I have just completed the final week of my interfaith/interspiritual seminary program. On Tuesday night I took my self-written vows in front of my spiritual community, and on Wednesday night, I was ordained. Yesterday, in a beautiful ceremony at the Riverside Church in New York City, I graduated. An extraordinary four-year journey has come to an end.
Just three months ago, none of this seemed possible, when it appeared that everything toward which I had been working for so long had fallen apart. Even as recently as last Sunday, the joy and grace and beauty and healing which came to characterize this past week for me seemed unthinkable. A week ago today, the events of this past year were weighing so heavily on me that I found myself dreading my final week of seminary. I arrived at the retreat center on Monday for our final intensive with a heavy heart and a big black cloud over my head -- shaken AND stirred. . .but determined not to be Debbie Downer, and disrupt my classmates' experience. I could not imagine how I was going to get through the next six days, let alone find joy in them.
This morning, as I reflect back on this past week -- it is with gratitude and awe that I can acknowledge that my seminary experience came to an end in the most beautifully right way I could have ever imagined. And all because of the group of individuals with whom I have shared this experience. A group of individuals who have taught me more than I can possibly express about two qualities I already valued as much or more than any others -- humility and kindness.
This was brought home for me in myriad ways over the past three months, and then simply and perfectly reflected back to us all when Mindy, one of our seminary deans, presented us with our "class song": Tim McGraw's "Humble and Kind". A song she said reflected the character of our class. The moment the first notes of that song began, a big-ass grin spread across my face. In those two words, the song not only captured the qualities of my classmates and teachers, but it reflected back the source of this week's healing.
The first time I heard Tim McGraw's song on the radio a few months ago, I burst into tears. Since then, it has become my anthem. It is a song that evokes so much for me because, both despite and because of my parents' fame, my mother and father valued humility and kindness over almost anything else -- and they instilled those values in my brother and me.
Practicing those qualities has saved my life, over and over again. But if practicing humility and kindness were just that easy, I probably wouldn't be writing this blog, and I certainly wouldn't have chosen to become an interfaith/interspiritual minister. Because, of course, the qualities we most need in the world may be simple -- as humility and kindness ultimately are -- but practicing them every day is not easy. And that is the work I know I am here to do.
A few years ago I had the privilege of taking a three-month memoir writing workshop with a writer whose work I have admired since I was in my early twenties. Susan Griffin. The first time I read her work, I was blown away by the artful and powerful ways in which she is able to connect the personal to the political, the intimate to the global, the inner human journey to the larger fate of the planet. I hoped that the memoir on which I was working could one day do the same. But to get there, I had to dig deep inside myself. The piece I ended up writing was called "The Unholy Trinity of My Self-Loathing", in which I unearthed three childhood events that never had been healed -- events which, because of their confusing complexity, had landed me up stuck in some old narratives that needed releasing.
The first moment of this unholy trinity happened when I was about six, and my mother and I were driving along Sunset Boulevard. I was telling her about a part in a school play which I hoped to get. I made the FATAL mistake of saying that I would probably get the part "because of dad". The next thing I knew, she had veered across two lanes of traffic, screeched to a halt on a side street and was looking me in the eye with that terrifyingly steely gaze of hers.
"Do you know what a Beverly Hills brat is?" she seethed.
I nodded mutely.
"I will NOT raise a Beverly Hills brat. Do you understand me?"
Another mute nod.
She proceeded to make clear in no uncertain terms the dire consequences of my ever assuming privilege of any kind again. And I took her words into the marrow of my being.
That moment has been seared into my soul ever since.
But why? What writing that piece for Susan Griffin unearthed was that, the reason it hit home so deeply was because I was, in fact, terrified that what she was saying might somehow be true. Although my mother was, however imperfectly, just trying to teach me the importance of being humble and kind, my whole life I have been terrified of being seen as a spoiled, silver-spoon-in-her-mouth, movie-star child Beverly Hills brat. And while that fear has kept me honest and made me value humility and kindness above all else, it also rendered me terrified of shining my light. Because I KNEW what a Beverly Hills brat was: I went to school with some of them, and they were not nice, to me or anyone else. Their self-assurance and sense of entitlement unsettled me and made me feel weirder and more different than I already knew myself to be. I didn't want to be someone who made other people feel the way I did -- strange and like I would never really fit in. And so, that fear morphed into a voice that has had me under its thumb my whole life. That voice that has said: Who do I think you are to step into the spotlight, to believe you deserve to speak your truth and be heard, to believe that the work you do could be of any use to others? That nasty self-loathing voice has bludgeoned me for as long as I can remember. And more than anything, it has been the impetus behind my workaholism. Because if I worked myself to the bone, then I could prove -- to myself, my long-dead parents, and anyone else who happened to be looking -- that I was NOT a Beverly Hills Brat!
