The inspirational writer delves into how to find meaning and peace in these loud and frantic times.
Writer Anne Lamott
Tavis: They are the big questions that confront all of us: How to find meaning and chaos, how to start over in the face of devastating loss, how to cope with suffering.
“New York Times” perennial best-selling author Anne Lamott tackles those issues and much more in her new tome titled “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair.” She began writing this book immediately following the Newton, Connecticut shootings, after struggling to put that in perspective for the Sunday school class that she was and still does teach. Anne, as always, good to have you on this program.
Anne Lamott: Thank you, honey.
Tavis: Give me your state of mind after those shootings
Lamott: Well, I was stunned. I was speechless, and I felt that I didn’t really understand how we would even go on from there. Because what I teach my children in Sunday school, they’re loved and chosen and safe.
I’ll say, “Who here is wearing a black suit with a blue tie with white stripes?” You know how kids are. They’ll go, “Oh.” I go, “Okay, Tavis, you are loved and chosen, and you are safe.”
How can you tell children that after 20 of their peers have been slaughtered by somebody who got one of the 300 million guns in this country? So I was stunned, but I’ve also thought I will show up and I will tell them that I am 59 years old, and the light still shines in the darkness, and not once has the darkness extinguished that.
But my mind was grief-struck. I have a little four-year-old grandson. Schools are supposed to be little sanctuaries, like little churches for our young ones, and I was grief-struck.
I felt – I’ve said this to you before, but I always told my writing students to write what they’d like to come upon, and I thought I would like to come upon somebody making some sort of sense, or casting a little bit of light on this.
Tavis: I’ll come back to the shooting itself, I’ll come back to the guns and some other issues that you’ve raised just in that one answer. Let me start, though, with this age-old question, because you always have insights that make me think.
What do you say to young people, what do you say to yourself, for that matter, in answer to that age-old question about why good things, why bad things happen to good people.
Lamott: Well, this is a very violent place to live, the Earth, and we’re a very violent species. Cain is still killing Abel. We see that every day. We saw it at LAX two days ago. We’re a very vulnerable species.
I don’t think God caused the shooting, and I don’t think God caused the tsunami, but I loved what Mr. Rogers said after – he said his mom always said after tragedies, “Look to the helpers,” because the helpers after crisis, you’ll see the love of God.
So I don’t know that we can understand that question except I don’t think God causes this stuff. I think God has come into the mess with us and pushed back his sleeves and said, “Wow, we got some healing to do here.”
Tavis: This book is not about your politics. It’s about meaning and hope and repair. But since you raised this notion of guns, it’s hard to overlook that issue or to ignore that issue.
When you talk about Newtown, when you talk about LAX here, just a matter of days ago, what’s your take on this notion of the explosion of guns in our society.
Lamott: It’s just madness. It’s absolute apocalyptically crazy to me. It’s one thing to say to the children two days after Newtown that there is meaning, there is love, there is resurrection, there is repair, and we always hold on to hope.
What do I say to them one year later, we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary, when not one piece of legislation has changed to make it harder for people with mental disorders to get guns?
Because of the NRA and the Tea Party, and the force and the pressure of the far right, not one law has changed. I asked a priest friend several days after Newtown, I said, “Is there meaning here?” I just felt, like, darkness.
He said, “Not yet.” So with this gun thing I feel like what is the meaning. The meaning is that the NRA is very, very, very powerful, and people don’t want to lose their seats once they have them, and they will do and say anything to keep people voting for them.
So it breaks my heart. I’m a bleeding-heart, tax-and-spend liberal, (laughter) and I don’t think the Founding Fathers meant that private people should very easily be able to get semiautomatics. I think that there has been a small misunderstanding.
But the NRA just keeps coming out and convincing everybody that we’re trying to take away their rights, Barack Obama’s trying to steal away their rights. I don’t know, these changes towards peace go so slowly.
Tavis: See, that meaning can go a lot of different ways. There is obviously political meaning on this side of Newtown, there is social meaning, there is spiritual meaning.
Talk to me about the spiritual meaning. What’s the spiritual takeaway for those of us who believe in that sort of thing?
Lamott: The takeaway is that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Well, what would Jesus do? What would the disciples do? They show up.
They show up and they’re heartbroken and they get everybody water and they sit with them, and they say, “More will be revealed,” and they say, “This is but a very small piece of eternity.
I wrote in the book, and I know this will be controversial, but I felt that God doesn’t throw anyone away. God didn’t throw the shooter away. The shooter was a child of God. He didn’t make himself mentally ill.
He was born with certain predispositions, and this country, especially since Reagan was governor of California, has given as little as possible for mental health and for the people that are very poor and can’t afford to get the decent kind of medication and treatment they need.
