California First Lady on Living Your Own Legacy

Maria Shriver's emotional journey to define herself and her legacy.

ByABC News

Oct. 23, 2007 — -- The following are excepts of California first lady Maria Shriver's emotional speech to the Women's Conference Oct. 23, 2007, about her spiritual journey to find who she is, and what she wants her legacy to be.

I want to say thank you to all of you today for showing up here today, showing up as yourselves, and making this day such a priority for all of you.

Because I gotta say, I love, I love, this conference and what it's become. I love the inspiration and the unity that just permeates this entire day.

Because I think it lets us know that we're a part of something bigger than us. It lets us know that we're not alone, that we're not isolated. It lets us know that we're part of a community of women everywhere. And it's what I mean when I talk about the power of we.

Because when we come together, we are powerful. We can believe, we can dream, we can connect. We can care and we can lead. And, at the end of the day, we all learn, sooner or later, it's not about me, it's not about you, it is what happens when we come together.

I wanted to start this morning by talking about the concept of gratitude because it's become such a powerful concept in my own life.

This year I have been starting and ending my day with a prayer of gratitude. Gratitude is the place where I renew my faith in God and my faith in myself as well. Because gratitude helps me center myself and focus on the big picture of life. In gratitude I'm able to acknowledge all of the love that I have in my life.

Flowing into my life and flowing out. It lets me see and feel the good in my life and that helps me to be gentle with myself. Because like so many of you I know all too well how to be hard on myself. And this conference is a perfect example of how I do that.

You know every year when I get ready -- this is my fourth year -- I sit down to write and I try to think about what all of you want me to talk about and I get literally paralyzed with fear because I think I have nothing new to say.

I think I've said everything I'm ever gonna say, and I couldn't possibly be interesting anymore, and I think I'm not gonna measure up, I won't fulfill your expectations.

I stress, I eat licorice, I stress some more, I eat Dots. Then I wipe out a bag of Swedish fish. Then I'm on a sugar high. It's an ugly sight, my kids will witness that.

Then I sit down and I start to write. And I start by writing in long hand, I write in my room. I write in my bathroom. I write in my office. I write early in the morning. I get up. I write late at night. I write on the Lifecycle, I write in airplanes -- everywhere.

I'm going around with a legal pad, writing, ripping it up, crumbling up and starting all over again. Over and over. Trying to figure out exactly what you, what you want from me. What do you expect from me.

I think to myself -- well, they probably want me to talk about my four years as first lady. And I sit back and think, nah, I've done that already, that can't be it. Then I think, oh, I should talk about Arnold because everywhere I go everybody wants to talk to me about Arnold. But then I thought -- well he's already going to be here, he'll talk for himself. I don't have to talk about Arnold. Sometimes I do, but not today.

Then I think to myself, okay, you probably want me to talk about what it was like to grow up as a Kennedy, or live in the world headquarters of Team Shriver. What it was like when my mom invited dozens and hundreds of special Olympians over to play in our backyard. Or my dad was inviting peace corps volunteers over for dinner. Then I think, nah, that can't be it either, I don't think that's it.

Then I say: wait a minute. I bet you want me to talk about how a Democrat can stay married to a Republican for all these years.

Then I say to myself: that's a book! You're not getting that for free! No way. That's a book, a big book.

Then I say to myself, okay, if it's not the first lady-Kennedy-Shriver-Schwarzenegger thing, it must be the television thing.

You want me to talk about what it was like to work with Tom Brokaw or Katie Couric at NBC News. But then I think, hey, none of us are at NBC News anymore so it can't be that. I can't be talking about that.

Then I say okay, Maria, I know. They want you to talk about the issues of the day. Like many of you, I have very strong opinions on everything from health care reform to same sex marriage. From the death penalty to the war in Iraq. So just as I was starting to write all that up, this happened. Which of course changed everything.

I went into Starbucks, I go into Starbucks -- thank you for your sponsorship Starbucks. I went into Starbucks one morning and I go and order my espresso over ice, four shots. Four kids, four shots of espresso to get through the day.You can identify with that.

And this woman comes up to me all excited. And she goes, "Oh Miss Kennedy, Miss Kennedy can I speak with you. Oh, excuse me! Miss Kennedy-Shriver," she stammers.

And I'm standing there with my espresso and she goes, "Oh, oh, I mean, Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Governor, Mrs. First Lady. Oh oh, I just really don't know what to call you. It's all such a mouthful. I don't know what to call you!"

I said, "Tell me about it. It's a mouthful." I said, "Why don't you call me Maria?" And she said, "Oh, okay, Mrs. Kennedy-Governor, can I just ask you, like, one thing?"

