Finding My “I Am”
Maria Shriver is a special anchor for NBC News. She is the former first lady of California and the author of several books, including Just Who Will You Be, and most recently, I’ve Been Thinking: Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life.
Krista Tippett, host: Maria Shriver’s life is often summarized in fairy tale terms. A child of the Kennedy clan in the Camelot aura of the early 1960s. Daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics, and Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps. An esteemed broadcast journalist. First lady of California. This hour, she opens up about having a personal history that is also public history — and the ordinariness that is her life and any life, however glamorous on the outside. In this 50th anniversary year of the assassination of her uncle Bobby Kennedy, she offers an extraordinary window on the echoes between the 1960s and this decade of ours. We experience the toughness for which the women in Maria Shriver’s family are legendary — but also the hard-won tenderness and wisdom with which she has come to raise her own voice.
Ms. Maria Shriver: I’m not here trying to get a vote for my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousin. I’m not here campaigning for Arnold. I’m not here for NBC. I’m here for me. And it’s the first moment — I’m 62, and I’m like, OK, I deserve to stand on this stage. I got my “I” on.
So I say that to people so they don’t despair, that sometimes it takes a really long time to feel like you deserve to be on the stage; you deserve to be in the room; you have earned your “I.”
Ms. Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Maria Shriver is a special anchor for NBC News. And she has a new book I’ve Been Thinking: Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life.
Ms. Tippett: So I want to start where I always start, which is with the religious or spiritual background of your childhood. I feel like the general contour of that is pretty known. But how would you start to describe the religious and spiritual background of your childhood?
Ms. Shriver: Both of my parents, obviously, deeply religious, deeply Catholic, deeply focused on social justice. Both of them went to church every single day. My house was filled with pictures of Mary, who was my mother’s hero, heroine; was the person my mother referred to most often other than her own mother and brother, was Mary. So it was really all through our home. I was educated by the nuns, and then I went on to the Jesuits at Georgetown. My father made us go to 6:45 mass every day. I was also, I think, raised in a church that felt, to me, very judgmental; felt, to me, very anti-women. So my brothers were all altar boys; I was the only one not an altar boy. So I felt, always —
Ms. Tippett: Four boys — you were five kids, one girl.
Ms. Shriver: One girl, and so I felt separate in my experience of my church. I went to, as I said, to an all-girls school, and there were the nuns. And I remember distinctly, actually, that in high school, the first time I missed mass on Sunday, I thought I was going straight to hell. I thought God was going to see me, and I was shamed. So I also, I think, had a feeling of the church as a place that shamed you and judged you, and there were sinners and not-sinners — it was very black-and-white.
And then I have come back to my faith in a deep way as an adult and have found it to be very nurturing for me. It’s given me a home. It’s given me a community here in Los Angeles, which can be a tough town. And I find myself leaning on God, whatever my vision of God is, and my faith.
Ms. Tippett: And we’ll talk about that some more. So not that long ago, I was interviewed by Ezra Klein for his podcast. When he started the interview with me, he said, “I want to do a variation on your first question.” And so, instead of asking me about the religious background of my childhood, he asked me about the — he said, “What was the political background of your childhood?” And that was such an interesting question. And so I was born in 1960. You were born in 1955?
Ms. Shriver: Correct.
Ms. Tippett: I was born on the night your uncle, John F. Kennedy, was elected president. And my father was an Oklahoma Democrat who told me that I was John Kennedy’s good luck charm. So this was — and then —
Ms. Shriver: [laughs] Wow.
Ms. Tippett: And then, when he died — this was my first memory, and I thought I had failed him, as this little three-year-old.
Ms. Shriver: Wow.
Ms. Tippett: So I was thinking about that question and where it took me. Being a person coming of age in the 1960s — the politics were so dramatic. But what I had to say to Ezra, where my mind goes first, is all those assassinations of noble, wonderful people. And then I’m thinking about interviewing you, and I notice how people talk about, of course, this glamorous — being a Kennedy. But it’s glamorous and heartbreaking at once. And when I look at how people talk to you about this, I never hear anyone say to you, “Wow, that must have been beyond hard. Those were your uncles who died.”
