Elizabeth Gilbert Moves from Fear to Fierce
Who would we be if we weren’t afraid? What would our lives look like if we pushed aside our greatest fears and let curiosity lead the way? Today we’re wrapping the Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire series with one of the world’s greatest teachers on how to live in the beauty of freedom: award-winning writer and all-around good human, Elizabeth Gilbert. Liz has opened her life and poured her lessons generously into masterpieces on creative living like Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, plus her latest work, the gorgeous novel City of Girls. Today Liz feeds our souls by giving us permission to throw away words like “passion” and “purpose” and “balance” (which, let’s be honest, are stifling) so that, instead, we can lower the stakes and allow ourselves the delight of discovery.
Liz: You can live a curiosity-driven life that never sews itself together into something that looks like what the champions of success would tell you that a championship successful life looks like. But it will be a really good life, and it will be a really nourishing life, and it will be a life that looks like you. And that, to me, feels like the highest attainment.
Jen: Welcome to the Fierce Free and Full of Fire series on the For the Love Podcast. Oh, lucky you, because today we talk with author and actual human being extraordinaire Elizabeth Gilbert about how embracing curiosity moved her from fear to fierce.
Hey, everybody! Jen Hatmaker is here, your oh-so-happy hostess of the For the Love Podcast, and I really am today. Welcome to this amazing show.
We are wrapping up our series, For the Love of Being Fierce, Free and Full of Fire, which my heart cannot contain. We obviously packed this series in celebration of my latest book. Not really the book, but everything inside of it and all the ideas inside of it. We, as a team, went, “Who can we have on this show who in so many ways embodied the work? They embody this sense of liberation and living beautiful, free, vibrant lives,” and thus you’ve got this whole incredible series loaded up right there on your phone. I hope you have not missed a single one. I don’t know if we’ve ever done a better series.
I can’t think of a better teacher to help us put a bow on this beautiful series, because today we are talking to one of the premier examples—premier—of living truly fierce, free, and full of fire.
My guest today is the incomparable Elizabeth Gilbert. You know her, of course. She’s special, right? Just an incredible, award-winning writer, of course, of fiction and non-fiction. She’s one of the greatest writers of our time. That is without question. She’s best known as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which has changed and inspired millions of people around the globe—millions. Whether you’re a creative or not, you should 100 percent pick up her book called Big Magic. I tell her this in the show, but I underlined almost every single sentence in the entire book. It’s one of our best guides to show us how to let go of fear and instead make decisions for ourselves, our lives, and the people that we love based on curiosity. That’s my favorite part of our whole interview today.
Listen, if your shoulders are up in your ears today, if you are anxious, if you are worried, if you are still showing and cramming yourself into these pre-formed spaces, this is going to be the greatest hour you’re about to spend. I am telling you, this is going to relieve you. This is so soothing. Liz’s voice is so important. I told her this too, but she lives in integrity, and I know it. I know that whatever she is saying is always sincere. You can tell when somebody is living like that, and she is.
She said a couple of things to me over the course of this interview that I just kind of had to sit still with. At one point—and I won’t tell you what we were talking about—I wrote it down right here next to me. She was just being really, really generous to something I was disclosing, and she said, “Jen, I don’t need you to have this thing fixed,” and my throat closed. I grabbed my pen, and I just wrote that down, because it was such a gentle thing to say to me at the right time.
I’m just telling you today is the day you’re going to be happy that you showed up for the For the Love Podcast. Honestly, with great joy, I am so glad to share my conversation with the irreplaceable Liz Gilbert.
Jen: I have just said this to you, and I can’t mean it more. I’m trying to think of a more lovely, wonderful voice to bring to my community right now, and I can’t think of one. I’m so happy to welcome you, Liz. I’m glad you’re here.
Liz: Thank you so much for saying that. I’m glad I’m here too, and I’m very touched to hear you say that. I’m happy to be here. I’ll bring whatever I’ve got for you.
Jen: I know that you will, and I know that’s what you do. Give us a little update first on how you are, where you are, what your days look like right now, and what’s kind of giving you fuel in life and hope?
Liz: That’s pretty simple. I’m doing really well. I’ve got this little house in rural New Jersey. It’s an old church that I bought fifteen years ago on Craigslist.
Jen: That’s crazy!
Liz: It’s this tiny little chapel turned into this little tiny house in the country, and it’s exactly the right place to be during a time like this. I’m here by myself, and I’ve actually been well. I’m well in my mind. I’m used to a lot of solitude, I think, as a writer, and also I’ve sought that out a lot in my life as a meditator, just to try to learn how to befriend my own mind. I’ve spent a lot of time in isolation and navigating my own mind, so to me I’m pretty comfortable with this. Of course, my heart is tender for what the world is going through, but I’m not anybody that anyone needs to be worrying about right now. I’m good.
Jen: I’m really happy to hear that. I am here in this little house. We have an old house. It was built in 1908. It’s very small. We have five kids, and four of them are here. It’s a lot of humans.
Jen: It’s a lot of human beings.
Liz: A friend of mine who’s a therapist said to me the other day, “All my clients who are in solitude are desperately lonely for human company, and all of my clients who are in isolation with their families are desperate for solitude.” I said, “Actually, I’m alone and I’m pretty happy.”
Jen: “I pretty much know what I have here.”
Liz: I’m listening to all my friends with their kids, and I’m like, “Oh my God! How are you surviving this?”
Jen: Right. Right, because managing their disappointment, their loss, and their frustration [is a lot]. Of the four kids that are here of my five right now, two of them are seniors. I have a senior in college and a senior in high school, so they’re just like, “WTF, world?”
Liz: Yeah, yeah. Poor things.
Jen: Yeah. Shouldering their disappointment is such a bummer, but I’m so happy to hear that you’re well. I just knew that you would be, and I am thankful for what you’re going to say to us today.
We’re in a series right now on the podcast called For the Love of Being Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire, and it’s largely about how women find the gumption to finally stop believing the whole identity and stereotype we were handed. We all know what it is. I knew what it was before I got out of kindergarten, about who we were supposed to be, definitely what we were supposed to look like, all of it. And [we are] setting it all aside and just being absolutely true and genuine.