And I said, "Yeah." And she said, "I love you, I love your whole family, I've always wanted to meet you so I could ask you just one thing."

And I said, wow this woman's wanted to meet me her whole life to ask me one thing. What could that be? And I said, "Go ahead. Ask me."

And she leaned in and she said, "What's it like to be friends with someone as famous as Oprah?"

True story. True story.

I was like, okay. That's okay. Arnold-Kennedy-Shriver-Oprah. I'll have another shot of espresso, it's okay, I'm cool.

It was funny, you know. But overtime, as I was walking to my car and afterwards, it actually became kind of a profound experience to me.

Because it made me realize, as long as I was trying to anticipate what you wanted from me, as long as I was trying to fulfill other people's expectations, I was in a losing game. A game that I'd been playing since I was a kid. In fact, a dear friend said to me, Maria, you have a choice right now in your life.

You can spend the rest of your life trying to measure up, trying to figure out what other people expect from you and trying to fulfill their expectations of you. Or, right now, you can make a decision to let all that go. And you can start talking about what you feel, what you know, and what you think.

And that was one of those whoa moments for this people-pleasing, legacy-carrying, perfection-seeking good girl. That was a news bulletin.

So that's what I want to focus on this morning as I speak to you. Letting go of other people's expectations of you so you can own your own life, write your own story, and live your own legacy.

Now I know that's much easier said than done, believe me, I know that.

Because when I walked out of this convention center last year I thought I had a perfect plan for how to just that. I said to myself, I'll work hard to get Arnold re-elected, I'd help him stage an impressive inauguration launching his second term. And then I would finally, finally, get back to the business of being a globetrotting, money-earning, hard driving network journalist named Maria Shriver.

Remember her, remember her? Well, I barely could. I had dumped her by the wayside four years ago when Arnold became Governor and I knew I needed to go back and reclaim her. Why? Because I was lost.

Some of you who were here last year may remember that I was taken aback when I heard my son describe myself as just a housewife to somebody on a street.

Well the truth is, to myself I had become just a first lady. After all, that's what people called me when they saw me on the street. They'd yell at me, 'hey, aren't you the first lady? Aren't you Arnold's wife? Aren't you married to the Governor? Aren't you the Kennedy that married Arnold?"

And I'd sit there and I'd go, wait a minute. I'm Maria. My name is Maria. People didn't seem to know who I was. And the truth is, and I'm embarrassed to admit this but it's true. I allowed that to upset my sense of self-worth.

I, who had traveled all over the world chasing news stories, scoring big interviews, struggling to make a name for myself.

I, who had written best-selling books, who had campaigned all over this country on behalf of my father, my uncles, my brothers, my cousins and my husband.

I, who had spent decades in pursuit of achievement, winning awards and accolades. I now felt like a shadow of my former self.

And I was quite sure that if I could just get my old journalism job back again, I'd regain my footing. I'd be myself again. I wouldn't feel so lost.

I'd have a real job and then I'd have a real identity. Maria would exist again in your eyes and in mine. So I set about calling NBC and I called them up and said, "Make me a correspondent again, I'll come back to work."

And I was shocked, low and behold, they said "Okay, we will."

My old job! I thought, oh my God, my old salary! I'll be making my money again, my old friends, yippee, I'm back! It's all fine! The plan was to go right back to work as soon as Arnold was sworn in as governor.

And then something happened that took me aback. I stood up at Arnold's inauguration and I recited the Hopi Prayer that I had come across in a book. And it went like this:

We have been telling people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now, we must go back and tell the people that this is the hour. Here are the things that must be considered. Where are you living. What are you doing. What are your relations. Where is your water. Know your garden. It is time to speak your truth.

In the days that followed that reading, I read that poem over and over again. And those questions really resonated deep inside of me. And I struggled to answer them.

So before I went back to work, I decided I would go away by myself for a couple of days to collect myself.

I had never done that before, so busy had I been my whole life upholding the Shriver legacy with my good works and public service. Helping Arnold build his legacy by campaigning, organizing, being part of the NBC legacy with my interviews and my stories, and living the Kennedy legacy with my teeth and my hair.

It was so out of character for me to go away by myself that my daughter asked me if I was going to rehab. It's true. She said, "It's okay, Mommy. You can tell me. You're going to rehab, right?"

I said, "No, I'm just going away by myself, baby." And she was like, "That's so weird." It was weird.

But I went to this beautiful place, not too far from here and I sat and I thought and I breathed and I asked myself, if this is the hour, how do I want to spend it? What do I want to do with it? Do I really want to go back to the TV news business? And if so, why? Do I want to churn out another best-seller? And if so, why? Do I want to be the best first lady California has even seen? And if so, why? If it's time to speak my truth. What IS my truth?

