Marianne Williamson and Nelson Mandela

When I discovered by accident the other day while googling Kamala Harris that Marianne Williamson is running for president, my first thought was, “oh, she’s going to need her quote back”. This quote, to be exact:

“…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.”

I first encountered the aforementioned quote during the academic year of 1997-98. I was blissfully enmeshed, emotionally and intellectually, in my first year at university, and my roommate was studying a book for her freshman writing class: Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. As I remember it, her professor had read out the quote above in class whilst discussing the end of apartheid in South Africa, attributing it to Nelson Mandela. Attributing it, very specifically indeed, to Mandela’s 1994 inaugural address, then relatively recent history.

Since I am now relying on a memory 20 years old, perhaps I will give her professor the benefit of the doubt and say that my freshman roommate or a classmate of hers could have possibly encountered the quote while researching to write a paper about the book. However she came upon it, it struck her with force, and she read it out loud to us in our little freshman apartment. Equally enamoured, my best friend and I immediately printed out the quote on paper, memorised it, and then tore up the paper into tiny pieces and swallowed them.

We did this a lot back then. Everything from Dickens to Heraclitus to the Bible got this sort of treatment; something halfway between destroying a secret spy message and physically converting the matter of the quote into our own matter to render it an indelible part of our physiology, as if that would somehow make it stick better in our memories. I am pretty sure this idea was a mashup of my then-current career ambition to go into espionage and some overenthusiastic misreading of one of the ancient Greek philosophers my teenage brain was trying to process at the time.

In any case, not one of us questioned or thought to poke around the brand-new internet to verify that Mr. Mandela had indeed pronounced the words in question, let alone during his 1994 inaugural address just a few years earlier. We simply absorbed the quote—in every sense possible—and moved on.

It was a decade and a half later that I remembered the quote and wanted to use it—probably for a church-related youth activity, or maybe even on this blog. By then I had acquired the habit of always hunting down the original source of a quote—even one I’d memorised—to verify I had every word correct and that the person in question had indeed said or written it.

I was surprised (and I admit, more than a little disappointed) to find that the particular quote in question was not crafted by an iconic South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and statesman, but rather by a prolific American writer of spiritual self-help books, hitherto unknown to me: Marianne Williamson (who to her credit subsequently crafted an equally gracious and eloquent response to the persistent misquotation). The Nelson Mandela Foundation, which still receives regular requests for permission to use the quote, has searched through all three of the addresses given by Mandela on the day of his inauguration, May 9, 1994, and found nothing at all resembling it.

Williamson penned the now-famous words in her 1992 book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” (Chapter 7, Paragraph 3, to be exact; page 190, or page 165 in some editions). Which, full disclosure, I have not read, since I’m moderately allergic to self-help books; I got this information from the invaluable, which makes a sort of mission of correcting mistakes like this.

In this age of political outsiders, I suppose it’s not the weirdest thing in the world for an independently wealthy New Age spiritual guru whose daughter is managing her campaign to run for U.S. president. And it sounds like the famous quote would make a pretty good summation of her political platform. Which reminded me nostalgically of a political party I used to know.

As a a teenager I sat down to take a serious look at the political spectrum and decide where I fit into it. This was right before some election in which I was too young to vote; 1992 would have been too early, so it must have been 1996. I was sixteen. We were watching videos about Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in my debate class. I had already gone through a Rush Limbaugh phase (which I cannot believe I am actually admitting here; don’t hate. We’ll just take it as evidence that people can change, and also that my teenager might actually be listening to and believing some of the stuff I say—after all, it was my parents who tuned the radio to the Rush Limbaugh show in the first place).

Little known fact: there are more than two political parties in the U.S. Kind of. Seems like there were more back then than now, and the ones on offer have changed in the meantime. But when I was diligently researching at the age of sixteen there were regular right wing parties and left wing parties and then the Libertarians and the Greens and the Peace & Freedom party, which was kind of attractive because it was so different from my conservative upbringing and had this whiff of Woodstock about it.

But then my eye fell upon the Natural Law Party (NLP), and I knew instantly it was the party for me. I mean, it was basically as far from a political party as you could get while still actually being a political party. Weirdly, for some reason, both back then and since, I have never come across a single person in real life who has ever actually heard of this party.

But I know it wasn’t a figment of my admittedly hyperactive teenage imagination, since while the party is apparently now officially defunct on a nationwide level since 2004 (it still exists in Michigan), it does have a Wikipedia page. From which–because you just can’t make this stuff up–I shall quote directly:

The NLP proposed that a government subsidized group of 7,000 advanced meditators known as Yogic Flyers would lower nationwide stress, reduce unemployment, raise the gross national product, improve health, reduce crime, and make the country invincible to foreign attack. Hagelin [the party’s perennial presidential candidate] called it a “practical, field-tested, scientifically proven” solution.

To 16-year-old me, now bored with Limbaugh, Transcendental Meditation as a political platform sounded perfect. To grown-up me, Marianne Williamson sounds like she would fit right in, although I’m unfortunately no longer particularly enamoured of charismatic political outsiders, even those who propose to solve all problems of the world through meditation. Unaccountably, the NLP party and its Yogic Flyers seem to have faded away into oblivion, so I think Williamson is running as a plain old Democrat, in the company of a Democratic field that–as the Washington Post colourfully opines–“makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe look sparsely populated.”

Still, I guess there would be something kind of cosmically satisfying if that quote really did end up in an inaugural address–given by the actual author. Even if everybody thought she was quoting Nelson Mandela.

What do you think?