I mean this as sincerely as I possibly could, you are one of our best teachers about being a fully integrated person. I just know when I watch you, listen to you, and read everything you have to say that you are living in integrity. I know it. Every word out of your mouth, I can tell. I wonder if we could just start there. What does that look like to you? What that means to you? Why are you good at this? Why does integration seem to come really naturally to you? I would just love to hear your thoughts on that, because I think a lot of women listening today are in some state of disintegration, of course, which is very normal. Anyway, I’d just love to hear your leadership on that.
Liz: Thanks for saying that. I feel very honored. I started laughing a little bit in the middle when you said, “Why does it come easily to you?” I was starting to laugh, because I was like, Oh. It hasn’t come easily, but it has come. It has come. I think the integrity has come to me because it turned out that I was so terribly, disastrously bad at living out of integrity. By that, I mean it breaks me and I die. I really do feel like I only have two switches. I’m like a toggle. I really only have two settings, and it’s either thriving or tanking. Yeah. There’s really not a lot of middle ground.
I’m fifty, and the thing I’ve learned in my life is the tanking starts instantly as soon as I’m on the wrong path instantly, and it’s a fast tank. I really collapse. I get sick. I’m suddenly sobbing in the middle of the night. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My whole being shuts down. I now think of that as a really great gift, because as soon as my whole being starts to shut down, I know that I’ve taken a wrong turn. It’s a navigational tool, and I just have to abruptly pull the brake and be like, Oops! Oh, I thought this was a doorway to paradise, and now I’m in hell. Oh sorry. My misunderstanding. I thought I wanted A, and it turns out [to be B]. The only way, unfortunately, for me that I can find my integrity is often by going in the wrong direction and starting to tank until I correct the course.
So it’s not easy. I wish there was a gentler practice that I could do it for, but it really has to kind of be tested out in the real world and in real time on my actual being, on my actual body.
Jen: I really appreciate you saying that, because I’m thinking about the woman listening who is so deeply inside the space of essentially reading the room and giving it what it wants that she doesn’t yet know to trust her own body. That’s something I’ve learned in my forties is that, maybe more than any other entity on earth, my body is 100 percent team Jen. She always tells me. She always steers me right. She always sends up the warning signals. She’s never wrong.
We just weren’t taught to trust ourselves, our instincts, intuition, gut, and even our physical bodies, when they are saying, “You know what? I’m just going to get sick until you listen to me.” I appreciate that you are able to link for us so clearly that some of those warning signs mean something. They mean something. They’re signals to us to get back into integrity, and that instantaneous switchover is so reassuring.
What was your decade when you felt like that went from a loose idea or even an aspirational hope to something you were able to put into fairly regular practice?
Liz: I think I’m just starting, honestly. It takes a really long time to figure out how to navigate a human life. I think of it this way; we’re dropped into these bodies, we’re dropped into this gender—which may or may not be one that you’re comfortable with—you’re dropped into a family of origin, and there’s that moment where you’re like, Really? This family?
Jen: Yeah, totally!
Jen: That’s real.
Liz: You’re dropped into a particular culture, a particular moment in history, and a particular system. You’re basically let loose on this world like, “Okay, good luck.” With all of your weird engineering, your talents, your mental illnesses, your likes and dislikes, your nature, your nurture, all of this stuff happens, and then the task is to figure out how you operate this thing. How do you operate this system? The very first guess for most of us is, Do what they say. That’s for me, because I’m a pleaser.
Jen: Me too.
Liz: I think there’s a different kind of personality. My partner Rayya had a very different instinct, which was from the very beginning, Give them the middle finger and do exactly the opposite.
Jen: Totally. Opposite.
Liz: That led her through a whole different kind of suffering.
Jen: That’s right.
Liz: But for me, it sounds like it’s a good guess. A good guess is, Do what you’re told and make people happy, and then you’ll be alright. My God, I certainly did enough research in that category to find out that didn’t work, and that it had almost at times really literally almost cost me my life.
It takes a minute. It takes decades to learn how to do it. Look, I just very recently ended a relationship that I was incredibly excited about, that I had dived into with the greatest of joy and then had to do a course correction very swiftly.
There’s also a relationship I’ve established, with a voice inside of me, where it’s a friendship. I think it takes a very long time to learn how to create a friendship towards yourself. Self-love is a term that gets bandied around a lot. I feel like it’s very out of reach for a lot of people and very surreal almost, but I think most of us are good at being friends to others, the people who we really love. Like, [we have] a friendly sense of stewardship towards yourself, and a sense that, I’ve got Liz, and for whatever reason, the universe put her in my hands to take care of. And I like to think that they gave me her because they thought I could. They thought I could take care of her. I’ve come this far with her. I’m not going to roll her under the bus now.
Jen: That’s great.
Liz: We’ve been through a lot together, so it’s just this sense that if I don’t look out for her, no one is going to.
Jen: That’s so good.
Liz: I just had to. This little voice inside of me, while I was in this relationship said, “Please get me out of here.”
Jen: Oh wow, gosh.
Liz: “Please get me out of here,” and I’ve heard that voice before and made her stay.
Liz: Made her stay in a new job, made her stay in a relationship, because we said we were going to do this, and we’re already in here this far. And the minute I heard that voice—and I mean the minute she said, “Please get me out of here”—the person who I was with had gotten up to go get a glass of water, and by the time they came back I was sitting on the edge of the couch saying, “I just want to let you know that this relationship is over.”
Jen: Oh, you mean that minute. Yes.
Liz: I mean that minute. I haven’t wavered from that, because she’s my responsibility, right? When that little one inside of me says, “I’m dying here, and I’m not getting what I need. I don’t want to stay,” I just don’t question her.
I said to her, “I want to get you right out of here. I want to get you right out of here, sweetheart. It’s going to take a minute, because I got us in here really hard. There’s going to be some stuff to undo, but I’m okay. I’m a fifty year old woman. I can do it. I’m going to get us both out of here right now, because you’re my priority.” That’s something I didn’t know until very recently.