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, and thank you. [laughs] I think in my book, and, I think really, in my life, trying to stake one’s ground that you are a human being has really been a lifelong struggle, in a way, for me, because I think it’s — I’ve always been looked at as a part of a larger group, without a name but with just hair and teeth; and people were fascinated with those events and stuff like that, but never really with, “Wow, what was that like for you, as a person?” So I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself, with myself, to find some peace with that, to heal myself with that, to work on my own identity separate from the larger. And so that’s a really complex, complicated subject and space, and one I think that I’m finally, at this age, able to not get mad when someone asks me about it or not push up against it and just say —
Ms. Tippett: When they just would say, “What’s it like to be a Kennedy?”
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, and they didn’t even know my name, or they just were — I guess — and I tried to look at it in their own story with it, like your story with it. You’re born on that day. You felt like a good luck charm —
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, like I felt like I had some piece of your family too.
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, and so I think I now can listen to that and marvel at it and be grateful for it, and then also recognize that my experience is vastly, 1,000 percent different from everybody else’s. And I can hold that for myself; I don’t need to share it. I don’t need to talk about it. But I can know that it’s different when you’re in something, as opposed to looking at something from the outside.
Ms. Tippett: And we’re now in this — what is it, is this the 50th year of the assassination of Robert—
Ms. Shriver: Well, it’s the 50th year of Uncle Bobby’s assassination.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, this — right now.
Ms. Shriver: And I look at it as the 50th year of the celebration of Special Olympics. So, I just got an invitation; they’re doing a mass at Arlington for Uncle Bobby. And I stared at the invitation for really the last ten days, debating myself, do I want to go to that, because so much of my childhood was going to Arlington, marking deaths. And I thought to myself, I really don’t want to go back and have that experience again, because it’s so raw, and it’s so present. It’s so much about how I grew up and so much about making a trek to Arlington and what was my mother thinking at Arlington; what was everybody feeling at Arlington; oh, my God, we’re going to Arlington again. And then I thought, well, you know what? I can actually go to Arlington, because I can choose to decide that it’s a celebration — not a marker of a death, but a celebration of my family, a celebration of everybody that’s still here. And so I want to turn the story around on that day, and I want to go feeling like it’s not about the past, but it’s about a moment honoring somebody who stood for something; and I can do that without being consumed by it.
Ms. Tippett: Thank you for that. So for you, this year, 2018 — I did not realize that the Special Olympics began in 1968.
Ms. Shriver: Yes, it was — the first international games was in Chicago, in the summer, July, right after my uncle Bobby was assassinated, and my mother went there to Wrigley Field. And there’s a very famous quote from Mayor Daley, saying, after he saw the first Special Olympics, he turned to my mother and said, “The world will never be the same again.” And of course, it really hasn’t. And so, for me, I’m going back to Chicago in July to celebrate the 50th anniversary. A new book just came out about my mother three weeks ago, by Eileen McNamara, who’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and it’s called Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World. And so I’m celebrating, this year, I’m celebrating the arrival of that book, which places her in her rightful place in history. I’m celebrating her courage, that she didn’t cancel the Special Olympics because her brother was killed six weeks before, something I probably — if that happened to my brother, I’d probably cancel. But I have her, now, as a marker, so I probably wouldn’t, but I’d want to. And I’m celebrating her work, her life, her stamina, her restless determination, and I’m also conscious that, for my cousins, it’s a different kind of anniversary, but that’s for them to celebrate, mourn, grapple with. But I’m choosing to look at this year as a marker for my mother’s work and also — really, for me, it’s been incredible because I’ve been out on a book tour. And to meet people and to see the response to my own thoughts and my own work and my own evolution has been really very moving, for me. And it’s not something I could’ve done a year ago or two years ago, so for me, 2018, I’m choosing to look at it as a celebration of my mother’s work and an arrival into myself, of myself.
Ms. Tippett: And your book is called I’ve Been Thinking.
Ms. Shriver: [laughs] Yes, and I have.
Ms. Tippett: Right, yeah, you have. And it’s “I” — it’s the “I.” You are raising up your “I.”
Ms. Shriver: I like that: I’m raising up my “I,” because that has been — at one point, I thought about calling that book I Am Maria. Because that’s really been a refrain for me throughout my whole life, people always coming up to me, going, “Which Kennedy are you? Which Kennedy are you?” And I would always respond, “I’m Maria.” They’d be like, “But which one are you?” I was like, “Well, I’m Maria.” They’re like, “Well, is your father this? Is your father that?” And I’d say, “No, my mother is.” And they’d be like, “Ugh. OK. Well, where is Caroline?” or “Where is Bobby’s kids?” And I’d be like, “Oh.” So I grew up with this, like, “I am Maria” wasn’t sufficient. “I am Maria” wasn’t enough. And so proclaiming, “I am Maria” has been — and I think it’s really the work — everybody’s work. “I am Krista” — it’s claiming your own self.
