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Cassandra Was Right: Trusting the Prophetic Power of Women

Bestselling author Elizabeth Lesser on changing the man-centered human story.

Through her bestselling books and popular TED talks, Elizabeth Lesser has emerged as one of our most eloquent thought leaders in the field of human consciousness and potential. Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, has sold almost 500,000 copies and has been translated into 20 languages, and her next memoir, Marrow: Love, Loss & What Matters Most, chronicles Lesser's journey as a bone marrow donor to her younger sister.

Her most recent book, Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes, reveals how humanity has outgrown its origin tales and hero myths, and empowers women to trust their instincts, find their voice, and tell new guiding stories.

We talked about the power of the female voice, and why it's imperative that we listen to women's stories if we hope to create a sustainable world.

Mark Matousek: Why a book about listening to women's stories?

Elizabeth Lesser: Ten or fifteen years ago, I started a conference called Women in Power, because I was a woman in a powerful role, and it even made me uncomfortable. [laughs] I needed to know why I wasn’t supposed to own my own power, so I brought together every powerful woman I could think of to speak about their relationships to power and how women could use their power in different ways. Cassandra Speaks came out of years of that kind of in-depth research, and I wanted to write it for these particular times, when issues about gender are so confusing. It took me a long time to find the right voice for this book, one that wouldn't use goddess language, exclusively, but was also inclusive of men and people who feel gender-fluid.

I looked to old myths: Adam and Eve, Cassandra, Pandora. Also, Shakespearean plays and world literature. Our culture has told women, “Be quiet. You were born second but you were the first to sin.” A huge variety of myths are similar. From the Greeks to the Hindus and Buddhists, Christian and Jewish. That needs to change.

MM: So does the story of Adam and Eve.

EL: In the book, I write about a huge, two-paneled painting of Adam and Eve I saw in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence many years ago. Adam is standing there with a look like, “I don’t know what happened!" Or, "Why do we have to leave this garden?” He’s innocent and beautiful but Eve’s eyes are crafty, and she has the serpent wound around her body. She’s looking at Adam like, “Get it together, dude, it’s time to grow up. We’re not children anymore.”

At the time, I was at the tail end of a divorce and it was a dark period in my life, so my mind was focused on the conversation between men and women. Fault, blame, fear, paranoia—all of it. Everyone who’s been through a big split knows what I mean. I started reinterpreting the myth by realizing that Eve and the serpent weren’t evil, and Adam wasn’t this golden, strong human who was in conversation with God but made a mistake by listening to Eve. Eve was the grown-up. She knew it was time to individuate from Father God and it was time to leave the paradise of the womb (or the paradise of childhood) and go out into the world to learn the lessons we were put here to learn; how to live in this garden responsibly, as adults, not children.

Unfortunately, men built a story about how great things were till a woman listened to a snake and got us all thrown out of paradise. That's the worldview we inherited. Those old myths have a lot of viable storylines in them, and things to learn from, but they’re a slice of the story that left out other points of view and other storytellers.

MM: Toni Morrison, said, “Dream a little before you think.” What does that phrase mean for you?

EL: It’s probably the same for every gender, but I’m going to speak about it through the lens of women. We’ve been told that our way of thinking, our emotional way of perceiving and filtering the world, is second class, which reflects this idea that only logical intelligence is admired in our culture. For years, our mutual friend, Eve Ensler, has said, “I am an emotional creature" with pride. Women think in a way that’s logical and rational, but with feeling and connectivity. I devote half of the introduction to the book to Toni Morrison because she took the stories from her African American experience, and stuck to that voice, in all its glory.

The voice of women is often filtered through a rounder way of thinking. One that includes stopping and letting yourself dream of what could be. We need to validate those dreams. I want women to believe in those dreams and feel righteous about them, before thinking that we have to accept things as they are and stay in a lane that seems more viable.

MM: I love what Roshi Joan Halifax says about keeping a strong back but a soft center. To me, that is female wisdom.

EL: As a Zen master, Joan teaches a practice that she calls strong back, soft front. It’s this idea that in meditation, your body becomes a symbol for being in the world. You need a strong backbone, but you also need a very soft open chest. The Tibetan teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, called it “the warrior’s heart of sadness.” What he was referring to is a heart so sensitive that everything touches it.

My sister died a couple of years ago from lymphoma and I was her bone marrow donor. After she died, I found this needlepoint in her office that said, “Do no harm, but take no shit.” That has become the code word for this practice for me, have a strong back and a soft heart. Don’t lose your sense of self, but do no harm. Don’t become like the very forces you know are destructive. “Be careful when battling monsters that you don’t become one,” as Friedrich Nietzsche said. Anyone can be corrupted by power, women included. Fortunately, women's brains are predisposed to care first, compete later. To include rather than exclude. Our job is to nurture those tendencies in ourselves, believe in them, and, the minute we get power, not be seduced into the male paradigm. Listening to women's stories helps.

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