Jen: Oh, that’s so good. Oh my goodness, that is bearing in my bones.
When I think about you—and you’ve been so generous with the rest of us with your life, with your story, what you’re learning, and where you’re at—because most of us have been with you for some time now, we’ve gotten to kind of watch you walk through different seasons of your life and different iterations of who you were in that place and that time, and what you were learning and seeing.
And so I’m curious—what does this right now, this season of life, look like for you? Inside of that, what are your highest values, and how are you working or wanting to make sure that those show up in the world right now?
Liz: What a big question. Thank you for that.
I think there’s two levels to it. So one is my intimate relationship with myself, and in that I include my relationship with divinity. I don’t really separate out too much with my relationship with myself. That’s a season for me of solitude and recovery, restoration of dignity, and really feeling like I need, want, and deserve a long season alone. And not in a way that feels like loneliness, but in a way that feels like a restoration project of self. I’ve given a lot of myself away to a lot of people over the years, and that’s okay. Those are choices that I made then, and there is much to be learned and loved in that, but it’s now not that time anymore. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, and I’m willing to go as long as it needs to.
So there’s that. And then, on the social level, in terms of my sense of obligation to the world, there’s an understanding that I’m not going to be able to read accurately what my obligation to the world is if I’m not steady in my own mind. I often find myself with people saying, “Just give me a minute here.” So for instance, what’s happening right now with the Coronavirus is that all the really creative and initiative-driven people that I know are reaching out to me and saying, “I’m doing this in response to it. We want you to be a part of an idea. We’re doing that, and we want you to be on this.”
I’ve been finding myself able to say, “Slow down for me. Your pace is terrific for you, and this is going to a marathon and not a sprint. I’m not going to an off-the-hip reaction. I want to make sure that I choose my reaction, because three months from now, six months from now, I still want to be stable. So just give me a moment, and I’ll come,” so there are things I’m joining and other things that I’m not. I think I’m trusting my role a little bit more, and that my role is a storyteller and to share what I have, whatever I’ve learned, and also resource-wise whatever I’ve got.
Jen: That’s perfect.
Liz: I love the phrase, “I store my grain in the belly of my neighbor.” It’s an Indian expression. It’s so beautiful. I’m figuring out what is the most effective way for me to store my grain in the belly of my neighbor, and that grain is not just money and resources—although it is that—it’s also whatever I’ve learned for emotional health. A few people are going to suffer physically from this virus, but a much higher number are going to suffer financially and economically, and a massive uncountable number are suffering already emotionally. Those are the ones who I want to talk to. Give me your anxious people.
Jen: Yes! Yes.
Liz: Give me the people whose minds are in trouble right now, because that’s a realm I’ve spent a lot of time with. You’re my people! You’re my people!
Jen: I’m so glad that you are in this particular series, because over the last handful of years, I have been re-evaluating my place in the world and the way I want to use my voice in it. I’ve been watching very carefully for several years women who are doing life well, who are living authentically, who are living in integrity, which is why I’ve been paying attention to you for years.
One of the many reasons why I really listen and look to you is this invitation that you’ve given us. It was something that you wrote in Big Magic which, by the way, I honestly think that I underlined every line in the whole book. I think I just underlined the whole thing, and I should have just skipped the exercise. It meant so much to me when you released it.
But one thing you said inside Big Magic was to live a life that is more driven by curiosity than fear. I literally cannot explain to you how much that north star has been a part of my personal work the last few years. Can you talk about that idea for a moment? Because it’s not easy. That’s not an easy thing to do. How do we even just begin to peel back the power that fear has over us, and rather choose to expand our world through curiosity. Also, I’d love to hear why you think that’s such a challenge, particularly for women, and what the roadblocks are there.
Liz: Yeah. I think—as you say—it’s not easy to live a curiosity-driven life, but the reason I offered it up as a possibility is because I think it’s a lot easier than living a passion-driven life or a purpose-driven life. If there’s nothing else that I can offer to women, it’s to just spare yourself from those two words.
Jen: It’s so good.
Liz: They’re brutal, and they’re shaming. Look, if you happen to be living a passion and purpose-driven life, then you have what I like to call “not a problem,” and I’m not concerned about you.
Jen: That’s great.
Liz: You’re fine. Just continue to do what you’re doing.
Jen: Right. Scroll on.
Liz: Yeah. Roll on. You’re good. I can’t wait to take your seminar. A lot of people—and this has been me at times—have struggled to figure out passion or have struggled to figure out purpose. Those two words, along with another word, balance. Oh my God! That’s another word that I think is used as a weapon, a cudgel for women to beat themselves up with. It’s just more words that show you that you’re not doing it right. There’s some particular way that you’re supposed to be living, and you’re not doing it right. I often think of this: If I were to tell you that you were born with one special gift and one special purpose that you were supposed to bring to the world, and that your job on this earth was to uncover what that purpose was, to nurture it, grow it with your talents, share it with the world, monetize it, and then to make the world a better place because of that, how many hives did you just get?
Jen: Yeah. That’s pretty heavy.
Liz: How much anxiety does that make you feel, and yet that’s literally the cultural message that every graduation message is. You know, this is what we’re being sold. We’re being sold that is what a life is, and all it does. Even telling you that, my body had an anxiety reaction.
And so what I would love to do is kind of take people from purpose because of the fact that I don’t think you could ever really know for sure what your purpose is. This is one of the mysteries that’s not really yours to answer. You don’t know why you’re born. You don’t know what you came here to do. You can guess, but they’re just guesses.
I have to tell you this story about how this one day I was in California, walking down the street, and I saw a man in front of his storefront. He had a ladder, and he was at the top of his ladder painting something on his store sign. The ladder was wavering, and I walked over. I thought, I don’t want that man to fall off the ladder, so I just held the ladder. He didn’t know I was there, but I just stood there for probably fifteen minutes and just held the ladder, because it just was an obvious thing to do in that moment.
