Elizabeth Lesser on the small acts of love that shape a life

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

 

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I didn’t think I had anything left to learn from this week’s storyteller, Elizabeth Lesser. I’d been a dutiful student for years. From her writing and speeches to her culture-shifting Omega Institute, I’d soaked it all in.

She’d taught me from her command of the TED Stage to tiny community centers, that if I focus on my love for the audience, I can put down the load of trying to impress them.

She showed me it’s possible to bring the mind, body, spirit revolution into the mainstream, with eyes wide open to critics who’ll dismiss all that “woo woo voodoo.” But you do it anyway because once you’ve done the work to find your truth, it’s your duty to embody it. Every encounter, be it Oprah, or the person serving your food, deserves the love of your truth and the truth of your love.

She taught me that the glamour of the spotlight, and a shimmering rolodex of impressive contacts are not goals.  But if you’ve got them, you damn well better spend that capital and amplify movement-makers on the margins who have the potential to heal us.

When I got a chance to meet and interview Elizabeth last spring, I ached for her to see me, to validate me. I’d love to tell you that I was so assured of my worth that I didn’t carry this weight into our meeting. But that wouldn’t be true.

This 3-Minute Storyteller journey is good at teaching me this lesson: I might get to sit with my heroes. But if that little child inside me calls out “see me! Tell me I’m doing good,” I’m setting myself up for disappointment. Big time.

And appropriately, Elizabeth taught me a lesson that I could never learn in a book. The biggest lesson, I think, of all.

But boy oh boy, it sure wasn’t easy.

My question was about a therapy session she had with her sister Maggie that Elizabeth describes in her memoir, Marrow: Love, Loss, and What Matters Most. Marrow tells the story of how Elizabeth was the perfect bone marrow match with Maggie. While undergoing a bone marrow transplant, the sisters decide to courageously explore the marrow of their souls, strengthening themselves to a new capacity to hold love, loss, and each other.

I asked her how she handles being so ambitious when women with such intensity and sensitivity are so often told we’re “too much.”

She paused and took a big breath.

“I have to put on my feminist hat to answer that question, Shannon” she gently begins.

Uh oh. This wasn’t good. She saw right through me. She picked up on my fear of being too big, too intense, too ambitious, too much.

“I’m done with tamping down my ambition,” she continued. “If you are super ambitious, and at the same time, inclusive and just, why tamp it down?”

Boom.

Despite being distracted by my bruised ego, her message was wrapped in so much kindness that it pierced me.

The most important lesson I ever learned from Elizabeth Lesser was watching her make the split-second decision to put her own comfort aside and step out of the boundaries of this interviewer- interviewee dynamic at her own risk, because it was impossible for her to let a woman who was playing small go unchecked.

In one moment, I could peer into the lifetime it took for Elizabeth to become who she is. The level of instantaneous discernment and integrity and courage she called on to ever-so-gracefully call me out imprinted me forever.

There is no score keeping in matters of the heart.  Although I didn’t have the courage to open myself up to Elizabeth completely, it happened anyway.  And she responded in kind, with her own story of pain and healing, which she shares in this clip.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, I wonder what would happen if each one of us offered a younger woman on her path that same dose of vulnerable love Elizabeth showed me?

You can hear how my full conversation with Elizabeth Lesser unfolded on this week’s podcast, “For the Love of Conversation.”