Marrow: A Love Story: Sitting Down With Elizabeth Lesser
The author and spiritual pioneer talks about the love of her life.
Posted September 23, 2016
Elizabeth Lesser is one of my favorite writers and someone I have long admired. Best known as the co-founder of The Omega Institute in upstate New York, Elizabeth has been at the forefront of cultural change and spiritual development for the past 30 years. She's heartfelt without being Pollyanna, wise without being condescending, and spiritual without being woo woo. Her work has been featured on Oprah's "Super Soul Sunday" as well as on the TED stage, where her "Take the Other To Lunch" talk explored the polarization of our public discourse -- and the urgent need to bridge our divides. Elizabeth's books include Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and A Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure. Her new memoir, Marrow: A Love Story tells the mesmerizing story of two sisters uncovering the depth of their connection through the courageous experience of a bone marrow transplant. I spoke to Elizabeth recently about this life changing experience and the journey she describes in the book.
Mark Matousek: Your new book is a love story, a survivor’s tale, and also a memoir about spiritual awakening. Let's begin with the love story. You write at the outset of Marrow, “Love is a mess, love is a dance, love is a miracle, love is also stronger than death but I’m only learning that now.” What do you mean by “love is stronger than death?”
Elizabeth Lesser: I was my sister’s bone marrow donor. Maggie and I went through a very long process together of consciously rediscovering each other in a deeper place than we’d ever known. In doing so, we fell in love. Not that we hadn’t loved each other before but like most siblings, there was a lot of unspoken stuff. l had this idea that if we could clean up our own relationship, maybe we could teach our cells to get along, too, and help the transplant work better. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved anyone as purely as we ended up loving each other. And the transplant did work—long enough to give her another wonderful year. Now that she’s gone, I still feel nurtured by that love. I feel her in me, around me, mysteriously somewhere. So that’s what I mean by love is stronger than death.
MM: You describe the process as a “braid of love”: the love for your sister, the love for yourself, and also a love of amor fati.
EL: Amor fati is Latin for “love of fate.” Nietzsche writes about being able to say yes to your fate. Not like, “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” or just dryly accepting what comes and goes as in Buddhist equanimity, but this passionate, “Yes!” toward loving the whole mess of life—even the bad parts. It’s getting that even the sucky parts of your life add up to something meaningful. I heard that phrase in college and thought, “That’s ridiculous and impossible. Who could anyone love some of this stuff that happens? No thanks.” But I’ve come to see that it’s possible. Not all the time but just to hold it out as a possibility.
When I’m suffering, it gives me space to understand that I may not see it in that moment, but it’s a piece of a tapestry that also contains its opposite—bliss and happiness—which are coming to meet it. It’s beyond my understanding why anything happens, so I might as well not just tolerate it but love it.
MM: But is it possible to experience amor fati when you’re feeling terrible?
EL: Melancholia is the capacity to feel deeply, so to love your fate means you’re also going to have a heart that’s touched by sadness and grief. I believe it’s more important to have an open heart than a happy heart. If you stay open, you’re going to feel everything, you can’t pick and choose. I choose openness because it’s the only way I get to feel the beauty and joy. But the cousins of those emotions—sadness, fear and depression—also come with the bargain.
MM: You write about daring to be “emotionally naked” with Maggie, and how it scared you more than the stem cell transplant. What advice could you offer to readers who are so mired in their family history that they can’t see their relatives as individuals?
EL: One of the main theses in my book is that we all have the capacity to err in the direction of connection. At all moments with the loved ones in our life—even people who we are having trouble with—we can choose to connect, as opposed to running away or attacking.
So I started trying that out with other relationships besides my sister and found out that no matter how gentle and brilliant your articulation is, some people do not want to find intimacy. They are too shut down, too scared, too angry, too bitter. I tend to always try, but I have learned that you’re only going to achieve that kind of connection, and put away old stories and myths, with someone who wants to try it out also. You can’t make someone choose healing and intimacy.
I imagine as I go out into the world with this book, people are going to say, “My brother hasn’t talked to me in ten years and I tried, but he won’t talk to me.” That truly may be the case in many people’s relationships. But I stand by what I say in the book: most people are just waiting to be invited. We don’t know how to break the gridlocks in our relational lives, but all it takes is for one person with a bit of courage to say, “It seems we could have a better friendship, I don’t know what’s standing between us; would you like to check it out with me? No big deal, but what do you think?”
I believe most people would jump at that chance, but few of us are that skilled or courageous. I wrote the book as an invitation to people to be the first one to jump in the water. That’s what I did with my sister, and granted it was a life and death situation with us. That’s why it gave us a lot more courage. But it was still difficult to honestly tell her the ways in which she had hurt me and for me to hear her side of the story. As we told each other our stories, most of the time our response was, “I didn’t know you felt that way. Why didn’t you just tell me then? I thought x, y and z.” So many misunderstandings and assumptions. Had we cleared them up years ago, it would have been a different story.
MM: You use the word soul a lot in your writing. You refer to the “soul-self,” and “this is what happens when you put your soul in charge of your life.” What do you mean, exactly?
EL: Well, that’s the only word in the English language I have found that indicates there’s more to who we are than our striving, scared, egocentric self. We need a certain amount of striving, aggression, and self-regard to exist and thrive, but that striving-self obscures something pure, kind, trusting -- and more connected to the deep truth of the universe -- than our puny brains can figure out. It’s that seed within us that grew into who we are—that has the potential to grow, learn, and blossom. To me, the spiritual path is that great journey of uncovering what we were born with and what we will leave with.