In Twelve-Step programs, much is made of the importance of hitting a bottom -- that moment when all the tried-and-true coping mechanisms come tumbling down, when everything falls apart and you know yourself to be powerless.
For me, that bottom came when I lost my "nice". You see, "being nice" became my bread and butter. The one thing that stood between me and my self-loathing. Whatever other despicable things I might imagine myself to be, at least, I said to myself, I was always nice. And then, suddenly, I wasn't. I found myself being mean to someone -- over and over again. Someone I love. This person has assured me that my mean was not terrible. And maybe I really wasn't the Mussolini of my imagination. But here's the bottom line: Mean is mean. Unkind is unkind. I was both. And I loathed myself.
That was the moment when I knew something had to give.
Over the years, many people have taken the time to graciously reflect back to me what they feel is my innate niceness. A few years ago, a girl with whom I went to summer camp made a point of sharing a memory of my kindness that made me fall in love with the little girl I didn't remember myself as being. Whenever fans write about my being down to earth and nice, I am so grateful that that is how they see me.
But to behave with humility and kindness is very different than BEING humble and kind -- inside and out. When I hit my bottom, I knew that to live those values every day, one thing has to happen -- you have to come from a place of Love, unshakeable, total Love -- for Love is the source of all humility and kindness.
This week I saw, felt and experienced what that kind of Love feels like in the countless acts of kindness and expressions of humility by my classmates, friends, and the seminary deans, teachers, and staff. And here's what I have to say: If Love is the True Healer, humility and kindness are its greatest medicines.
Over the years, I have found myself apologizing -- to myself and others -- for spending so much time supporting and preserving my father's legacy. My friends have worried that I have been putting myself and my life goals on the back burner, and many have perceived that I have, in some way, been hypnotized by his fame. Would I be doing this if my father had been, say, a plumber or used car salesman?
It is true that my father's fame plays into my desire to preserve his legacy. But not in the ways that people imagine. You see, my father used his fame as the medium through which he expressed his humility and kindness in countless acts of generosity that would not have been possible had he not been so famous. He understood that fame is a currency in our society, and he used it to help others.
Over the course of my lifetime, I have met and become friends with countless very very famous and successful people, many of whom live extraordinary and meaningful lives. But because I was so close to my father, because I FELT what it was to love and be loved by him, I experienced the healing of his humility and kindness in ways that shaped who I am and what I value. From my father, I learned the power of Love to change another person's life. I see now, as I come to the end of my seminary experience, that my desire to continue his legacy really has been a desire to expunge, once and for all, my fear of being a Beverly Hills brat, and instead to live as he lived -- using humility and kindness as the instruments of Love for others in order to help heal.
I could share thousands of stories of people who have told me how my father quietly came into their lives and changed them. Young artists whom he befriended and encouraged. Students to whom he gave advice or even scholarships. His colleagues who were continually touched by his kindness. But mostly the fans, who were often so moved by the way he took time to be with and see them. But I'll just share one.
When I first met my friend Julie, she moved through her life in the rarified air of Hollywood A Listers -- Brad, Gwyneth, Julia, Ellen. People so famous I don't even need to write their last names. She seemed nonplussed by fame of any kind. So imagine my surprise when, on her first visit to my house, she stopped dead in her tracks and, upon seeing a photo of my dad and me on my fridge, exclaimed, "OH MY GOD! WHAT are you doing with VINCENT PRICE?"
"Um," I said. "He's my dad."
Well, I thought to myself, unbeknownst to me, either Julie was a massive but closet horror fan, or there was a great story I was about to hear. It was the latter.
Turns out that every time my father came on TV, and let's face it, that was often during our childhoods, her father shared his story of meeting Vincent Price.
My dad was doing a play and a group of servicemen came to a performance. It had been organized as their last civilian event before they were to be sent off to Korea to fight in the war. As Julie's dad remembered it, deep down, he and his fellow soldiers were all terrified -- and while the play was a distraction, it wasn't quite distraction enough. Then they were told that my dad wanted to spend some time with them after the performance. Which he did. Over an hour, just sitting and talking with them -- casually, honestly, deeply. Julie's dad told me how much it meant to them that this famous man sat down and talked to them about going to war -- asked them to talk about themselves, saw them and their fears, and let them feel connected, human, seen, vulnerable before going to fight. My dad spoke about how honored he was to be in their presence and how grateful he was for their service. To a man, Julie's dad's company later spoke about how much that moment meant to them.
