Marianne Williamson on death and happiness

Marianne Williamson
Marianne Williamson

Ray Hemachandra: Your mother died recently. How important is it for people at midlife to come to terms with the idea and reality of death?

Marianne Williamson: It feels to me like the death of a parent is a kind of inoculation. You really do get, in a way that you’ve never viscerally gotten before, that this will happen to you, too.

And with that comes the realization, also, that it’s okay.

I heard Bette Midler say recently on Oprah’s show that when she was younger she never asked herself how many winters she had left, how many springs she had left, how many summers and falls remained. But when you get older, you realize in a way you just didn’t appreciate before that material experience is limited.

When you’re younger—when you’re fifteen or twenty-five or thirty-five—you call up your best friend, and you can’t even relate to the notion that there are a limited number of times that you and your best friend will call each other on this planet. One of you will pass. Ultimately, both of you will pass.

But this makes life sweeter, and you finally appreciate it in midlife. In fact, so much of your past that you look back upon as having been a mistake involves not appreciating life. You didn’t realize how important life is and how fragile it is.

Then, people you love begin to die, and you realize there’s a brevity here. This all goes a lot faster than you thought. It’s a much shorter visit to this planet than you thought.

You realize: Get conscious, and get conscious now. And that’s a beautiful thing. When you’re young, you think, “Where do I have to go, what do I have to do, to be happy?” You get to an age where you realize happiness is a decision you make. That’s all it is: a decision.

Also, in terms of time, Einstein said time is an illusion, just as space is. On a certain level, the more superficially you’re thinking, the faster time goes. The deeper you’re thinking, the slower time goes. So, there’s a way in which the years between fifty and eighty can actually be longer than the years between twenty and fifty.

The Otis Redding song “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” includes the line “sitting here resting my bones.” When I was a younger woman I thought that was a very silly lyric, because who rests their bones? And then, a few years ago, I was visiting somewhere with my daughter, who said, “Mommy, come outside. I want to show you how beautiful this garden is.” And I said, “That’s okay, honey, you go outside and play. Mommy just wants to sit here and rest her bones.” I panicked at realizing what I’d just said. I thought, “It’s really over if I’m sitting here resting my bones.”

Then I got very conscious about it. When I was younger I used to go to vipassana meditation retreats, where the goal was to try to enjoy sitting. But I had so great a hormonally based adrenaline rush, it was difficult to just sit.

With age, a lot of that adrenaline rush dissipates. Your nervous system settles down. You really do enjoy just sitting. You ask, “My God, what was I avoiding?” when you realize how delicious this can be.

You let go of some things because you already did them—been there, done that—and now it’s time for the next thing. It’s not worse or better. It’s just a different season.

One man said to me in a teleclass, “Ms. Williamson, what does it feel like to be in the autumn of your life?” I said, “Well, I don’t have as many leaves on my tree, but the ones I have are a lot more colorful.”

I invite you to read and enjoy other interview excerpts with leading spiritual teachers posted on the blog. Please share them on social media, as well! Here are links to just a few of them:

1 Comment

  1. At last I see someone giving some attention to death…We all start walking towards it from the moment we are born and yet we like to avoid that subject…It is one of my favourite ones and as a matter of fact,even when young, I enjoyed walking through the cemetery…Death cannot be the end I’ve always thought…I have been trying to talk about it with my sons,but they avoid it too.Wouldn’t it become easier if we addressed it more often? How awful it is to be afraid when that moment is nearing…but it should not be so…


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