MM: Is that the same as what you call “the marrow of the self?”
EL: Yes, in my terminology. I used it as a metaphor because when I offered Maggie the marrow of my bones to keep her alive, and then we went on this search together to offer each other our truth, both of those journeys felt very similar. Digging in the deepest part of my bones to give a gift of life to my sister, and digging in the deepest, purest part of ourselves to really fall in love.
MM: I especially enjoyed the passages about authenticity in relationship. You write about the Authenticity Deficit Disorder (another form of A.D.D.) at work in many people’s lives. How do you suggest that we treat this condition?
EL: I made up the term A.D.D. because I experience it all the time in myself and others. But it’s not that our culture is so very inauthentic – it’s part of the human condition. The great poet Rumi talked about this in the 12th century, so it’s nothing new. Rumi called it “the open secret”—this secret we all hide from each other. We walk around pretending that we’ve got it all together. “I’m cool,” and “I don’t need you,” and “my life is so great.” You see it on social media: how everybody’s vacation is better than everybody else’s. We spend a lot of time hiding our vulnerable, confused, befuddled, bumbling self from each other. We wake up and think, “Oh my god, how am I gonna get through this day?” Everyone is experiencing this, and yet we try on all these artifices to appear other ways.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because the more we hide from each other, the more we hide from our self. We go around not knowing what we want, what we love, what we need, who we want to be with, where we want to live, always looking out for what the other person is doing. The authentic self attempts to break that cycle. Being who we really are with other people is an invitation for them to be who they really are with us. It’s simple and very difficult to do. For some people it’s harder to be their strong, capable self in front of other people. They’re afraid of being too powerful. Other people, they’re afraid of being vulnerable and feeling too much.
MM: How did hope affect your journey with Maggie?
EL: Hope is a double-edged sword. One side is a form of denial. Wearing rose-colored glasses where you don’t look at the devastating side of life. That can lead to naivete that gets you hurt. It can also lead to apathy in a world that needs people to be awake, to help, to demonstrate and be a passionate activist for a better way. So I don’t recommend an excess of this sort of fuzzy, hopeful, “everything’s gonna be okay” way of looking at the world.
On the other hand, people who only see the despairing, grievous side of life, who see no path forward ,strip themselves of the desire to do anything good for the world. If you feel the arc of history is not bending toward goodness and salvation, that we’re going to hell in a hand basket, it’s always been that way, and it’s always going to be that way, that’s very enervating to me.
It’s a real balancing act and this is where amor fati comes back in. The idea of loving what’s going on with a tenderness toward humanity and our shared life as opposed to hiding in either despair or too much hope. To me, it’s a form of faith that I can stay open to all of this and be an agent of good.
MM: There’s an ambiguous good fortune in survivorship. Aristotle described good luck as that moment on the battlefield when the arrow hits the guy next to you. Are you aware of this ambiguity?
EL: One of the gifts of being in honest conversation with my sister throughout her illness was that I got to see how it was for her. She got upset if people tiptoed around her and felt unable to be their true, healthy selves around her. So I know it would be a huge disservice to Maggie if I walked around with guilt and shame for being a survivor. She wanted her kids, her mate, me, everyone, to live fully, because that’s how she lived when she was able.
So whenever I feel survivor guilt come up, I feel her wagging her finger at me and saying, “Don’t do that in my name.” I think that’s how most people feel. But of course, people who suffer from all sorts of traumas and tragedies probably feel jealous and angry that they got the rough end of the deal. And even so, they don’t want the people they leave behind to suffer.
MM: I know that Maggie was agnostic. But what did you learn from her about God?
EL: Even though she was agnostic and had an allergic reaction to religion or anything that struck her as “woo-woo,” she had a deep hunger for it. And she’d always considered about 80 percent of what I did as that. Even so, when it came time that she needed to lean on me, she was grateful that I had some faith and sense of the divine and the eternal. She needed that from me, even though she resisted it. This was surprising because she’d always judged anyone involved with spirituality or religion as being kind of dim witted.
So when the rubber hit the road, she was grateful that I had devoted my life to the big questions. Now, she had devoted her life to some awesome things too. Things I was grateful to learn from her. She had a deep engagement with the earth and with art and service. She was a nurse practitioner who served the rural poor in Vermont and she did it with guts and kindness. I learned how to live in this world from her, and she learned that there was another world that she was glad I was living in.
MM: One last question. You write that “stop waiting” has become a core mantra through this experience. Can you say more?
EL: I was attending a retreat at Omega that Eckhart Tolle was leading. This guy in the audience asked him for a practice he would recommend while he was waiting. “You know, like at a stop light or in a line when you’re really impatient.” Well, Eckhart Tolle in his inimitable way, using very few words, replied, “There’s no such thing as waiting.”
Some people spend their whole life waiting for life to start. But if you’re appreciating whatever is happening in this moment, like even just breathing, and you’re tasting that breathing, and exhaling fully and feeling your whole body when you do, there’s no such thing as waiting because you’re just tasting the deliciousness of the moment.
So on the purest level of spiritual wisdom, I totally agree with him. There is no such thing as waiting for the next moment, there’s simply being in this one. That’s Spirituality 101 but it serves me whenever I feel impatient or anxious. Stop waiting for anything to happen and just to be in what’s happening. Now.