Ms. Tippett: And strangely, that is the work of a lifetime.
Ms. Shriver: It is the work of a lifetime, because it ebbs and flows; you grab it, and you lose it. You have it, and it’s gone.
[music: “Binary Hope” by Melodium]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with Maria Shriver.
[music: “Binary Hope” by Melodium]
Ms. Tippett: What I’m thinking when you’re saying that, “I am Maria,” “I am Maria,” I’m thinking of that — I was looking back at when you had your mother onstage the California Women’s Conference, when you were first lady, which I attended one year, and it was just extraordinary. And so, ever since then, I’ve been thinking about interviewing you, so I’m really glad we’re here now. But I watched the videos — just of her, of the sweep of her life. And then I’m also remembering when she got up there, and she kept saying — the way she said your name, it’s like, “Follow Maria.” “Maria.” Do you know what I’m talking about?
Ms. Shriver: [laughs] Yes, I know, yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Somebody wrote of her, “Her devotion to Maria was legendary and moving.” And I think it was — so let’s talk a little bit about her imprint on the world and how she shaped you. It’s interesting, when you read people writing about her now, they say, “She could’ve been president” — that we think of all the Kennedy brothers as the presidents and the presidential material.
Ms. Shriver: Right.
Ms. Tippett: And I get tired of just — if a woman sounds impressive, everybody saying, “Oh, she could be president.” [laughs]
Ms. Shriver: I know. And I actually —
Ms. Tippett: There’s something weird about that.
Ms. Shriver: I think that that kind of demeans, in a way, what she — not “in a way.” It demeans what she did do. “Oh, she could’ve been this,” so therefore, she didn’t do what she was meant to do. And I think that — I like to shift the conversation, not to what she could’ve been but what she actually was. And my mother certainly loved people who ran for office; she admired people who ran for office; she liked people who were in office. And I think she gave them a certain reverence that she didn’t give herself. And I was always perplexed by that, right up until the end of her life.
Ms. Tippett: You were aware of that, all the way through?
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, I was. I was aware because I had a conversation, also, with her very late in her life, and I was sitting around in the backyard, and she had the — Camp Shriver, which she started up again in her 80s. And she was having — I said, “Wow, Mummy, it’s incredible. You have all your children here, your grandchildren. They’re all working at Camp Shriver. It’s really extraordinary, what you’ve accomplished.” And she’s like, “Meh. Didn’t have any power.” I was like, “What?” I said, “You were married 50 years. You have five kids who like each other. You create — change the world.” She goes, “But I never ran for elective office.” And I was like, “Wow, Mummy. That’s so small, in the scheme of things.” And I think she had left over, as we all do, from our childhood or from our young times in our life the feeling that elective office was the only game in town. And so I think she always felt a little bit — she wouldn’t maybe say this, but I can say it because she’s not here — less than her brothers and, I think, was treated that way in her family and fought for her own “I am.”
Ms. Tippett: You said, “as many of us do,” and “in our childhood,” but I think it was really very much in a mid-20th-century childhood — you could almost say, “in a childhood of our nation,” because I think at this 50-year mark, after the ’60s, so many things are opening up and appearing different than they did then.
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, but I think you have to really stop yourself and look at, “Oh, wow, things are different. Maybe I can think differently. Maybe I can view something differently.” If you’re just running through life, it’s really hard, I think, to change the message to yourself or change the message that you may have grown up with or that you came of age with. And I find that even as I travel around the country, so many people have a message in their life that they’re not enough or that whatever they’re doing isn’t what they should be doing or isn’t big enough.
Ms. Tippett: I do want to just touch a little bit more on the Special Olympics. When I was preparing to interview you, it was the first time I understood, of course, there’s much more publicly known, these days, about your mother’s sister, Rosemary, and how her mental disability was not something that the family knew how to deal with. And it was tragic that she was hidden away, and your mother really shone a light onto what you were saying a minute ago, on the existence and the dignity and the beauty of people who had been hidden away.
Something I didn’t know — because your mother’s family, the Kennedy family is kind of legendarily sports-loving — this was the first time I read that Rosemary was actually fabulous in sports in that family. And yet, culturally, there was this idea that people with mental retardation, which is the language that was used then, or intellectual disabilities, couldn’t play sports; couldn’t play. And so, your mother — so this was, I don’t know, this was a beautiful thing for me to understand — and she just decided to put this out there and reject it and create this experience, which also became something that gave visibility to this whole swath of our fellow humans.