I grew up in a church without clergy. My dad was my high priest of Love.
If I know anything about what Love is, it is because of my dad.
But this past week, what I know about Love grew in ways I could never have imagined. This past week, every single person showed up to our intensive in such radical honesty, deep kindness, genuine humility and extraordinary generosity of spirit that I was transformed. The last vestiges of guilt and sorrow, fear and anger, doubt and depression engendered by the events of this year vanished back into their native nothingness in the light of such extraordinary Love. These people, whom I am now privileged to call my colleagues modeled for me what true humility and kindness is. They saw me through the eyes of Love and that Love healed me.
To say I am grateful might be the understatement of the year. In fact, to say I am grateful is only the beginning. To live I am grateful every day by trying to be anywhere near as humble and kind as they are in the only true means by which I can thank them and live the healing that has happened. And that is what I intend to do.
A few weeks ago, an elementary school friend posted this photo on Facebook.
It prompted a beautiful journey back in time -- to reconnect with the little girl whose mother had put the fear of God in her about becoming a Beverly Hills brat. A few things happened when I saw this photo and during our Facebook exchanges with my old friends.
The first thing was that I looked at the little girl that was me and thought, "Wow! You were beautiful. How come you never saw that? How come you only saw yourself through the eyes of fear and self-doubt?" And then I told that little girl still inside me just how beautiful she was -- inside and out.
The next thing that happened was that I realized that there were some people in that photo whom I didn't remember at all. And so I asked my Facebook friends if anyone knew their names. They did -- and shared them. And even their names didn't ring a bell. I had no recollection of a few of those people whatsoever. Which disturbed me. . .but also started me thinking.
My whole life I have had the hardest remembering anyone's name. After I talk to someone, even if it's only for a few minutes, I can tell you the name of their dog, where they went to school, their favorite color and where they hope to go on vacation, but I have had a complete mental block about names. And it has ashamed me.
This week, during our vow-taking and ordination ceremonies, I was the last one to go. And so that allowed me to watch everyone else have the experience I was about to have. As I watched my classmates and deans, I realized that I KNEW every single person in that room, in the best way you can know anyone -- from my whole heart. I knew and loved them. In fact, my heart felt so full of love for everyone, I felt like one of those religious paintings I never particularly liked -- as though my heart was a huge glowing orb of love just beating out of my chest.
The last night of the intensive, after we had been ordained, I couldn't sleep. I found myself thinking about how healing the whole experience had been and how loved I was feeling. And suddenly I realized something -- not only did I know everyone in my heart, I also knew their names. So, I pulled out my journal, and I wrote down every single person's name. And then, the next morning, I was given the great privilege of thanking everyone in the room -- by name! It was such a profoundly healing ritual for me. Because, for the first time in my whole life, I felt like I have always wanted to feel -- One.
In preparing for our intensive, we were asked to consider a number of questions so that we could have group discussions. This was my favorite question -- about a man who was a good friend of my father's: Aldous Huxley, author of The Perennial Wisdom, the most comprehensive distillation of the universal wisdom traditions ever compiled, said near the end of his life, "It's a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'try to be a little kinder.'" Please comment.
Which I did: Being raised in a celebrity-driven culture, we all get suckered into the temptation of fame and recognition -- and believe that we need to do something extraordinary, important, meaningful enough to have our five minutes of fame. Well, I had three famous parents, and the only things that are remembered about them ARE their kindnesses. And I am convinced that the reason my father's fame has continued to grow, almost a quarter century after his death, is because his kindness WAS his ultimate legacy. That is why he remains for me a living lesson in how to live.
But here is what I learned this week: To be kind to others, we have to first be kind to ourselves. I never would have guessed that the greatest gift I could give myself was to let myself see and be seen, love and be loved, enjoy and be enjoyed. Because only from a place of self-love can I possibly love anyone else. And I never really understood until this week that humility really isn't self-loathing in tasteful outfit. True humility is turning a deaf ear to the voices that tell us all the good reasons why we're not good enough and finally recognizing how truly good we all really are -- and then just going out into the world and being that good.
It's that simple. Not easy mind you. But simple.
This week we all spoke vows we had written to guide us on our spiritual journeys as interfaith/interspiritual ministers. I would like to add one line to mine -- and speak them now for everyone to hear.
May I always be humble and kind.
Kind to myself. Kind to others.
Humble enough to see myself and others in the light of Love that created us all.
May we always be humble and kind.
In this age of slogans, that one is good enough for me. Good enough that it bears repeating.
May we always be humble and kind.
Trust me. I know.
Humble and kind can heal the world. They healed me.