So this kid grows up, he’s obviously very damaged; his mother’s got these semiautomatics. The whole thing going on. But I don’t think God says to that shooter, “I’m done with you, I’m throwing you away.” God says, “You are welcome in, but boy, you made a mess of things. You broke some hearts. You destroyed some lives, and you’re going to have to do some amends before you’re welcome here.”
Because I believe that this is forgiveness school. I do believe that Earth is forgiveness school, and I think the takeaway is that this is not my strong suit. I think your mother’s good at it, but I’m not great at it.
It takes a while, and that’s why I’m here. Like I remember I was here on your show once not too long after that slaughter in the Amish community, remember?
Lamott: It was the ugliest, most insane thing, and those Amish didn’t throw the wife away. They said, “We need you. We need you for the fullness of our own healing and your healing. You are welcome here.”
That’s what Jesus says: You are welcome here. Jesus says you know what? Me too. I get it. This is a violent species. Come on in, sit down. The Amish nightmare went from being this tiny little community of terror and the slaughter of innocents to being a huge and eternal story of forgiveness and radical love.
What radical love could do – resurrection. Even in the non-spiritual sense. Rebirth, new life. The pattern is death, resurrection, new life. But it just doesn’t – Jesus doesn’t say, “Look, we’re going to have a little bit of resurrection probably Monday after lunch.”
It’s just like stay close, stick together, feed the hungry, get each other water, trust me.
Tavis: I believe, like you do, in this notion of radical love. In my own life, in my own life, certainly of late, I’ve been challenged to learn this lesson over and over and over again that the greatest act of love is forgiveness.
So it might be the greatest act of love or the most significant act of love to forgive, but it is the most, to your point, the most difficult thing to do, and I fear that we are living in a society, living in a world where forgiving people is becoming more and more difficult to do.
Even when you talk about people who have mental illnesses. I look at the media, my colleagues in the media – a gunman goes in and kills people. Even when we know and discover that he or she had, mostly he, had a mental disorder, we still see headlines, “Crazed gunman.”
There is no empathy, there is no understanding, there is no attempt to understand what drove this person to do it. If you’re not going to attempt to understand, even if there is and when there is a mental illness, you certainly can’t get to forgiveness.
That’s just a long way of saying I just find in our world that forgiveness is becoming more and more a difficult thing for us to do.
Lamott: Well, I definitely think it’s the hardest work we are called upon to try, and I can’t do it myself. I have a difficult, tense, overactive mind, and I’m scared. I’ve been bullied and I have a little four-year-old grandson, I have a 24-year-old boy, and I’m not going to heal my difficult mind that was raised by a culture that says these people, i.e., white men with money, are infinitely more valuable.
A woman on that lists about eighth, and the children like 11th or 12th. I’m not going to heal my mind with that mind. That’s why for me I have needed intervention. I have needed to cry out in the name of God, “I am a mess. I can’t forgive. I’m a mess.”
You go from clenched and judgmental – I’ve got to go look in the mirror. If I’ve got a problem, I’ve got to look in the mirror. But I think, and I don’t mean to make this into a political discussion, because I think it’s really about our humanity and the human condition, but since Bush and Cheney, the far right has worshipped such a tribal god.
They have said that almost everybody but them is doomed and not welcome, not part of the great shalom, not part of one family. Jesus says, “We are one family. Some days are going to be harder than others.”
But it’s been this tribal god where you felt like the far right and definitely the Tea Party are looking through the Bible for more and more people to hate that they can all agree on.
So what we do is we stand up. We do what you do – you fight back. People, George Bush and Ted Cruz get to say and think what they say and think, but we get to stand up and we get to say, “You know what, sir? That is a lie.” What we have been raised on is divine love.
That love is so much bigger than our prejudice and bigotry. Love is so much bigger than our ignorance. But it’s hard here. That’s what “Stitches” is a lot about, is that it’s really hard here. This Earth has never been a good match for me.
I was a shy, skinny child with kinky hair and these huge eyes. I was too sensitive. People would say, like, the culture tells you well, just don’t be like that. Oh, you’ve got to get thicker skin. Well, you couldn’t go to the five-and-dime in the ’50s and buy thicker skin. (Laughter)
What you needed was the right teacher. You needed a teacher who could see you, like Jesus says, you know what? Me too. I don’t have a very thick skin either, and it hurts me too. I cry every day.
Tavis: What’s driving our contestation of the humanity of other people? Because I think about it, that’s really what racism is; the contestation of somebody’s humanity.
That’s what homophobia is, the contestation of somebody’s humanity. That’s what ageism is, the contestation of somebody’s humanity. What’s driving our contestation of somebody else’s humanity?