Then, I could see he was coming down, and I didn’t want to make him really uncomfortable, so I walked over. He never saw me. I walked away and I thought, What if that was the entire purpose of my life? I don’t know. What if every single other thing I’ve done was just killing time until the one purpose for which I was born, which was to hold that guy’s ladder for fifteen minutes?
Jen: To keep that guy safe for fifteen minutes.
Liz: Yeah. Who knows? I don’t know. It could be that, and even everything else like the books, the divorces, and all of this is just filling time until they needed me there at that moment.
After I had that realization, I really just relaxed and thought, Sure. Maybe your purpose has been fulfilled. So now—and since you’ll never know what it is—what are you curious about? Why don’t you just do that?“I think that the words passion, purpose, and balance actually bring fear. When you’re talking about how to get on the other side of fear, I think those words encourage you to be afraid, because they present a sense of lack and that you should be doing more, you should be producing more, and you should be more successful. All of that stuff, I think, creates anxiety, but the word curiosity for me always makes me feel calm. It always makes me feel smiley, because it’s so gentle.
Passion is the thing that says you have to shave your head, get divorced, move to India, start a foundation, and give a TED Talk. Curiosity just says, “I wonder what it would be like to take a pottery class for a day?” The stakes are so low, and that’s why it’s actually achievable. Curiosity is this very gentle and very simple impulse that causes you to turn your head a quarter of an inch, look at something a little more, and be like, Oh, that’s neat. What’s that? That person is kind of cool. What’s that? You can live a curiosity-driven life that never sews itself together into something that looks like what the champions of success would tell you that a championship successful life looks like. But it will be a really good life, and it will be a really nourishing life, and it will be a life that looks like you. And that, to me, feels like the highest attainment.
Jen: It sure does, and it’s so soothing to hear you say that. I literally grew up inside the opposite metric, where not only were passion and purpose assumed, but that every one of us was born with this very teeny bull’s eye. Hope we find it! Good luck
Liz: Good luck!
Jen: “Find it!”
Liz: “Change the world! No pressure!”
Jen: There’s one little way you’re supposed to do it, and just really hope it all works out that you find that. But of course, inside of it was baked in this idea of it being full of merit, and that was honorable and noble. You’re right. It’s like a vise. It’s a vise.
Liz: My throat is starting to close up just hearing you talk about that.
Jen: Totally. Totally. I’m tickled thinking about the woman who is hearing you say that, and has never heard a person offer that kind of permission to live a life of curiosity—which, by the way, is chock full of meaning. We have this binary idea here. I can hear the objection, “But where is the meaning?”
I’m like, “It’s full of meaning! Full of connection. Full of joy. Full of love. Full of being a good neighbor. That doesn’t cancel that out at all. It just releases the pressure.”
Liz: Yeah. There’s this simpleness to it.
And, you know, meaning is also a trap that we fall into. Meaning starts to just bring all the why questions. Why am I here? Why is this like this? Why did I have this loss? Why did I fail at that business? Why is this divorce happening? Why is he cheating on me? Why is she not listening to me? All of these why‘s, and it’s taken me this long to learn that the word why is just a trap door that opens up directly into hell.
Liz: It is just a portal right to hell.
Jen: Straight to the belly of the beast.
Liz: Right. Right in there. It’s like, “Oh wow! I asked a question that begins with why, and I looked up and I’m in hell. Wow. Amazing.” And I think meaning is one of those things, too. Again, I’m much more comfortable as I’m getting older with the two words can’t know. Can’t know. Can’t know what my meaning is. Can’t know what my purpose is, if any. I’m not even sure whether you’re supposed to have one. I don’t know. Can’t know. These are massive cosmic questions that are beyond me, but I can know what I’m curious about. I can know who I am fond of.
My friend, Martha Beck, who I love so much, says, “If there is a secret to life, it is this: find people that you like, and do stuff with them.”
Jen: I love it! That’s so great.
Liz: Doesn’t that seem like a much more generous universe than purpose, passion, meaning, and transformation?
Jen: Exactly. It sure does. Oh, I love that.
Aside from Jen: Okay, guys, I want to take a little sec to sort of expand on something, there’s a saying here because it’s an idea I’ve been exploring myself to these past few years. It’s actually breathtaking how much our worlds expand when we decide that we are no longer going to guide our lives using a compass of fear.
We decide to make decisions based on curiosity. Isn’t that such a great idea that we just talked about? Like curiosity, which is something I touched on in the introduction of Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire, which is out now. So here. I’m going to reach an excerpt from what I wrote in the intro.
I discovered the world is hungry for women who show up and tell the truth unafraid and free, expanding to the very edges of who they were always meant to be. It’s that woman who brings her gifts to bear on this earth. Who takes ownership of her precious wiring and encourages her sisters to do likewise. That woman refuses to contort to a template, but rather occupies her own life as the recipient of God’s unending favor, not a beggar at his door. This kind of woman also wants this freedom for everyone else. I cannot overstate this important correlation and how necessary it is right now. She craves a genuine world, a more honest and sincere community, relationships based in truth telling to be refreshing to a parched world. She is not afraid of herself, so she is unafraid of others. She is fierce. She is free. She is full of fire.
I am so glad that Liz is here to talk us through what a woman who is fierce and free or full of fire looks like and looks like for the world. All right. Let’s get back to our conversation.
Jen: So I can look back with really grateful eyes, because I’ve had a life that’s been filled to the brim with strong women almost my whole life, like my mom, my grandma, and all of my bonus moms and grandmas, my sisters—I’ve got two sisters that are just as close as my own skin. Then, I’ve got daughters, and I have friends and colleagues that I just love so much. I’m so thankful, because I’ve learned so much from the women, and I get to serve them, too. We just love each other so well.
But when I think about this sort of cacophony of women who have really imprinted me, I realize how different they all are. Their journeys, their decisions, their choices, their world views, and their experiences are wildly different from each other, so I do not have a type. I do not have a certain type of woman that I fill my coffers with. I’ve got everything from the most conventional, well-behaved woman to the rule-breaker, like we talked about earlier.