All I got were more questions. And then when I came home, something else happened that really grabbed my attention.

Anna Nicole Smith died. And that story lasted not just days, but weeks and weeks and weeks. And it grew into a media feeding frenzy on every news outlet and it went on 24 hours a day.

Day after day, I watched it unfold. And I knew deep in my heart and in my soul that if I went back to the TV news business, I'd be doing that kind of story too.

And it made me realize in that moment, that the TV news business that I had left had changed, and so had I. So I picked up the phone, I called NBC News, and I said, I'm not coming back. And it was a real moment for me.

My friends were absolutely horrified. My lawyer and agent were like even more so. Everybody went, "Oy veh! Now what. What are we going to do with her?"

So my girlfriends rushed into action. They said, you know, you could always start your own book imprint. You could go and work for an online company. You could start your own media company. You could sit on some fancy boards. You could always do a hair commercial -- you gotta do something!

But for some reason, none of it felt right. For the first time in my life, I had no plan of action, and where I come from, that is a big no-no.

You see, like probably many of you, I was raised in a family that equated self worth with personal achievement. Achievement brought acceptance, it brought power, it brought recognition, and it brought love.

I'd been taught that if you weren't doing, if you weren't serving and if weren't accomplishing, and accomplishing big, then you really weren't being. In fact you weren't even seen.

I felt that over achievement was expected of me. After all, that's the way my parents and their families had lived their lives. And they had changed the world.

And so with no new high profile goal of my own, I felt I was in unchartered water. I was living a life of privilege, power, of fame, with all the excitement, the glamour, and the high drama that people dream of.

But now, when I stood still, I felt empty. And that scared me to death. For me, that was a moment of truth. Because I came to realize deep in my soul that the old solutions, the external fixes that had motivated me my whole life, just didn't work for me anymore.

It shocked me, and it shook me to my core.

And then I came across this haunting poem by the Pulitzer prize winning poet named Mary Oliver. She wrote, it's called the journey, and part of it goes like this:

One day you finally knew what you had to do and began...the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own voice.

My own voice.

I had spoken at this very conference last year about needing to find my voice. Well, this year, in that moment of truth, I actually heard it. And it led me to do something that I'd never done before. To go to a place I'd never been. A place where no travel agent could book me. Deep down into myself. Into my past, into my pain, into me.

The voice I heard within me said, "Stop running, Maria. Breathe. Be. Be."

It asked me, "What are your goals? What do you believe?" My heart asked me, "What feels authentic to you? What brings you happiness?"

My soul wanted to know, "What is your purpose here?"

Now, I know some of you may be sitting there thinking, easy for Maria Shriver to talk about spiritual journeys. She's already got money, success, and fame.

But with all due respect, I think I'm exactly the right person to talk about this.

Now don't get me wrong. Money, success, fame -- that brings you a lot. But it's wonderful and important to know that none of those things, none of those things, soothe a restless heart.

They don't fill an empty hole. And they don't satisfy the deep hunger that comes from within, that's inside of every single person in this room.

Because I think everybody sooner or later comes to the realization that real peace, real peace, true happiness and an authentic life, are strictly an inside job.

So if there are any of you amongst these 14,000 women and men here who feel restless and find yourself questioning and seeking like I did, I want you to know that you are not alone.

In fact, you'll find out that you're in some pretty awesome company.

On my road I have been accompanied and guided by the words and deeds of St. Francis. By the great spiritual writers Thomas Merton and Henry Nouwen. By His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the great zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

I've been moved, deeply moved, and motivated by the experience of several people who have been speaking at this conference here today. Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. Martha Beck, Linda Ellerbee, and Eckhardt Tolle, who encourages us to be present in the now.

I have been inspired and moved by the writings of Ann Morrow Lindberg, by Robert Ellseberg and Sister Joan Chittister, who writes:

The thing we fear to face, the thing we are not told, is that the struggle within ourselves and with ourselves is the work of a lifetime.

I have learned so much from their life journeys. I have learned that we all have worth as human beings. Not because of what we've accomplished. Not because of the way we look, or the family that we're born into.

I have learned that we can and should be loved for just for being who we are. Many of you may have known that. I myself had to learn it.

I'm also learning that it's okay to change. To let go of some beliefs that worked for you in the past but just don't work for you anymore.

It's okay. We're allowed to grow. We're allowed to evolve. And we are allowed to change. And we're allowed to question. Because, in fact, I'm learning that in questioning and examining myself and all the old assumptions that I brought to the table, I am in excellent company.