Ms. Shriver: I think my mother was a competitor at her core. She was an athlete and a competitor, and she liked winners. And so I think it’s kind of fitting that she took a sports movement. And she wanted to prove not only that people with intellectual disabilities could compete, but she wanted, I think, the world at large to see them as winners, to see them as competitors, to see them as people who could beat you in a race, who could shoot an archery bow better than you. And she wanted you, then, if that were true, and if you saw that: Wow, what else is true? What other misconceptions do I have? What other things do I have to shelve? And so she was, before Steve Jobs — “Think Different.” She was, before — “I want to challenge you. I want to push you. I want to make you uncomfortable. And then, once I do, I want to grab you for life, and I want you to make sure that you also join in and help me with my mission and my vision, and I want you to change how you think.”
Ms. Tippett: And again, if I think about — which I am thinking a lot about, just this 50-year period between the 1960s and our decade. And the disability rights movement, which you could locate, honestly, I think, beginning with those Special Olympics, 50 years ago, and which now has come to a whole new place — and that’s one we actually don’t probably think about and celebrate as much as we might.
Ms. Shriver: And I think that’s why, once again, coming back to this biography, which Eileen McNamara spent seven or eight years researching, and it really places Mummy’s political genius front and center: how she worked on policy; how she worked on behalf of her brother when he was president, and her brothers when they were senators — she worked the political machine, and she also never leaked, never took credit, and got it done.
Ms. Tippett: I also watched this conversation you had with your daughter, which was really lovely, where she interviewed you. You talked a little bit about how you had diverged; your mother didn’t cook or knit or talk or ever talk to you about sex or relationships. I thought this was amusing, that she would — when people would tell you how beautiful you were, she’d say, “Your looks will go. Pay attention to your brain.” [laughs]
Ms. Shriver: Right, and I was 15, 16 at the time.
Ms. Tippett: Because I feel you being so articulate on behalf of so many women, again, who were born into that mid- and late-20th century, getting this message, coming right out of the ’60s — because there was a feeling in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, that we had pretty much cracked all this. But the experience we were having, being told we could have it all, it wasn’t true.
Ms. Shriver: No. I still don’t think it’s true.
Ms. Tippett: It’s not true. And I remember feeling like, “I have been lied to.” But then we just had to cobble it together. And still, women are cobbling it together. And it seems to me to feel almost like a mission to you, to say that out loud.
Ms. Shriver: I do, because I think it is a lie, and it ends up making women of all economic groups, of all colors, feel like they’re somehow the only one that’s not doing it all, that’s not achieving. And I think, very often the images that women get of these other women who seem to — like they’re running for vice president and all their kids are perfect and everything’s great, or they’re running for this, and their husband adores them; they’re having sex all the time; they don’t struggle with their weight; their children are all 4.0s. And that’s just not true. It’s just not true. And so I think the illusion of balance, having it all — I think that’s all a sales job.
My mother said to me, “Look, life is a marathon, and you can ‘have it all,’ whatever that is to you, over a lifetime.” But your 20s are different than your 30s, different than your 40s. And I remember, when I had our first kid, and I was anchoring the Sunday Today show. I was anchoring the Nightly News on Saturday. And I had been fired, it was about two or three years before, from the CBS Morning News. The whole show had been cancelled. And I was really trying to work my way back up. And I was assuming that once I got pregnant and had Catherine, that I’d hop right back into work, and it didn’t dawn on me that I lived in California; that my anchor job Saturday was in New York; that my other anchor job was in Washington; that I’d have to shoot my stories during the week. And I was like, whoa, wait a minute. This isn’t gonna work. I can’t do that.
Ms. Tippett: It’s not humanly possible.
Ms. Shriver: It’s not humanly possible. And when I went into the president of the news division I said, “Well, could you at least move one of the anchor jobs to L.A.?” — which is the Saturday night; nobody cares where the desk is. And he was like, “No, I’m not gonna do that, and by the way, I can fill this job in three seconds, before you even get to the elevator,” which, of course, he was right. And I remember saying, “Well, I can’t do this,” and he goes, “OK, no problem. Bye.” And I remember going, Oh, my God, I’m such a failure. I can’t figure this out. I don’t know who can figure it out, who is an example. And I think that it just is such a disservice to other women, when other women say, “I got it all together. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.” And I meet women all the time who whisper that: “I don’t have it together, but I can’t really say it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, no, I don’t have it together” — I say it. And everything else is an illusion.