I’m curious—when I think about you, who are some of the women? Of course, I’m sure it’s too long a list to list them all for both of us, but who are some of the women in your life—be it a long time ago or yesterday, I don’t care—that you would point to and say, “These women matter to me. These women really affected me or shaped the way that I am today”?
Liz: I’m just instantly thinking about teachers. I’m such a student, and I remain such a student, so I think of the female teachers that I’ve had in the role of teacher. So that goes back to when I was nine years old, and I feel like I woke up intellectually at the age of nine, because my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Carpenter, was so electrifying. She was the first feminist I ever met. On the first day of school, she wrote on the board, “Ms. Carpenter,” and then her very first lesson to us was to teach us the meaning of what Ms. stood for and what it meant.
Jen: That’s crazy!
Liz: She just broke it down, and she’s like, “Men have always had a prefix to their name that did not indicate whether they were married or not, and now women have one, too.” And I was like, “Whoa!” I remember being nine and just being like, “How about that!”
I really feel like it’s just such an awakening. She and I are still friends, and she’s turning eighty this year, actually. And we’ve become friends. I’m still friends with my fourth grade teacher who also introduced me to Ernest Hemingway and to poetry. She was such a fantastic educator. She didn’t think there was anything we couldn’t learn, so she taught us Latin, and she taught us the names of the stars, and she taught us about plants. We started a newspaper. We had a talent show. I did more in that one year than I probably did in the rest of my education until I was in college. She was extraordinary.
Jen: How wonderful.
Liz: She was kind of my first electrifying teacher, but my most recent electrifying teacher is Byron Katie. Do you know her work?
Jen: I don’t.
Liz: She’s extraordinary. She teaches a kind of work that’s called inquiry. She also calls it The Work, and it’s a very simple. Man, I feel like my life would have had a very different course if I’d known about this sooner, but it’s a way of sitting in inquiry with your mind’s most devastating, hurtful, anxiety-producing beliefs.
Jen: Oh wow.
Liz: And sitting in meditation on those beliefs and asking those beliefs four simple questions. So you take something that you’re believing, either about yourself or about the world that’s causing you anxiety, and you do what she calls a worksheet on it. She always says, “All war belongs on paper,” so you bring it to the paper. Then, you ask these four questions. The questions are, “Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react when you believe that it’s true? Who would you be without that belief?”
Jen: Oh wow. Golly!
Liz: It is a life-changing game changer. I recently took her. She teaches a nine-day school where she really deep dives into inquiry. Somebody there saw me, and they were like, “I can’t believe you’re at this school in the front row taking notes.” I’m like, “Why wouldn’t I be?!”
Liz: I will sit at the feet of any master who’s got something for me. Why would I miss it if there was somebody who had this kind of really life-changing information and this to teach? Yeah, I’ll be right there in the front row, pencil sharpened.
Liz: Just like I was on the first day of school.
Jen: Is it too personal for me to ask if you had a specific belief on the altar of inquiry to pay attention to?
Liz: I can tell you one that was really heartbreaking. My partner Rayya was dying when I was taking that class. A belief that I was having was causing me enormous suffering was a belief about what my life would be like after she died. Do you know how there’s just one sentence that you can put in your mind, and it will make you cry?
Liz: So for me the sentence was—I can’t even tell you how much I used to love walking into rooms with Rayya on my arm, like the pride that I felt and the excitement that I felt about going into new situations and having her with me, the joy I felt in introducing her to people, watching her spark with people, watching her engage. I loved walking through the world with her, and I loved walking into the world with her. The sentence back then that was in me that was causing me so much grief was, “After Rayya dies, I will never be able to walk into a room with Rayya again,” because it was just me picturing myself alone and specifically entering into new situations without her. It was just devastating.
And so I did a worksheet on that. “After Rayya dies, I will never be able to walk into a room with her again.” Is that true, and can I absolutely know that it’s true? I won’t lead you through the whole, How do I react when I believe that it’s true? Devastated. Who would I be without that belief? I won’t walk you through the entire course of inquiry, but when I sat with it—and you really just sit with it. You really ask the question, “Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true?” and you let your mind lead you. That’s what I love about it. It is self-inquiry. You let consciousness show you the answer, and the answer that I was shown was, “I will never again walk into a room without her by my side.”
Jen: That’s great.
Liz: The exact opposite is true. I will never have to be without her, because what I saw was that she would be braided into me in a way that I’ve actually now experienced since her death, where I feel like I’ve become this creature who is a kind of combination of half of myself and half of her. And yeah, it’s true that there’s no such thing as walking into a room alone anymore, so there are things like that.
Liz: Yeah. It’s powerful. Game changers.
Jen: Right. What was her name again?
Liz: Byron Katie.
Liz: B Y R O N Katie, K A T I E.
Jen: Okay. We’ll make sure everybody has access to that. Thank you for sharing that teacher with us.
I actually quoted you in Fierce. Not surprisingly, there’s actually a lot of ways that I could have done this, but I have a chapter called, “I Am Strong In My Body.” If I can point to one place where I’m still working on integration, it’s that. It’s the way that I have always felt about my body, what I was told to feel about my body, and how I was supposed to make her behave, look, and all that. I think this is a real common heartbreak for women. And you wrote something—you may not even remember this, Liz, because you wrote it on Instagram. It’s not even a book. You just were probably having this beautiful thought, and you sat down with your thumbs and pecked it out on your phone. It hit me between the eyes so hard that I screenshotted it, and I emailed it to myself, I emailed it to Brandon, my husband, in case I lost it. I’m like, “I don’t know what to do except I never ever want to not have these words in front of me again.”
I’m going to read it to you, because this was at least three years ago, and it was just a post. You wrote on Instagram:
I’ve lost the dark and particularly female talent for self-criticism and for tearing myself down. It feels like sacrilege. My mouth can’t force the hateful words, and I can’t bear it anymore to hear another woman demean, degrade, or diminish herself. It shocks my senses and hurts my heart. To witness a woman denying that she is beautiful is like watching someone set fire to an art museum. It’s like watching an angel drink gasoline. It’s like watching a phoenix rip off its wings.