The recent publication of Mother Theresa's letters just blew me away. Here's this woman, someone we all regarded as this powerhouse, this tower of certainty and faith.

And it turns out that she had years and years where she also felt alone and lost and empty.

Her letters, her honesty made me realize that you can question your journey and still continue on it. I'm also learning that when I live the faith that I say I have, it can actually sustain me.

I can surrender, knowing that I'm cared for, and I'm guided. And that's teaching me something I really needed to learn. It's called patience. And it's teaching me the meaning of the phrase: In God's time, Maria, not yours.

Because it is very true what the great German poet Reiner Maria Wilke wrote. He wrote:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart ... and try to love the questions themselves. As if they were rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

He wrote:

Live the question now. Perhaps then someday far in the future, you will gradually without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Or, as a great friend of mine said, "Maria, feel your way to the answer that is true to you."

Feel my way. That's perhaps the most important thing I've learned this year.

That you have to take the time to know what you feel in order to know who you are. And that has been a huge awakening for me because I was always taught to power right past my feelings.

Told to "Buck up! Get a grip! Move on! Just do it!" And the fact is that that attitude did really help me a lot. Because, after all, if you don't feel your feelings, you're fearless. And you can get a lot done.

But now I'm learning that by taking off some of the armor that I put on as a child and carried through life, by putting down some of my weapons, I can more clearly see and feel the people around me.

I have found a new gentleness and kindness in myself, for myself, and for others.

And that's helped me with one of the most important relationships in my life: my mother. This year my mother, who is this, talk about force of nature, this incredible human being. She is a powerful tornado of intelligence, action, discipline, determination and energy.

This woman who has really been invincible my whole life, was slowed down just a little bit this year with several strokes. And an incredible thing happened to me and for me in that experience.

Sitting in the back of my church I came to this profound realization that the greatest thing that I could do for my mother at this time in her life, and in my life, was not to go into armed combat with the hospital administration, like I had done many times in the past.

I used to go in there and yell at them and then I'd yell at my mother, "Buck up! Get a grip! Be nice to the nurse! Take the medicine! We gotta get out of here!"

That's the way I conducted myself. And I realized that I, in fact, could be different.

I realized that that was the last thing my mother needed. Sitting with myself in my church I suddenly knew that I could break the cycle of toughness so ingrained in me and in my family, and actually be a completely different way.

I felt in my heart that the best thing I could do for my mother was to mother her. Its something I had never done before.

You know, Thich Nhat Hanh, the great zen-master said when he speaks, he says, "Imagine your parent as a wounded, fragile, five-year-old child. He tells us to understand that wounded child. Love that wounded fragile, five-year-old child."

So when I went back into the hospital where my mother was, I turned off my cell phone, I sat quietly and peacefully with my mother. I tried to be present with her. I talked to her. I listened to her. I wrapped a blanket around her. I touched her head and I held her hand.

These are all gentle small acts that every single woman in this room know how to do. And I've learned that they communicate deep love.

And while I sat with my mother, I tried to picture her as that little girl. I pictured her as one of nine kids, doing everything she could do to get her parents' attention and their love.

I pictured her as a young women with all those brothers whom everyone adored and who were so successful.

How did she really feel about that? What was that like for her? I wonder how she really felt in her heart about having a sister with an intellectual disability. Did she know when she was a young girl that fighting on behalf of the disabled would end up becoming her life's work? I thought of all the questions about her life I'd never asked her.

I wondered how she really survived her brothers' assassinations? I wondered who comforted her? I wonder who helped her grieve? I was a child then and all I remember was just being told to barrel on and carry on.

I thought about her legacy and I promised myself that I would make sure that people remembered her for what she stood for, for what she fought for, and not for just being the sister of a president or a senator.

And so, after a lifetime of doing with my mother, of talking to her almost every single day of my life, and sharing her with the world.

Right now is the closest I have ever felt to her. And in loving her in a deep compassionate and gentle way, I have discovered, at the age of 51, that I am loved.

And the truth is, I know that if I hadn't slowed down, if I hadn't stopped running around like the maniac that I am. And I hadn't started feeling, I never would have been blessed by that experience.

Now, why am I telling you this? I do it with the hope that it will help one other person in this room who might feel what I felt. Who might feel lost or disconnected. Who might be so consumed by other peoples' expectations like I was, that they miss what's going on right in front of them.

I'm passing it on because I gotta believe I'm not the only one here who has worried more about what other people think than what you think.

Let's face it, we all worry. We worry about fulfilling our parents' expectations. We worry did we marry the right person? We worry if we get divorced. We worry about what people will think about the way we're raising our kids, or if we decide not to have kids.