Lamott: Well, terror. People are terrified. One of the reasons I felt like it was on my heart to write this book was I’m an afraid person. I’m an afraid, scared mom and grandma and schoolteacher and sister. I have two brothers, and one of them’s very ill.
People are terrified, and what they do is they clench and they get small, and in their smallness they dehumanize anyone that isn’t exactly like them. But perfect love casts out fear, and you see those things.
Like George Wallace, probably the most famous example of going from the ultimate ignorance and bigotry to begging forgiveness. I was wrong. Take me back. Right?
So I think it’s fear, and it’s this culture. As a woman, and we’ve had a whole different set of challenges, but as a woman I was told to stay very small and to be a person whose value came from helping men feel a lot better about themselves, and helping my father.
I’m older than you, but our fathers in the ’50s and early ’60s were vets. They’d all been in World War II and Korea. They had this terror. They’d seen the end of the world, like Newtown, but my dad was on Okinawa.
It was the end of the world, and they didn’t grow up in a culture where people said, “You have got a ton of healing to do, and we are going to be there for you. Doesn’t matter if you don’t have money, because this society is based on taking care of the poor and those in need.
No one said that. They said, “Stifle it. You want to be a man? Be a man. Be a man about it.” So we were raised by people who had this tremendous amount of rage and terror internalized, and that’s what people like the KKK or the Tea Party, which I think are very similar, do, is they externalize it.
Because it’s so awful to have that terror and self-loathing that you find some gay guys, you find some Black people, you find some girls, some overweight – you find whatever it is and you put it on them; they’re going to carry it in their backpack for you, but it’s your stuff.
But I’m not going to change the way people think about me, but I can say you know what? I’m not going to carry that in my backpack, because I’m getting help.
Tavis: So I’m trying to understand how, and your book is in part about meaning and about hope, how it is that people find their way to hope in a world where hopelessness seems to be winning out.
Because what you’re talking about is fear.
Lamott: That’s exactly right.
Tavis: Fear, fear, breeds hopelessness. When you’re afraid, you don’t know what to believe in, you don’t know what to hold on to. You’re struggling to find something to believe in.
You’re struggling to find hope, and the fear sort of overtakes everything. So how do you find hope in a world where hopelessness seems to be winning?
Lamott: Well, like you I was a reading child. I found a lot of sanctuary in the written word, and I found teachers who could see me. I think contrary to what Mr. Schwarzenegger said, that teachers and nurses are the, get the best seats in Heaven. That’s why I’m so nice to them, (laughter) because I want to go over to the dessert table and I want to sit there with the Godiva chocolate fountain with the teachers.
But my first-grade teacher came to a reading I did on Monday, Lila Messer, my first and second-grade teacher, and she said, “I want to tell you all that Annie Lamott used to not go out to recess so she could stay inside and read.”
But also I was scared, because I was a very bullied child, because I was very different. But so every step of the way I had these public school teachers, and they just could get it. They got it, they got me.
They got it, and they said, “You know what? Me too. Now, do you have a minute, Annie? I want you to read this poem. You read this poem, you read it with your dad or your mom, come back tomorrow, let’s talk about it.”
For me, it’s been teachers every step of the way. Then if you’re lucky you find your way into a spiritual community and you start to find the great teachers of all the ages who said the same thing. There’s only love, you’re made of love.
In fact, there’s really only one thing that everything’s made of; it’s energy. Some of us believe in a divine love, intelligence, that somehow – and other people just believe in energy. There’s slow-moving energy like this table; there’s rabbits, there’s pulsars.
But there’s only energy. So you find teachers who say stuff, and you can hear it. You go, “Oh, God, that’s right.” It’s like being in Morocco or something and hearing an English-language radio station, and you go, “Oh my God, oh my God.”
That’s what the women’s movement was like for me at 16. Women said, “We’re going to show up now and we’re going to start telling the truth, and we’re mad. P.S.: We’re mad, and we’re going to stick together, and we’re going to tell the truth.”
That was the beginning of my personal resurrection story, because I wasn’t going to be this lonely, degraded, terrified person. But some old guy in the South with a semiautomatic is just who I was at 12. Has this self-loathing, this institutionalized self-loathing against the poor, against really almost everybody but the very, very powerful, rich, straight, white men.
So that if you’re lucky you get to be with one person in the – I have two very conservative friends right now, two right-wing, two very right-wing friends, and we just adore each other.
I’m not going to change their politics. They’re not going to change mine. But I’m their sister, and I am their sister in God’s love, and they’re mine. If I called them right and said, “I’m in L.A. and I am in such a mess,” they’d go, “I’ll be right there.”
So you can – there is – in God’s love there’s no Greek, there’s no gentile, there’s no men, there’s no women. There’s the truth of our spiritual identity, but being not in alignment with it creates this terror. You want revenge. That guy yesterday, was it yesterday, who went to LAX –
Tavis: Couple days ago, yeah.