You wrote that, and it seared me. I put that word-for-word quote into that chapter on bodies, and I just wonder if you can speak into this a little bit. I’ll just be very honest that I’ve told my readers that when I got to the end of Fierce, and having really worked incredibly deeply through these various areas, this is the one that I still feel fragile on. This is the one that I still can see that I am not there. I can see that I have work to do and that I am not kind to my body yet in ways that she deserves.
I just would love to hear you talk to us a little bit about that—that you wrote such profound, beautiful words and what you’ve learned from them.
Liz: First of all, like, bathing you in mercy for the fact that you’re not there yet. Also, if you never get there, I love you anyway.
Jen: Thank you.
Liz: I don’t need you to have this thing fixed. I almost think that it might be too big for one person to fix. This is a massive, ancient, cultural disease.
Jen: Yes, it is.
Liz: It’s in the groundwater. It’s in the drinking water of everybody. So just mercy to yourself if you find it hard. It’s like lead poisoning. It’s in your system, you know? And it’s in the entire system. It’s just nowhere to be found, so you know, it might take a minute to detox from that. And you might never fully do it, and that’s all right, too. Transformation and healing are all well and good, but if you’re holding up a measuring stick to yourself saying, “There’s a place that I should be emotionally and spiritually, and I’m not there yet,” that’s also cruelty.
Jen: Yes. You’re right.
Liz: That is the first thing that I want to say. I think we have to somehow free ourselves one phoenix at a time. You know what it was that did it for me? It was being in love with a woman.
Liz: So I’ve been only in relationships with men for my whole life, and then I fell in love with Rayya. And I was in a sexual relationship with a woman for the first time. I was on the other side of the conversation that I’d been in for so much of my life, where I stand in front of a mirror and say terrible things about myself, and my partner tries to convince me that those things aren’t true. And I had to watch that, because Rayya had a lot of body issues. One of the things that broke my heart was that when she went on chemo and radiation, she gained weight. There are steroids and stuff that puff you up. She was so much more upset about that than she was about the fact that she was dying of cancer.
Jen: Really? Gosh.
Liz: I remember saying that. I called my friend Martha Beck, who is a friend of Rayya’s too, and I said, “How do I help her? This is insanity. She is so much more upset about the fact that she’s gained ten pounds than she’s upset about the fact that she’s got six months to live.” And Martha said, “Have you been living under a rock, Liz? Do you not know how many more women would rather die than gain ten pounds?”
Jen: That’s right.
Liz: “Do you not know, literally, what’s going on?” There was never a sight in this entire world, to me, that was more beautiful physically than Rayya, so the disconnect…
It wasn’t like, “I love you despite the fact that you look like this.” To the end of my days, I will never see a sight more beautiful than that woman. This is what I meant by sacrilege. To have to sit in the toxic, absolute opposite world of looking at somebody who is literally the most gorgeous thing you’re ever going to see in your entire life, and hearing that person believe that they are ugly or lacking broke me in a way where I couldn’t do it anymore to myself.
Liz: I just couldn’t. I was like, “I can’t play this game anymore. I just can’t play this game anymore, because something sees me the way I see Rayya.” It might not be another person, but it’s whatever made me sees me. It’s like, “No. I can’t violate that again. I just can’t.”So that’s what did it. It was the shock, awe, and horror. It would be like if Michelangelo’s David came to life and was like, “I’m such a cow.”
Jen: Right. It’s just absurd.
Liz: You’d be like, “What are you talking about?”
Jen: It’s absolutely absurd.
Liz: Not only that—for me, that beautiful creature was dying, and I knew that she was dying very soon. Not only do I have to listen to the most beautiful creature in the world say that she’s ugly, I also have to know that the most beautiful creature in the world is dying and some of her last thoughts are going to be, I’m ugly. I just can’t. It blasted me out of that entire world, and I’ve never been able to go back to it. I just can’t.
Jen: Oh man. That has me flattened in my chair. As you’re speaking, I’m thinking of the little pockets of liberation I have from that destructive and hateful self talk. It also comes, and it’s similar when I look at my daughters. I’ve got a fourteen year old, and I have a nineteen year old. Exquisite. I mean, just absolutely exquisite from head to toe, the both of them. When I try to imagine them speaking to themselves the way I do, it breaks my heart.
Liz: Can you even?
Jen: It breaks my heart.
Liz: Do you see what I mean?
Jen: Yes I do.
Liz: Sacrilege is the word.
Liz: It’s like watching an art museum catch on fire. Yeah. It’s not okay. It’s not true.
Jen: Thank you for talking about that.
Liz: It’s not okay. Yeah. It’s not a scorning or a condemnation that I feel if anyone is still doing that. It’s a heartbreak, and it’s a heartbreak that feels like a violation of beauty itself.
Jen: Boy, I would love to see our generation lay that down. Wouldn’t that be something? I can’t even really imagine a whole generation of women who refused to hate themselves like everybody wants us to, or refuses to hate our bodies. It just feels so incredibly powerful that I almost don’t have imagination for what could live on the other side of that. We’ve never seen it. It’s never been done. There is no precedence for it, but boy, I would love to be a part of that.
Jen: So obviously—we kind of talked about this in the beginning—it’s just a weird time right now. It’s twilight zone time in our world. Our parents and grandparents experienced something like that probably after the war or during the war, this big outside force that’s outside of control and yet affecting every single bit of our lives. We’ve got this pandemic, and it reminds me of one of the ideas that you explored in City of Girls, and I think probably my favorite idea from City of Girls was that you don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.
I just want to tattoo that down my thigh, because it goes to the core of what I was told to be and how to be. Also, this idea that “life is both dangerous and fleeting, and there’s no point in denying yourself pleasure or being anything other than what you are.” That just strikes at the core of it all. I’m curious―you obviously wrote those words way before this moment, but they have a lot of relevance right now. I’m wondering your thoughts on pairing up some of the wisdom that you uncovered there in City of Girls with where we are finding ourselves right this minute.