We worry if someone thinks we're going away for a couple of days. We worry about showing signs of aging, about gaining weight. We worry what people will say about how we are choosing to live our life if we decide to sit in silence, meditate, or pray.

Oh my goodness, what will people say.

The truth is every single person in this room and on this planet struggles for acceptance. Everyone has challenges to face, as Tony Blair said. Everyone has sadness, frustration, and pain. And that includes me. But that I never knew.

Because I was born into abundance, I thought I wasn't entitled to feel lack. Because I was born so lucky, how could I possibly feel that I had any problems.

The truth is I always felt that my personal story was written and preordained before I lived it. That's why I was always scrambling and struggling to live up to the myth. Always worried that I wasn't fulfilling my role. I now realize that that's no way to live.

You know our conference pledge that so many of you took urges all of us to show up in our lives as ourselves, not as an imitation of anyone else. I know there are many of you in this room who feel that you're not entitled to show up as anyone except the perfect wife, the perfect partner, the perfect employee, the perfect daughter.

A role player in everybody else's life but your own. You may believe you're not allowed to think of yourself as separate from your job, your family, and all the other legacies that you inhabit.

But you are first and foremost a human being in your own right. You are entitled to your own dreams, your own goals, your own legacy. You're entitled to take ten minutes a day if you want to stop and be alone with yourself and silent.

Your entitled to take the time to find out what those dreams are. To make your goals no matter how much laundry you have, no matter what your kids call you, or what they say to you. Or no matter what your husband is saying you should be doing.

Ten minutes. That's all. That is not an act of selfishness. It is an act of self-love. It is also an act of self-love to acknowledge that you have a story that is worth telling. Vast experiences that could help someone else who may be sitting right here today.

You are the only person on this planet with your story. What is the point of being here unless you share it, pass it on and help somebody else.

I have learned great joy and real intimacy come from sharing with others what it took to build the person you are. To build the person you want to be. And I have learned that there is true power in passing along our life lessons to one another.

What I'm getting to is self-acceptance. I always thought self-acceptance was selfish. It's not. It's salvation.

Because if I accept myself, that means I don't need you to validate me. I don't need you to tell me who I am.

So today when someone comes up to me in a restaurant and says, 'Hey, aren't you the Kennedy that married the Governor?' 'Aren't you the first Lady?' 'Aren't you Arnold's wife?' I smile and I say, 'Yes, I am. That's who I am.'

Because I have learned that it's not my job to make you know my name. It's not my job to make someone see me in a certain way. I have laid that burden down. And I have learned that I don't need a certain job or a certain title to tell myself who I am.

I have learned that all my roles are simply a part of me. But they are not all of me. And I have learned that I can honor all of my legacies without worrying about whether I'm living up to them.

What matters to me now is that I know myself. What matters to me now is what I expect of myself. As many of you know, I talk quite a bit about the goddess Minerva. She is the goddess of wisdom and justice and she graces the California state seal.

In ancient literature she appears in two ways: one encased in armor, and in one depiction without the armor. Like a lot of you, I have spent a life encased in armor and I have learned that you will gain wisdom and you will learn a lot about yourself, who you are, what you want, what you can do, when you take that armor off.

In closing, my wish, my prayer really for all of you is that in these coming weeks, days and months each of you take the time to unwrap yourselves.

Because I know that underneath all of that stuff, the makeup, the clothes, the outfits, the resume, the responsibilities and all those roles is an extraordinary human being.

I hope you are compassionate with her. I hope you honor her for what she's been through. I hope you love her for exactly who she is today.

Now when I talk about this my younger brother Timothy goes, "Oy, you're gonna become a nun! I just know it. You're going to become a nun!"

Which reminds me of a story. I was educated by the nuns and I went to Catholic school. And I used to talk to the nuns, they were all dressed in habits and I used to say to them, "What made you become a nun, how'd you know you wanted to become a nun?"

And they would say to me, "Well, I was at one time a young girl like you, studying just like you. And one day I went home and was sitting in my room doing my homework and I felt God came to me and asked me to serve him, asked me to become a nun. And I knew in that instant that that was my life's calling."

So every time I would hear that story I would run home, fall down on my knees and I'd say, "Please God! Do not come to me, do not call me, do not make me a nun!" So, so far, so good.

In closing, I want to leave you with the rest of that Hopi prayer, it's printed in your program. And I hope you find it as moving and as helpful to you as it was to me. And this is how it finishes up:

Now we must go. This is the hour. There is a river flowing now very, very fast. It is so great and swift that there will be those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel like they are being torn apart. And they will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The time of the lonely wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that you do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

It is about we. Thank you and God bless and have a great day.

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