So I had great decades; the last decade, I find that I’ve struggled quite a bit — to find my way, to find my identity again, to pick myself back up, to mother kids in their 20s is very different than when they’re 10 and 14. So I think we’re all kind of making it up.
And I think it will always be the case that people will struggle to provide, parent, partner, caretake. I think life is complicated, and life is difficult; and life is also great, and life is sad. It’s all of that, and all in one day; it can happen all in one day, and that that’s life and not to be scared of that and to know that that’s more normal than abnormal.
Ms. Tippett: I just want to just repeat this, just to draw a line under it, this thing you’re saying that’s so important but we don’t say this out loud — that we are so skilled and trained, all of us, to be presentational. And we’re good at presenting. And this is what we get educated to do, is present. And now there are all these platforms for presentation, and yet it’s so true, as a woman, that there are women who look like they have it all, but if you get in close enough to any life, you see this. But it is debilitating, this presentational skill that we have.
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, I think it is debilitating.
Ms. Tippett: And somebody like you, I remember hearing — I think you were at the Beautycounter conference. So I just happened to be talking to somebody who was there, and he said, you were at this conference, which is about beauty, taking that on with some complexity, but that you were just really letting it all hang out there. You were just saying, “Look, life is hard.”
Ms. Shriver: She asked me, Gregg Renfrew, who started Beautycounter — and it’s a clean beauty mission. And the women there are consultants, but they’re also women who are not only trying to provide for their families, but they’re also — at their root, they have a mission to change the beauty industry. So they go to Washington. They lobby.
So she was saying to me, “You’re heroic to these women. You have it all together. Your life is so this…” And I’m like, “Yeah, I sleep alone. No, I didn’t balance it all so well, because if I did, I’d be sitting here with a 32-year marriage, as opposed to having had a 25-year marriage. I wouldn’t be sitting here alone.” So I didn’t — that’s wrong, to think that I have it all, that it was perfect, because it was messy. So I try to debunk that myth, because it’s not really true. In fact, I’ve never met anybody who “has a perfect life.”
Ms. Tippett: No, of course not.
Ms. Shriver: It’s important to know that, because then you don’t experience so much shame when you’re going through what you think is a disaster or what is messy. You can more — “OK, other people have done this, and they’ve gotten through it, so it’s OK,” as opposed to, “I’m the first person in the world whose marriage fell apart or whose kid has trouble.”
I was talking to a friend yesterday, and I said to her, “How you doing, by the way?” She was like, “My son has depression and I had to pull him out of school.” And she has this huge job, and all that sort of stuff. And she goes, “And I’ve been whispering about it, but I wanted you to know.” And I said, “So many people I talk to’s kids have depression and anxiety.”
Ms. Tippett: Right. This is epidemic.
Ms. Shriver: And she said, “Oh, really?” And so, I think, we’re all in the “Oh, really?” phase. So the more I can do to use my voice about: this is a marathon; nobody’s life is perfect; you’re here for a reason; if you’re down, you will get up; if you’re down, there’s so many people who have been in that place before, don’t feel shame or be ashamed by it. And I want to be with people — like I tried to say at the Beautycounter thing — I want to spend my time with people who have a mission, who feel they’re here to do something, however small or big that is, because those are the people that interest me, because I find them, often, very real. And they have a mission that I might not agree with, but I like people who have that kind of fury and passion and purpose.
[music: “Recover” by Mice Parade]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more conversation with Maria Shriver. Subscribe to On Being on Apple Podcasts to listen again and discover produced and unedited versions of everything we do.
[music: “Recover” by Mice Parade]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with Maria Shriver — raw and wise on having a personal history that is also public history — and the ordinariness that is any life, however glamorous on the outside. This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of her uncle, Bobby Kennedy, as well as the 50th anniversary of the first Special Olympics, founded by her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. And she’s published a new book of reflections, prayers, and meditations.
Ms. Tippett: You have a chapter in the new book, I’ve Been Thinking, you have a chapter called “The Power of Re-evaluating.” And you just go through one basic, elemental life experience after the other. I like, on the marriage part, you say — and by the way, I’m divorced as well. You said, “I always thought people whose marriages didn’t work out were quitters. I was wrong.” I like it that you say this. “I admire people who work in and at their marriages, but I also admire those who chart a new way forward. I really admire those who manage to stay friends after their marriages are over and aren’t afraid to love again after being hurt.”