Lamott: – said he wanted to get a TSA guy. Right? He wanted revenge for all that had been done to him. Where do we start? We start where our feet and our butts are. We start in the truth of our spiritual identity, that we’re one family; we’re here to love and forgive.
Tavis: When you say “Where do we start,” it takes me to the other thing this book is about, which is repair.
Tavis: We’ve talked about this handbook on meaning, we’ve talked about meaning in this conversation, we’ve talked about hope in this conversation, or the lack thereof.
I want to talk about repair now. As I was re-reading – I had you on my radio show recently, so as I was re-reading this last night for our conversation today, I was specifically focused on the repair piece.
It hit me last night that part of what’s wrong with us human beings when it comes to repair is that we tend to focus on repairing or fixing the external, which you referenced earlier, but we don’t want to deal with the internal, because the internal seems to be much more difficult to do.
So externally we will fix our hair, we can fix and adjust our weight, what we wear, the handbags we carry, the cars we drive. We’ll work on repairing the external, but the internal that is in such need of repair is so much more difficult to do that I think sometimes it just gets neglected because we don’t have the courage to deal with what’s wrong with us on the inside. Does that make sense?
Lamott: Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah, well, the whole culture, since we were born, has told us that. Just get the packaging together, and if you can get your outside – we compare our insides to other people’s outsides.
Our insides, a lot of us had a lot of struggle in this culture, this very white, power-oriented, wealth culture, with shame at a very early age. I had migraines at five. I was scared to death.
I had – I was turning off light switches 17 times before I had any hope of having a safe night’s sleep in my bed, so I was a scared-to-death little child. I compared myself to everybody else’s outsides, and I’d see the pretty girls with the smooth, soft hair, and whose families had money and whose parents loved each other.
I’d think oh, they’re all doing fine. They all got the owner’s manual, and I was sick that day that they passed it out in first grade. (Laughter) That was the day I had the chicken pox, and everybody else is doing okay.
But that’s why the liberation movement, so women’s liberation movement and the civil rights movement and gay liberation gave us all life and hope, because we were all saying no, I didn’t get the manual either.
That was one of the great (unintelligible) lies: No one got the manual. We are creating that manual one day at a time in truth and social justice and service, and P.S.: Got a minute? Read this poem. We’re still sharing poetry. We’re still sharing whatever the scripture is that has come through us.
But the repair, the thing is this culture, everything is so expendable because it’s 24/7 and like I know your mom is just like mine. If I had had a hole in something and I said, “Well, I’m just going throw this out,” my mother would have laughed till she wet herself.
She would have said, “Oh, that’s a good one. Let me tell your dad. Honey, come hear what Annie said. She’s going to throw her shirt out.” Right? No, not – you stitch it.
The men who fought in these horrible wars in Korea, they know how to sew, because you’d better, 10,000 miles away. Things wear out. We wear out. The metaphor is that we wear out, and the fabric of our souls and spirits tears.
Your spirit has torn, and somebody came and sat with you, and they said, “I got all day. Are you thirsty? Let me – I got a needle and thread. It’s just a crummy little travel kit, but let me just take a few stitches.”
Because of somebody’s love, we’re transformed, like we’re transformed over and over through the years by the renewal of our mind, always by somebody else’s generosity.
So we stitch. Well, how do you even know where to start? With a torn people, with a torn country, a crazy country three weeks away, out of that shut down. Oh, God, don’t get me started. (Laughter)
But where do you start? You start where you are. That’s the basis of all spiritual traditions. There is only the eternal now. Can you find one piece in the torn fabric that will hold a knot? Our dads knew how, we all knew how to sew.
You thread the needle, you roll the knot together in your finger, and it’s like bird by bird. You find one place in the tear that’ll hold a knot, and somebody sits with you while you find a place to connect it.
Like with just when your children, your nieces get, your nephews get badly hurt. They go to the doctor, and our skin, against all odds, heals perfectly. Well, I think that’s a miracle, right?
Tavis: I got 30 seconds here to go. What keeps you hopeful? This book, of course, coming out of your heart-wrenching about Newtown, and yet you wrote the book, and obviously you remain hopeful. Why so?
Lamott: I am just so blown away by people’s love and generosity in this world. I do look to the helpers. I just see every single day people getting out of themselves to become people for others, and I’m blown away.
I am humbled. I am so blown away by God in every aspect of creation and in tenderness, and I just say to God, “You are showing off again, God,” and I’ll just shake my head and say, “Stay close, stay close.”
Tavis: The book is called “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair,” by the perennial “New York Times” best-selling author Anne Lamott. Anne, always good to see you. Thanks for coming on again.
Lamott: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining us. As always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad.]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.