Maya Angelou's Greatest Accomplishment


By letting go of negative self-identification, you too can live an exceptional life.

I was sad to know that Maya Angelou had left the stage of life. I have read some of her books, her poems, watched her act and listened to her recite her work. She was a force in our world, impacting so many people and bringing about social change by being the best version of herself.

I knew she was exceptional with her many awards, honorary doctorates, and artistic achievements, but did not realize that she was someone who had gone through some tremendous difficulty as a child and young woman. I had not known about her being sent off on a train alone with her brother by her parents upon their divorce when she was three. Her brother wore a note attached to him with the instructions, "To whom it may concern…" about where they should be brought. Nor had I known about her abuse and rape at eight years old, when living again with her mother. She could not speak for five years after the rape. She became a mother at seventeen and worked many different jobs, including cook, and nightclub dancer to support her boy. All of this would seem like enough to make most people feel ashamed, insecure and separate from the world, but instead, she became a professional singer, dancer, actor and writer. She also became a journalist in Egypt and Ghana, a playwright, a director of movies and television and a songwriter for Roberta Flack. This is a small example of her great contributions. She would go on to befriend key players in the civil rights movement and become involved with pro-Castro activism and anti-apartheid.

Maya Angelou had a gift that allowed her to move onward through life's difficulties, and that gift was the ability to not self-identify, which is to believe she was a "certain kind" of person, such as a child of divorced parents, a rape victim or a prostitute. She did not hold onto the past in a way that kept her from becoming the person she was meant to be. No one event or circumstance determined who she was or the life she would create. Her gift was in keenly knowing who she was, which was what she put forth into the world. She developed the beginnings of her future writing talent during the years of silence after her rape by reading great books. According to Maya, telling the truth about her life in her writing was cathartic. She was the first African American woman writer who was willing to tell her story openly and not in the usual, protective way of the African American women at the time.

There are times in all of our lives when we could turn inward and become less than who we are meant to be. When life becomes hard to manage we may shrink and identify with our circumstances and we believe ourselves to be the divorced person, the child of an alcoholic or the person with an illness. Name your own self-identification.

I became a mother of an eating disordered child. I identified as that person for 15 years. That identification kept me feeling separate from others. I felt shame because of the stories I told myself about what it meant about me as a mother. I also didn’t want to make it harder on my daughter by having others know what she was going through (though I am sure they guessed). Not telling my truth kept me stuck, alone, and miserable. I was living a small life.  

I decided to go through life coach training because I felt I couldn't live that way any longer. I had been listening to Martha Beck's books while walking and was encouraged by the self-help tools she offered and enrolled in her program. I felt like the training would be a good alternative for me instead of a year of therapy, because I felt I was a mentally healthy person otherwise. Maybe I could learn things to help my family as well as myself. By the end of the training I was living a lot better and had become honest with myself, and much more open about everything in my life. I began to see that the change in me was helping my family too, but I had some lingering "stuff" I held onto, about being the parent of an eating disordered child.

A year later I went to South Africa to do a group retreat with Martha. At this retreat, we went on safari twice a day and did coaching sessions in a group twice a day as well. Being a coach already, I felt I was good and didn't need any coaching myself. I was just there to observe her coaching non-coaches. Sounds like a great educational experience for me, right? Well, I got a turn at being coached by "the master," and she knocked me between the eyes. She quickly picked up on the remnants of my "mother of an eating disordered child" thing. (In coaching we call what I had been doing "story fondling." I kept holding onto my story and that identification and it was indeed keeping me stuck.) I cannot remember her exact words but I heard something to the effect that I am not that person. I am here on this earth to do many things, and as long as that is who I think I am, then I am not living the life I am here to live, nor helping the people I am here to help, so get off it and move on.

Ouch! That hurt. In fact, it took a couple of months for it all to sink in and process what I had learned. I had held onto that belief for so long. Martha's bit of tough love sunk in, and it broke me open to moving forward in a much stronger way. It is with the spirit of what I can do that I move into my days now instead of what I have been through. Maya Angelou did not stand and wait for her life to change or allow circumstances to create her identity. She was moved by her creativity and interests and, because of this, lived a large and courageous life. 

One of her quotes was a stand out for me; "Without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage."

What this says to me is that it takes courage to do anything and everything that is worthy of doing. I believe that it takes courage to drop the self-identification we may have that keeps us from living fully. It is easier to hide behind that identification and do little to grow. By dropping the self-identification, we become free to live courageous lives and to share our magnificence with the world. This is what I believe was Maya Angelou' s greatest achievement. Contributing our magnificence is the reason each of us is here.