Marianne Williamson: Finding Happiness When Life Knocks You Down

Exclusive LifeZette interview with best-selling author: It's easy to feel joy when all is going well — what about when it's not?

The author of some of the most well-known books on spirituality, healing, and finding peace in one’s life, Marianne Williamson has helped scores of people all over the world find greater joy and satisfaction. Her latest book is “Tears to Triumph: The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment,” and in a conversation last week, Williamson, a Texas native who is today based in Los Angeles, shared insights on dealing with sorrow — and managing to feel joy nevertheless.

Unlike what most new-age spiritual teachers advise, Williamson suggested sadness is a part of healing. It’s not about “trying to shift our vibrations” or push past it, as others have offered; instead, sadness should be accepted. It should be felt and processed. That’s not easy but it’s almost always necessary.

“All of us feel sorrow,” she told LifeZette. “We go through a divorce, heartbreak, financial ruin, the loss of family members, grief and pain. Feelings of grief and pain are part of life.” She encourages people to feel their emotions, no matter how difficult this may be initially. and noted the time it takes to go from sorrow to happiness — to enlightenment.

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Feeling sadness is a natural part of being alive, she said — and hurrying to “become happy” again actually holds us back from reaping gifts. She reflected on her own childhood as playing a role in her understanding.

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“When I was growing up, if you had a loved one, a family member who died, there was a lot more emotional and social permission given to the experience of grief,” she said. “It was understood. If your husband died, if your wife died, it would be a year before you were yourself again. A year was considered natural.”

Today, however, too many people somehow have the sense that those who have experienced grief will “bounce back” or recover after a short period of time — and that all will be well again. It does not always work that way; others should not judge harshly or question the process. There is no “allotted time to feel sad or limit on how many tears should be shed,” she said. This notion, she said, comes from a business model, “not from a healing and human model of life.”

“Where the business model pushes us to clock in, clock out, and live by deadlines,” she said, “we should instead use a more humanistic model, which isn’t based on time but instead on a process.”

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“If you switch the medical model to a spiritual model, then you see these nights of the soul as times of spiritual growth.”

As the interviewer for this piece, I couldn’t help think of my own story of feeling sadness. In a previous piece for LifeZette, I discussed how forgiving my own father made me a better man. I had met my dad when I was 18 years old. Through a complicated turn of events, my father had me placed into an international orphanage. For nearly 30 years I harbored immense pain around that experience — and I blamed him.

“When I look at a person’s pain, it’s important to also consider the person’s culture, country, and the period of time.”

I shared my story with Williamson and she quickly shared a new angle I had not considered. “Luis, your father saved you. When he put you into that orphanage, he saved you. He is one of your angels.”

Her words astounded me; I had never really considered my dad in that light. Sure, we had reunited, become great friends — but I had never considered he was akin to an angel. She added, “When I consider your father’s actions, I have also to consider what was happening in Colombia at that time [of his actions]. It was a country of great turmoil. When I look at a person’s pain, it’s important to also consider the person’s culture, country, and the period of time.”

She added that in order to get past pain and sorrow, “Forgiveness means you are willing to change your focus. It doesn’t happen in a minute and it doesn’t occur in a day, but you are willing to see things differently to allow yourself to return to love.”

Rather profound, no? Forgiveness is a process of shifting our focus. Our anger, resentment, and pain can shift. For me, that hits the nail on the head. Many people who know my story have thought, “Your father was an evil man. Poor you.” Now, for me, it is more: “How blessed am I. I was given sorrow in order to know joy better. I was adopted to understand the meaning of family, travel, abundance — and I am more fortunate than anyone I’ve ever known.”

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I felt a new surge of joy. Now, with my father, a man with whom I’ve become close in the past year, I could take all of my past pain and see him in a fresh way. This new focus shifted my relationship with him and with my past. My dad was responsible for my birth. He did the best he could when I was a young boy with what he had available to him at that time. He is still alive — and we can have a new relationship, with new understanding. That is beautiful.

Based on input with Marianne Williamson, here are key concepts that are pertinent to all of us, no matter our circumstances or history.

Give your sadness space and time. While you may want to hurry through your sadness, remember that it has gifts to bear, much like a tree-bearing fruit. Grief takes time to ripen into joy. Sorrow may come and go in waves, but give it space and it will transform into a gift. Give things time.

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Consider the gifts in your pain. When my father betrayed my trust and placed me into an orphanage, it left a wound. It took me nearly 30 years to find the gift of that pain. Now, at 33 years old, I am glad I was adopted. Coming to America gave me significant advantages that many people in Colombia will never have. Not only that: I have several families now.

If you’re struggling with some kind of pain or sorrow, see if you can find a blessing in it. A broken heart could become: “I got to love, I know what it feels like, and now I know what I want even better.” The loss of a family member could become: “I am glad we shared that time. He/she taught me so many lessons about love, and closeness, and friendship; now I know how to be kind and caring to the ones I love. He/she reminded me to be thankful for every moment I’m alive.”

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There is a gift, a present, some gem hidden in all of our sorrows. We just have to take a moment to look for it.

Marianne Williamson stressed remaining open to life’s treasures, including sadness, which carries gifts with it that may not be immediately obvious. We can use a new focus to find light in the darkness.

Luis Congdon helps entrepreneurs live their dreams. He travels the world most of the year but on occasion can be spotted in his earthen home on San Juan Island. 

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