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Lessons from Maya Angelou on spirituality

 

Maya Angelou showed the public her strength of spirit in her poignant award-winning autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  In it, Angelou is the victim-witness who explains faith is not intended to make our life easy but to reward our efforts by supporting us through whatever challenges we may face.       

 In an interview with her, I asked her to tell me what she learned about herself and life from the painful challenges through which she rose as an actor, author, teacher, and poet.  She said, "I believe myself to be a child of God…incumbent on me, then, if I am a child of God, is to see every other person as a child of God:  that means the brutes, the bigots, the batterer, the braggart.  That means that there’s no place I can go alone. Even when I go inside myself, I don’t go there alone.  There’s always ‘It’ there before me.  ‘It’ is the God Spirit. ‘It’ is already in there.  So I believe there is no place that God is not."

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For Angelou, being connected to God means understanding who she is and how to relate to others. Angelou’s primary relationship is clearly with God; her soul is her raison d’etre.  The Spirit gives her strength not by telling her she is smart but by teaching her to accept that there are things in the world she will never be able to explain.  Angelou finds peace and strength by telling herself, “I understand nothing save I am a child of God.”  This is more than an understanding of the justice of God; it is a direct relationship with God that through humility produces utter confidence and fortitude.

She knows the Truth of placing authentic personal spirituality above institutional religious affiliation.  In formal religions, she explains, people can get so caught up in telling each other what to do and minding each other’s business that she wonders how they even have enough time for it all, let alone what the point of it all really is: "It’s like Nero fiddling throughout the whole world, and the world’s on fire.  Why not be engaged in something about one’s own self?  One’s own soul?"

She believes that we must ease demands and expectations of others in light of their struggles. In other words, we must have empathy for one another, without behaving as though we ourselves possess the Truth and are beyond all reproach.

We cannot, then, expect to simply turn to God and have all our problems go away.  To help me better understand this important message and the nature of our responsibility to grow in the Spirit, Angelou stood up during the interviews, as she felt moved to sing a spiritual. The song and her personal experience of it shared her relationship with God:

“Lord, don’t move your mountain.  Just give me strength to climb it.  You don’t have to move that stumbling block, but lead me, Lord, around it.  My way may not be easy.  You never said it would be.  If my way gets too easy, I just might stray from Thee, so I’m asking you, Lord, don’t move your mountain, just give me strength to climb it.  You don’t have to move that stumbling block, but lead me, Lord, around it.”

Maya reflected, “That’s some deep stuff!”

In Angelou, we feel the flow that she finds with God as her compass.  Angelou insists that we must take an active role and use our lives to learn outside of ourself.  Her doing so has allowed her to see something positive even in the most devastating events of life.  The writer’s passion and confidence can be heard in her fiercely triumphant declaration, “Not even life has the right to wrestle you to the ground, and put its hand on your throat, and make you call it uncle.”

With this battle cry comes her plea for authenticity.  Angelou counsels that “the path of self-understanding lies within.”  This requires humility that, unlike “modesty,” bears no pretense.  Spiritual humility highlights our limitations and helps us recognize that we are not always in control.  Angelou’s advice, then, is simply to stop and listen: "Why waste this precious gift which is life exhibiting a timid mind?  Nobody should whisper.  Don’t whine.  It makes you ugly, and it rarely has any positive effect on the subject of your whining.  Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood…Show me yourself!  Know yourself!"

The authentic power of spirituality is within us if we enter into it. Spirituality is not a happy pill that magically removes unpleasant realities.  Spirituality dilutes the darkness we encounter by our confidence of being a companion of Light.  We tap into the Spirit not by feeling like a victim but by knowing (not hoping or believing, but knowing) that God will not fail us.  We are not alone.  We experience the power of the Spirit by persevering in our faith and love that transforms us as spiritual beings.

 

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate.  His new book, Four Messages to Shape a Child, is soon to be released.   For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexual problems.com.

John Chirban, Ph.D, Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

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