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, so I think all of those things are hard. [laughs] Every part of that is hard. Somebody said to me the other day, “Oh, my God, Maria, marriage is hard.” I said, “Yeah, so is being single.” It’s all hard. And yet, it’s all simple; it’s all complex. There’s benefits to everything. So what I said there is true. I admire people who are married 35 years or married 40 years or married ten years and who work at it. I admire people who say, “You know what? This isn’t right for me. I gotta chart my own course,” because that’s hard too. Charting your own course, and then also, managing to be respectful and friendly with someone who may have hurt you or who you spent a long time with in one way, but you can navigate a new way — that’s hard and admirable. And it’s really hard and, or maybe beautiful, to open your heart up and say, let me take another shot at this. And that’s a beautiful thing too.
And I am always interested — I did a big book signing two days ago, and a woman came and said, “I have a blended family.” And I stopped her, and I said, “How is that? What is it like? How did you fall in love again?” I’m really interested in love. I’m interested in the definition of love; what love does to somebody; how to love; how people define love. I’m fascinated with that. And opening yourself up again to love is a really courageous thing to do. And it’s, to me, that’s the thing that’s way more scary than talking to 20,000 people. That’s no problem for me. [laughs] If somebody said, “Could you interview Donald Trump or go on a date?” I’m like, “Give me Trump, any day.” [laughs] But I think putting yourself in such a vulnerable place and opening yourself up like that is just — wow. So I’m interested in the subject of love, the power of love, and the ability to love.
Ms. Tippett: And you are in an unusual position to speak about things like this and for it to be a comfort to people, for the same reason that it’s really hard on you, because your marriage and divorce, like your childhood that we were talking about, your family, those deaths in your childhood — these things unfold in public. And I can’t imagine that you would’ve chosen that, and yet, it does mean that when you say something like that, people feel like they know you and like they can trust you.
Ms. Shriver: Well, the thing is that in this book, which I’m very proud of, I never talked about that, in a way. Do you know what I mean? And I learned from my Aunt Jackie, actually — I think privacy is really powerful. And respecting your own and somebody else’s is really important. And so in this book, I didn’t talk about my own situation, but since my situation is public, people feel like they know a lot of it, and people bring — what I’ve also discovered is that people would come up to me all the time and say, “Oh, my God, the same thing happened to me as happened to you.” And I’d be like, “Oh, and tell me about your story.” And it had nothing to do — there was nothing that was similar at all.
But I think we all fall in love, fall out of love, feel all kinds of things that are similar. And so if you just talk about marriage, people assume you’re talking about your own, or otherwise. But it’s important to me to, as Maya Angelou said, say what I know but not all that I know. Or, say what happened but not all that happened. And so I think what’s important to me is that my children — that I don’t say anything about their dad that influences their thinking, and that I look at my ride with Arnold as having been a great time in my life. And we had a great run. We did a lot of great things together. I came to California for him; that was a freeing thing, for me.
So here was somebody who said to me, “You have big dreams; go for them, because mine are as big if not bigger than yours. And so, you do your thing, and I’ll do my thing.” And for me, that was a relief.
Ms. Tippett: I actually don’t like this language of “ex-husband.” I never —
Ms. Shriver: I hate that word — hate it.
Ms. Tippett: Because here’s the thing: I may have an ex-husband, but the eternal role that this person has in my life as the father of my children — and that is an ongoing relationship.
Ms. Shriver: And it’s your family.
Ms. Tippett: And it’s your family, and it’s these people you created together, who you adore.
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, and it’s somebody who knows you. I was in relationship with Arnold for 34 years and married 25 years. We went out nine years before. That’s family. Very few people in my life do I have a 41-year relationship with. So I want that to be OK, and I want my children to see that I can navigate that. I want my children to have seen me take care of my mother. I want my children to see me take care of my father and work to try to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, because that’s what he had. I want my children to see me try to continue my mother’s work in Special Olympics. I want them to see me working to have a good relationship with my brothers and my sisters-in-law and my niece, and to expand the definition of “family” and to expand the definition of who’s welcomed at the table. So those are things that are important to me, that I work at, and that I want my children to witness, not just hear, because I remember my daughter saying to me, several years ago, “You say that, but you don’t do that.” And I was like, huh. She calls me out. My kids call me out a lot.
Ms. Tippett: They tether us to reality and humility.