Liz: There’s another line in City of Girls where a man who Vivian loves very much says to her, “The world ain’t straight. The world ain’t straight, Vivvie. The world ain’t straight.” You grow up a certain way, thinking that things are going to be a certain way, and it’s not. That’s what I’m seeing. The shock that I’m seeing rippling across the world right now at the beginning of this pandemic is the shock of people suddenly feeling like they’re out of control, when what I see is you were never in control. You were never in control. The world is doing what a world does. The world is just being itself, and that’s all it’s doing.
It’s doing it perfectly, because what the world does is change every second. That’s what the world does, and that’s what it’s always done. It’s just that we’ve managed through our technology, through our stubbornness, and through our terror to create little bubbles where we can pretend not to know that. We can pretend to forget that, because it’s so frightening. It’s so frightening to think, How do you live in a world that changes every second? The greatest and most terrifying thing about human life is the awareness that literally anything can happen at literally any moment to literally anybody.
Jen: That’s right.
Liz: That’s actually the reality of life.
Jen: It is.
Liz: You get shocked when you find it out in a big way, but it never isn’t true. There’s something that I wrote on Instagram recently saying, “Nobody wants to surrender, because nobody wants to lose control, but you never had control. All you had was anxiety. All you had was anxiety.”
And so I feel like every single spiritual practice that I’ve done over my life, all the creative practices that I’ve done, all the stuff that I’ve learned in relationships, and everything I’ve ever struggled through has been in preparation for me for this moment, which is, Oh! It’s surrender time. Oh, it’s surrender time. Oh, got it! Oh, right. I forgot that I don’t drive this vehicle.
The paradox of surrender. I think anybody who’s been through addiction knows that this is how sobriety begins, it’s such a paradox. The great paradox of surrender is how relaxing it is. You don’t want to let go of control because of this misunderstanding that you have that says, “If I can manage everything and get everything in order, then everything will be safe and everything will be okay.”
Jen: Of course!
Liz: When you drop that, all of a sudden you drop your whole body into this state of tremendous release and tremendous relaxation. My dear friend, life has spent its time with me teaching me that again and again and again and again. It will teach me that as many times as it has to until I let go of the steering wheel that was never attached to the car. I’m gripping the steering wheel thinking that I’m steering, but it’s actually not attached to anything.
Jen: Right. That’s a great metaphor.
Liz: I’m holding on to it like, “I’m going to keep this family safe! and I’m going to keep these people! And I’m going to fix…”
Jen: Yeah. Right. It’s an illusion.
Liz: It’s an illusion, and it’s an understandable one.
The other great paradox in human life is that there’s no species on earth who has more anxiety than humans. We are totally anxiety-driven, and that anxiety is all about our fear of the future. It’s all about how terrified we are of change, because we know that literally anything can happen to literally anybody at literally any moment, and that’s fairly frightening. And so we spend our lives in anxiety dreading that happening.
But the paradox is that there’s no other species on earth who’s actually better at change than we are, because humans are so incredibly resourceful, so incredibly adaptive, and so incredibly resilient. We have resources, we have adaptation, we have resilience. And when change comes, what history has shown is, we adapt and we’re really good at it. We hate the idea of it, and I actually think that the idea and the terror and panic of it causes us more suffering than the actual thing that comes.
Jen: That’s right, because then we face it and just get busy.
Liz: Then we’re like, “Okay. Well, this is the reality,” so when the reality hits, people mobilize.
Jen: That’s true.
Liz: They’re really good, and you hear that in the really intense moments. You hear that if you’ve ever listened to the recordings of the voicemail messages that people were leaving for their family members from the towers on September eleventh, when they knew that they were going to die. You listen to the tone of those voices, and you hear what humanity can do. They’re calm, they know what’s important, and they’re taking the time to deliver that important piece of information. They have their wits about them. They’re deeply able to be in that moment—even that moment.
I know that you’ve probably experienced this in your life in times of great emergency. When the emergency comes, you find the ability within you to rise to it. If we only trusted that, we wouldn’t have to be quite as terrified, because then we would just know that, I don’t know what’s coming. I will never be able to know what’s coming. I will never be able to control what’s coming. But so far everything that’s ever hit me in my life, when that moment asked me to show up for it, I did, because I’m still here.
Jen: That’s right. We’ve survived every day thus far.
Liz: Everything so far.
Liz: And so I’m just going to relax in knowing that I will be told what to do in that instant, which is something that I felt when Rayya was dying and I released control. I remember sitting with her when she was very ill and knowing that she could die literally at any minute, and feeling this awareness that, When there’s a job for me I will be told. And when that job is given to me, I’ll do it. And until then, I don’t do anything. That, again, goes back to the pause that I spoke about earlier when people are coming at me with all of their ideas and their initiatives. “We’re going to change the world this way and that way.”
I’m like, “Slow down, because one of these things might be the thing that I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m going to need to get very still to feel and know, Okay, this is actually the thing I’m going to respond to. I’m not just going to knee jerk and react, react, react. And I’m going to trust that.” Whatever I write in my journal to myself from love, love always says to me, “When we’ve got something for you to do, you’ll be reminded. You’ll be the first to know.”
Jen: Until then, just go take a walk, make some dinner.
Liz: Until then, do the hardest thing in the world, which is nothing.
Jen: Yeah. That feels so relieving. It feels like a nice relief, because you’re right. We know when the job is at hand. That part is not ambiguous. That part always presents itself pretty clearly. The rest of it’s just wasted energy. It’s wasted fear, and wasted worry.
Liz: The rest of it is just panic. The trust that I would love for people to cultivate is not a trust in the world to be safe and stable, because the world has shown us many times that it’s not. We’re all grown ups here, so I’m not going to say, “Trust that nobody will get hurt.” We know that’s not true. But what you can trust is that you’ll be told what to do when the time comes.
And don’t try to plan it too hard, because you don’t know what the catastrophe is. At any given moment, there are like twenty catastrophes that could mobilize against us. Just a few months ago, I was in India traveling, and I wasn’t paying much attention to the news. I just glanced at the headlines, and I started laughing because it was literally five catastrophic headlines. It was like, “Iran has nuclear weapon power now. Major earthquake here in this place. Coronavirus just started. Asteroid comes very close to earth’s orbit.”
