I could not help noticing the news from the US recently that Marianne Williamson is running for the Democratic Party nomination for President.
Marianne Williamson? Author of the famous quote, often misattributed to Nelson Mandela, ‘our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure...’ Marianne Williamson the New Age spiritual guru, writer of such books as A Return to Love? Marianne Williamson whose early career consisted of teaching the de-facto New Age ‘bible’, A Course in Miracles? Yes, THAT Marianne Williamson.
There are certainly worse US Presidential candidates. But her background, which, according to Wikipedia, also once involved running ‘a metaphysical bookstore and coffee shop’ gave me pause. It got me thinking about my own messy involvement with New Age ideas.
The New Age movement is a spiritual tradition that, some have said, grew out of middle-class Western dissatisfaction with Christianity, especially from the late 1970s onwards. It emphasizes meditation, love for all, self-awareness, and ‘manifesting’ what you want by believing in it.
Many Namibians would call its adherents ‘hippies’, but they often distinguish themselves from the counter-culture of 1960s America, while not denying its influence on their thought.
My own experience with the New Age movement in Namibia started through doing a creativity course for artists and creative professionals that was very much based around ‘trusting the universe’, ‘you attract what you are’, and a supposed ‘law of attraction’, which states that if you conceive and deeply believe in an idea, the universe will conspire to bring things together to make it happen.
This, and reading other books like The Secret, helped me out during a difficult time. I had retrained from a journalist to a polytechnic lecturer, was earning good money for the first time in my life, but I felt dissatisfied. Reading these books and attending these classes helped me to make a start on obtaining my PhD, publishing a book of poetry, investing in my mental health though seeing a therapist, and many other things.
Here’s the catch, though: saying ‘you become what you believe’ is probably pretty good advice to a middle-class, educated, non-disabled, suburban white guy like myself.
To say that to, for example, a poor, township-dwelling, disabled black woman, I eventually realized, is, more often than not, a terrible thing to do.
For Hugh from Eros, ‘manifesting’ can achieve a lot. He mostly has all he needs to turn self-belief into real achievement. For Maria from Okahandja Park, what is really needed is structural change in the economy. Redistribution of wealth. Land reform and secure land tenue. The building of water and sewerage lines. A change in the way the education system and organized religion address men.
What frustrates me is, unlike their hippie forebears, the New Age movement has all but given up on positive social change. It’s all self-love and self-actualization, but never let’s put our considerable middle-class capital together for re-invigorating Katutura hospital, or join a protest for land redistribution, or get our hands dirty cleaning up actual shit in the slums where our gardeners and domestic workers live.
I went on Williamson’s campaign website, and it surprised me by actually having some good ideas, especially concerning gun control and early childhood development. She’s one of the few calling for reparations for slavery for African-Americans.
I fear, however, what her good-in-principle calls for ‘non-pharmaceutical health care’ would mean in those cases where drugs, such as vaccines, are necessary and save lives. I wonder if, behind all her quotes about love, there is the backbone to stand up to the US military-industrial complex.
At the end of the day, it may not be my place to comment. I’m not even American. Having said that, whoever does get chosen as President eventually will command a massive worldwide military force and a huge foreign aid budget, which pays part of my country’s HIV treatment bill, so it’s not irrelevant to my life.
As for me, I hope my former co-spiritualists do not take offense to this article. Instead, I hope they realize that when you live in a divided, racialized, sexist, post-colonial society like ours, the ‘law of attraction’ if it works at all, can only work through people, especially us privileged people getting our hands dirty - joining political action groups, making noise, questioning the elitist belief systems we grew up with, giving up our obsession with owning property, and so many other radical things.
If that happened, it would truly be a miracle.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Contact him on Twitter: @ellis_hugh