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, they do, and so she was like, “Which one are you?” And I was like, “It’s a really good point.” They’re watching what I do much more than what I say. So I want them to watch me expand the definition of family. I want them to watch me become a caregiver. I want them to watch me let go. I want them to watch me make mistakes and say I’m sorry. I want them to watch all of that so that when they make mistakes, when they fall down, that they know they can get back up, that they know that the world’s not going to kill them if they make a mistake or if they fail. I want them to know all that.
[music: “Earthflow” by Ruth Barrett]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with Maria Shriver.
[music: “Earthflow” by Ruth Barrett]
Ms. Tippett: You mentioned, right when we first began to speak, that faith has become more important to you as you’ve moved through life, more important again. And it’s a big theme of your writing and of your new book; and actually, these chapters end with small prayers. And I’m curious, because you move in very sophisticated circles, and it’s a different world from the one in which your parents could go to church every day, and everyone around them, or many people around them, did that. I just feel like you carry this so much out front, and I wonder if you bump into that, with people being uncomfortable with it, or if this was a decision you made…
Ms. Shriver: No. No, I don’t, because I’ve never — no. Well, people will say to me, “I don’t believe in God,” or “My God’s not the same as your God” — cool. That’s how I manage, so I’m always interested in, how do you manage? I don’t consider it a problem to talk about my faith. I find it wonderful, actually.
Ms. Tippett: There’s something really lovely you write about your grandmother, that she was a person of such tremendous faith; that you were aware of that.
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, I was fascinated with it, because it seemed so, like: Where’d you get that?
Ms. Tippett: That would be Rose Kennedy.
Ms. Shriver: I wish she were around today, because I’d have so many other questions for her. But she seemed so certain in her faith, unwavering in her faith, and quite confused as to why I couldn’t have her faith. It was so matter-of-fact to her, and I was so — wow. I was very aware that she was getting through a lot of really difficult things in life, and she was attributing her ability to do that to her faith. So I was very aware as a young girl, I gotta get me some of that, because that seems to be working for her.
Also from my mother. My mother’s best friend on the planet was her brother, President Kennedy. And I was very aware, as a young child, that when he was killed — wow, this was not gonna be pretty in my house. And I watched my mother with her faith, and I saw, she’s getting through this because of that, and because of her work too; I was aware of both. So those things — and then, watching my grandmother — those help people get through life, so how do you get that? [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: There’s a story you tell, that you asked your grandmother about how you get that, and she said, “If you want faith, you ask for it.” Is that right?
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, she’s like, “You just ask God for it,” and then looked at me, like, duh. And I was just like, “No ‘duh’ here; I don’t have that.” But I have asked, actually, God for it over the years, and I keep just saying, “Help me. Give me some of that. Give me some of that. I want to strengthen that. I want to strengthen that.” And lo and behold, it’s stronger. It’s there.
But every morning, I have to say, I pray, and every evening, I pray. And I ask for guidance. I ask for direction. I ask for strength. And somehow, I have it. That doesn’t mean I don’t have days where it is wobbly or where I’m wondering, “Holy… what the here am I doing?” or “This is hard.” I had that when I came home from the Beautycounter thing. Saturday night, I’d landed; I’d just spoken, this — 5,000 women, “Oh, my God, oh, my God” — and I walked into an empty house, and I’m like, “This sucks. Wow, I don’t like this.” And I was like, OK, let’s go tomorrow. So we all need something, so I find that I — I was like, wow, I need some help here. Need some help. And I go to the animal crackers, and eat a box of that, and I’m like, that didn’t help. I’m gonna go to bed. [laughs]
But it’s true — big public lives, it looks like, wow, you’re on the stage at Beautycounter, and everybody’s like, this is fantastic, and then that person that you’re idolizing and think has it all together goes home to an empty house. And maybe those women who were sitting there, going, oh, my God, Maria Shriver has it all — they’re going home to a husband and two kids, and so I want them to see, their thing is great.
Ms. Tippett: That’s you idolizing their lives. [laughs]
Ms. Shriver: Yeah, but it’s me saying, also, don’t idolize my life. Your life is great. And nobody’s life is what it seems, so focus on your life. Focus on what makes you feel good, because that person who you’re idolizing — they may be going home to an empty house and an empty bed.
And people often think, about me — I remember you said just a few minutes ago, “You operate in rarified circles” — I actually don’t. All my friends are — three single moms, or friends that I met in journalism. I don’t really operate…
Ms. Tippett: It’s a stupid thing for me to say, because rarified circles — people are just people.
