One Day My Soul Just Opened Up. That’s the title of one of Iyanla Vanzant’s many New York Times best-selling books. I had been reading this book while on a vacation with 34 of my family members—that's not a typo— and had just gotten to the part where she recounts the story of her 5-year-old grandson who was prone to yelling, when my phone interview with Vanzant began. Five minutes into our chat, my own sweet, adorable, 3-year-old second cousin started yelling and playing loudly right outside the room where I was speaking to her.
What would Iyanla Vanzant do? I wondered silently as my cousin continued his ruckus-making. In her book, Vanzant said that the only way she could get her grandson to be quiet was by stooping down to his level and whispering, “I can’t hear you. You are talking too loud.” I couldn’t very well put our interview on hold to give that tactic a try and, honestly, my soul had not yet opened up, so I just sat there, furious and distracted, while talking to Vanzant. But she was calm. She never mentioned the racket that was clearly going on in the background. She was peace in chaos. And by the end of our chat, her peace had spilled over miles and time zones and phone lines, into me.
I was fascinated. But this is just what Vanzant does, whether through her books, her OWN show, Iyanla: Fix My Life, or the OWN show, Lifeclass, that she sometimes leads with Oprah Winfrey. This month on Lifeclass, Vanzant and Oprah Winfrey will continue to tackle the epidemic of absent fathers, beginning Sunday, July 7th with part three of the episode, “Fatherless Sons,” followed by a two-part series on "Daddyless Daughters” over the next two Sundays. I caught up with Vanzant to discuss her role in the healing process of people around the world and her feelings on what it’s like to know she’s walking in her purpose.
EBONY: What made you decide that now was the time to address the issue of fatherless sons and daddyless daughters?
IYANLA VANZANT: It was really an issue that, in the 30 years that I've been facilitating shifts in human consciousness, the most difficult, dysfunctional challenges I've ever met have all had their roots in a father being missing or a breakdown with a mother. They are the most dysfunctional people I've ever seen. I am, in many instances, a daddyless daughter, although my father was present in my life, many of the things I've had to heal and transform in my own life have their roots in my experience of him. My son was a fatherless son, my brother was a fatherless son, I've been married twice to men who were fatherless sons. And I see it now with a number of young men who are being incarcerated, the rise of gangs in the world, just the anger that our young people are experiencing have their roots in the absent father and the shift in the role of mothers.
We've been talking about single-parent households for 20 years. But we don't look at the missing factor and the impact that that has and most important we don't talk about the healing, the resolutions, we don't talk about that because most people don't have the skills, tools and information.
EBONY: That's what's so different about Lifeclass, the conversation continues beyond the show and there are resources available online that people can use to help them along their journey. When did you know that facilitating the healing process was your calling?
IV: I don't think it was ever a decision on my part. I think that my life experiences have led me here and if you pay attention to your life and what it's saying to you, pay attention to your experiences, the message becomes clear. I went to law school. I was going to become a criminal defense attorney. That didn't work out, so I went to learn and work in man's law and I bumped into God's law. One thing led to the other and landed me right where I am.
EBONY: I'm glad to know there are many of us who graduated from law school and ended up doing something totally different than practicing law! Was there any one event that happened to change your path or did you not feel fulfilled pursuing a legal path?
IV: The first clue for me was that I took the bar exam twice and didn't pass it. And then, I took it a third time and by then I had left my job at the Public Defender's Office in Philadelphia, and so when I passed the Bar, I didn't have a job! [Laughs] So I said, "Well I'm not going back to that."
And sometimes you just know. You have to listen within and it was clear to me that I did not go to law school to become a lawyer, I went to law school to change my mind. Law school is a rigorous training process of intellect. But you also develop some very powerful skills, analytical thinking. I would say in law you really have to see the possibilities even if they don't exist, you have to craft and create your arguments based on the possibilities rather than the physical evidence, that is a spiritual practice.
My goal as a young girl was to be a nurse. I always wanted to be a healer, I just thought it would be medical, not spiritual. But I am certainly involved in a level of healing and transformation, I take a 'dis-ease' and turn it into healing, wholeness and health, whether that 'dis-ease' is grief, or sadness, or anger, or judgment, or unforgiveness, I can support people in healing and bringing a sense of wholeness and health.
EBONY: It’s always interesting to watch the moments on your shows when people start to resist what you’re saying to them. How do you know when to provide more information for them and when to say this person isn't ready to receive what I have to say?
IV: I don't think it's a conscious choice, you have to be in the moment. I keep pushing the envelope because healing doesn't always occur continuously. Sometimes you just have to plant the seed. When you're facilitating an evolutionary process when you are facilitating a shift in consciousness, when you are facilitating a personal growth and healing, you're a seed planter. You plant the seed and you move on. You don't have to see the "A-ha [moment]," the breakthrough, the breakdown, you don't have to see that in the moment. But truth will always set you free, so it's just pushing the envelope. I never want to impugn anyone's dignity, I don't ever want to be disrespectful. My job is to tell and possess the truth. You take in what you can. People may be resistant at the moment, but, at the right time, in the right moment, when they're ready, what's been presented will take hold.
EBONY: Your work has to be fulfilling, though, even without seeing all the fruits of your labor. To know that you're walking in your purpose– how does that feel?
IV: I would say, satisfying and even challenging. I've grown and learned along the way. I've been doing this work for 30 years. When I started talking about personal transformation and spiritual principles, people thought I was a nut, particularly personal healing and spiritual principles grounded in an African-centered consciousness, people thought I was crazy and that was really challenging. And over the years, now it's a booming business. And now it's acceptable. Now we talk about it: "Oh I'm a very spiritual person.”
I think what Ms. Winfrey has done is given a platform with OWN and with programming on OWN and with her own personal support of personal evolution, she's given a platform for myself and many others but it wasn't like that for a long time. So it's been very satisfying to know that I've been consistent. Very consistent. That I've been on this path despite the hardships and difficulties. And in some ways it feels validating now when I hear an Eckhart Tolle or a Deepak Chopra and yet, still, I have something none of them have: I have [spiritual teaching] from an African-centered perspective.
EBONY: This shift from organized religion to "spirituality," that you mentioned definitely seems to be taking place. Why do you think people are leaning more towards spirituality than organized religion today?
IV: Evolution. There was a time women wore girdles, now we don't, we wear Spanx. [Laughs] It's just evolution and it's time and if you're spiritual and you really believe that God is in charge, than God is about progress and progression and development and unfolding, and as we grow in every other aspect of our lives [our relationship with God evolves]. So, that's one reason.
I also think that people are very, very aware that the systems and the structures that we are socialized to embrace are no longer working. It no longer means that if you go to school, get a good education and a good job that you're going to have a fulfilling life. That doesn't work anymore. Many people did that and they lost their homes and their jobs and everything. So when what you know falls apart, you've got to find something else to hold onto. So hey, try God.