I was like, “Yeah. This is just a Tuesday on earth,” and that’s not even taking into account all of the individual catastrophes that are going on in your personal life. We don’t know which one of those is actually going to come to fruition and be the catastrophe. It turned out that out of those the latest one is coronavirus, but everyone is rising to meet it. Everyone is taking the actions that are necessary, and that’s the sense that I’m growing into. And maybe it’s just getting older and just feeling like, Okay. I’ll be told what to do, and I’ll do it. Then, if it’s my time to die, I’ll die. That’s also one of the things that could happen.
Jen: It can happen. And conversely, I have spent a great amount of time worrying, catastrophizing, planning for, and trying to control outcomes of crises that never came. What good is this? What good is this?
Liz: Or the crises came and all that preparation didn’t turn out to be what you need.
Jen: Yes. 100 percent.
Liz: There’s a sense of, “Let’s take this by moment, by moment, by moment,” and that maybe is the only way to do it so that you don’t lose your entire life to the stranglehold of anxiety.
Jen: Hear, hear. All right. I’m going to ask you three final questions. These are little questions that we are kind of asking everybody in this Fierce series, and they’re just kind of off the top of your head, whatever you sort of think of first. Here’s the first one. What would you say—and it’s maybe hard to pick, but you can pick one—what’s the biggest lie you’ve stopped believing about yourself?
Liz: That I’m unforgivable.
Jen: Oh wow.
Liz: I have just dragged myself behind the truck for years. Anytime that I’ve ever hurt anybody or any time that I’ve ever made mistakes in my life, I’m so hard on myself. I think that I’m not deserving of mercy is probably the biggest lie that I’ve almost entirely let go off. Every once in a while it still comes up. I’m like, Wow. You’re still there? Okay. I’ve got to love you away. Yeah. That would be it.
Jen: Thank you for saying that. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anybody say that just that plainly. That really served me today.
How about this? What is the most freeing, most life giving truth that you’ve learned about yourself? Kind of the flip side.
Liz: That my being can become a home for love itself, that I’ve been practicing. I have a very devoted practice of writing letters to myself every day from love. And it’s worked.
Jen: It’s so powerful.
Liz: And I really can be the thing I want to be. What I really want to be is love, in every room that I step into, so that if I’m in a room, I want it to be known that love is in the room. If I’m the only one in the room, then clearly the one who needs to be loved is that one. Love will even be in a room if I’m alone in it. Yeah.
Jen: I love that so much. I will tell you sincerely that is how I experience you. I do. That’s how I experience you from afar.
Liz: Thanks, honey.
Jen: That just walks right in the door with you. Whatever door it is, whatever room it is, however panicky and grabby the room wants to be, you walk in with love with you. That’s exactly how I experience your leadership and just your life.
Here’s the last question. Actually, the first time I ever heard this question, it was from one of my favorite spiritual practitioners. Her name is Barbara Brown Taylor, and she asked this question. By all means, answer this however you want. This could be as earnest as the world, or it could be as silly as the day is long. This is just completely up to you, but her question is, “What is saving your life right now?”
Jen: Yeah! It means something that you just said that. It really does. That means something right now.
Liz: Yeah. It really is. I am so grateful. Somebody asked me recently, “What is your most prized possession,” and I said, “My quiet morning hours alone.” I don’t think I ever realized how much of that I need. I’ve always suspected that I was an introvert trapped in an extrovert’s body. But yeah, solitude, and especially now at this moment of crisis, I’m so grateful that I don’t have a partner. I’m so grateful that I don’t have anybody else who I need to be stabilizing right now. I just can wake up in my isolation, stabilize myself, ask her what she needs, take care of her, make the decisions that need to be made, and then from there I can give forth into the world. Yeah, solitude.
Boy, my twenty year old self is like, “What?! Us? Really? That’s who we’re going to grow up and be?” It’s like, “Yup. That’s who we’re going to grow up and be.”
Jen: That’s it. Okay. I just want to really say to you, Liz, that I am grateful for you. Sincerely, thank you for being who you are and for how you have shown up in this world. It has meant so much to me. You were a mentor and a teacher to me when I needed one, and you still are. Just thank you for being exactly who you are, and thank you for giving yourself to my community today. I know this is going to serve them so well, and I just want you to know that I am 100 percent and forever Team Liz forever, on your side, and just cheering for you.
Liz: And I’m Team Jen, and I’m team every single one of you out there. Team Freedom, Team Love, and Team Serenity.
Jen: Me too.
Liz: That’s who we all work for.
Jen: That’s who we work for. Awesome. Thank you, Liz.
Liz: Thanks, angel. Take care.
Jen: You too.
Well, well. How do you like them apples? Isn’t that a wonderful conversation to just get to listen in to? To have that kind of leadership in our lives that is so generous, so kind hearted, so gentle, so charitable, I just feel my blood pressure drop around Liz. I just feel it. All these things that I load up on my own shoulders, she just very gently takes them off one at a time. I’m inspired yet again.
I’m grateful to have such a wonderful voice on this series in support of Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire. I hope it has served you well. I hope this series has served you well. I hope this book serves you well. It’s just now out, and I want to put it in your hands. I want to serve you and love you through these words and put these tools into place for you to kind of walk us all out into the sunshine. Honestly, that’s it.
It’s everywhere books are sold right now, and it’s the book of my life and definitely the book of my heart. It’s everything I’ve ever learned, experienced, and discovered on a path to freedom. Every single thing. I want it for you too. Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire is available everywhere, and I hope this whole series has been a joy to you.
If you missed even a single episode of this series on the podcast, go back and pick it up. Every one of them is solid gold. And so are you, podcast community. I’m so thankful that here we still are right in the middle of this weird world, but we can still come to you week after week. We love you, and it’s just our joy to serve you well. On behalf of Laura, our producer, and her amazing crew, and then Amanda and I on our side of things, we just love you and it’s our delight to bring you this show. Thank you for being such loyal, incredible listeners.
See you next week.