Ms. Shriver: Right; exactly.
Ms. Tippett: This is one thing you know, if you meet a lot of famous people, accomplished people, you also realize they’re just human beings, and it stops — that phrase, “rarified circles,” in fact is nonsensical, isn’t it?
Ms. Shriver: And that was important to me with the Women’s Conference that I did — it was really important to me that it be a conference for everyday people. I kept the tickets really cheap; I brought people in who didn’t have to pay, because I wanted my view of the world, where people mingled, where Sandra Day O’Connor would sit next to a woman from a domestic violence shelter. That’s the world I want to live in, so that was the world I tried to create with the Women’s Conference when I was first lady. And that’s the world I inhabit, and I want to inhabit.
And that’s why journalism, for me, was so great, because it took me out of my world. And I had this longing to get out of my world. And journalism gave me that, and it allowed me to meet people that I never would’ve met, had I “stayed in my world.”
Ms. Tippett: So let me ask you this as we close: What, right now, as you look around the world and as you inhabit your life, which you just described so beautifully, what makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?
Ms. Shriver: I find them both in any given day. Really, actually. I find what causes me despair is the loneliness that I encounter with people as I go out on this book tour, the pain that so many people have and experience and how they feel like they’re so alone with that. I get it, but I wish I could put my arms in this collective embrace of people. I feel like, wow, there’s just so much pain or struggle out there. My brother said to me once, “I think it’s the books you write. You should write a book about sex or something that people would come up with fun stuff. You write about Alzheimer’s and death.” I said, “No, I actually think that’s just the world.” And I think people feel comfortable coming up and telling me their stories, which I really feel honored by. But it causes me despair that people feel so alone.
What brings me hope are the same people that I meet who are so energized about changing the world. I have so much hope in humanity. I have so much hope that there are so many good people out there who don’t get a lot of attention, whose voices perhaps don’t rise up, but that are out there and whose stories are unbelievable and who are starting organizations, jumping in to run for office, trying to change gun laws, trying to change workplace laws, trying to help women of all economic backgrounds. And that, to me, is so hopeful and exciting and inspiring. And so I meet both, on a given day.
Last night, I spoke at my church. It was like 500, 600 people. And a woman came up, and she was like, “My 23-year-old son died in a car accident a year ago, and this is my first night out.” And I was like, “Oh, my God.” And she goes, “And I finally feel like I can get up and go out. And it was my only child.” And I just looked at her, and I was like, “I’m so sorry.” She goes, “It’s OK. I’ve come to a place…” I was like, “Well, no, it’s not OK.” And it was just this moment of — I was like, oh, my God, I don’t know how that woman came here tonight. I don’t know how that woman is standing. And three women later is a woman who’s like, “I want to work with you on your Architects of Change. I’m so excited about — I’m young, and I’m invited, and I want to change the world. I want to pass a bill for caregivers in California.” And I’m like, wow. And so every other person has a different story, one of despair and one of hope, and they’re all in the same room. They were all in the same room last night; and we’re all in the same room.
Ms. Tippett: This was such a beautiful conversation. I just — it’s really a gift, and I can’t wait to put it on the air.
Ms. Shriver: Oh, well, thank you. You gave me a line that I can take: “raising up my ‘I.’” I like that. I’m raising up my “I.” I’m standing, at long last, firmly in my “I.” I wrote this thing like two months ago, when I started on my book tour — that I walked out onto the stage, and it was like the second night of my book tour, and I looked up, and the rafters were filled, and everybody was holding my book, and I thought I was in the wrong auditorium. That’s the thought that came up, “I’m in the wrong stage; I walked into wrong room.” And then I looked around, and I saw, oh, my God, wait a minute. These people have my book. So I’m in the right place, and oh, my God — they came to hear me. I’m not here trying to get a vote for my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousin. I’m not here campaigning for Arnold. I’m not here for NBC. I’m here for me. And it’s the first moment — I’m 62, and I’m like, OK, I deserve to stand on this stage. I got my “I” on. [laughs]
So I say that to people, so they don’t despair, that sometimes it takes a really long time to feel like you deserve to be on the stage; you deserve to be in the room; you have earned your “I.”
[music: “The Iceland Sound” by Superpoze]
Ms. Tippett: Maria Shriver is a special anchor for NBC News. She is also the former First Lady of California and the author of several books, including Just Who Will You Be, and most recently, I’ve Been Thinking: Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life.
[music: “The Iceland Sound” by Superpoze]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Sue Phillips, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
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