also terrifying because the book outlines how deeply entrenched the idea of exceptionalism and entitlement has become. And as the authors outline expressions of narcissism within dominant american cultures, i found resonances with christian and church culture were like a noisy gong – and suddenly I realised why Marianne Williamson’s quote above has always slightly set my teeth on edge.

It’s easy to poke fun at those who live their life on facebook, or those who hire paparazzi to follow them around on a saturday night, but I think we have to admit that christianity has fed into the world’s narcissism as well, just with a different edge. I’m not just thinking about the celebrity culture within christianity [my least favourite expression at the moment, ‘his is a very important voice in the conversation’. ugh. everybody’s voice is important.] I cringe when i think of things i no doubt said as a youth worker, when self esteem was the big theme. ‘God thinks you’re amazing’ – really? i need to go back and read the bible, but i’m not sure that we haven’t conflated being known by god with being singled out by god. Our worth comes from being, not from being someone.

I can’t be the only one to think there’s much more liberation in that, much more than having to talk yourself [and everyone else!] into thinking you’re talented, gorgeous and brilliant… worth watching or being listened to more than anyone else.

I’ve been wondering what it’s possible to do, as an individual, to innoculate [or rescue] myself from the narcissism epidemic. Taking a break from writing for the Age has put me in a better place these last few years – especially taking a break from writing opinion pieces. It worried me for a while, turning down amazing opportunities to get a public audience, but it’s been such a relief to not have to artificially create an opinion when I have actually wanted to stay mired in complexity. And it’s been a massive relief to sink back into anonymity [that’s the introvert in me!] rather than have people dissecting my motives and thoughts. It’s reminded me that what i think isn’t really that important, and the world functions perfectly well without my noise adding to it. Perhaps the moment i start to think my voice is important is the moment i need to give up forever…

I think i also need to commit to having a life that doesn’t ever require me to sell myself – to not need to be in a situation where i’m required to promote myself or my wisdom or insights, but simply just let them be; where i do what i do, whether or not anyone ever notices. It means I’ll never be able to rely on an income as an author… but you know what? both me and the world are going to do just fine without that. and my hunch is that both of us will actually do much better.

I suspect there’ll be more i need to think about. I’m only up to chapter 3. If you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s probably because reading chapter 4 has sent me off the deep edge… Hopefully you’d miss my company, but i promise any wisdom i might have will emerge through someone else. That seems to be how it works.


  1. Linda

    Thanks for your honesty Cheryl. Challenging thoughts…

  2. Very interesting. After a little hesitation, I have learned to love this quote. What is interesting is that I have never connected it with entitlement but about limiting beliefs that stop us from being as resourceful as we could be – for the good of others as well as ourselves. So whilst I agree with everything you say about entitlement and exceptionalism (well roughly so atleast), I am not sure this quote has any connection with it (but I haven’t thought this through for long tho!!). Having spent the last few months reading Feuerbach (and stunned by it) where I feel that the quote is totally corrective to Christianity is that we take everything that is ideal and wonderful about humanity and project it in perfect form onto our image of god and then reflect on ourselves that we are none of these things – but that we are crap and fall short. Just at the moment that seems to be the worst piece of psychology ever done to Western culture and maybe the exceptionalism is a warped attempt to cover over that sociological / psychological damage (which isnt to excuse it!). Surely the quote is that people can actually be themselves, if they weren’t carrying the negative beliefs that they had allowed their upbringing, their family, their culture, their religion to ingrain in them? Anyway these are hasty thoughts and your repost will doubtless leave me gibbering!

  3. am away for the next little bit… will reply when i’m back. and try to sound vaguely intelligent when doing so…

  4. Alistair – I agree very much with what you’re wanting to leave behind. It’s replacing it with words like ‘brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous’ that i have problems with. They used to be terms relating to exceptional skills, to the top echelon – a reward, as such, for something extraordinary. The reality is that not everybody will be brilliant, but you’re right that everybody should believe that they can try to be. Being brilliant, however, is not any more a manifestation of God’s glory than being ordinary…

    I absolutely agree your assessment that believing that we are crap, simply by nature of being human, is the damaging piece of psychology ever [and utter religious bullshit]. But having witnessed narcissism at close quarters, I think that the second worst is instilling the belief that everyone should think of themselves as brilliant, gorgeous, etc. etc, before even having done anything… I think it’s dangerous because it tips, all too easily, into a cult of self absorption and adulation. I think we need to search out the third way – where being yourself equates with being unique – where your unique ordinariness is honoured and celebrated, as much as another’s unique brilliance.

    Maybe i’d agree with her more if she said ‘who are you not honour your uniqueness, and to attempt difficult and amazing things’… but that’s nowhere near as poetic.

    Or maybe i’m seeing things in the quote that aren’t there…

  5. Thanks for this Cheryl,

    I’ve used that quote a lot in the past. What you’ve written is so helpful. I don’t know whether i agree with you or not – but I’m finding holding the tension of agreeing/disagreeing with your point a very creative and life giving seam to mine!

    Bless you for breaking open familiar words to enable new ways of seeing,


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