Meryl Streep – Shine Your Light

Meryl Streep speaks to Barnard’s graduating class about her struggle to find her authentic self and how empathy is the driving force to an equal world for all.


Air kissing, ass kissing, kissing up, and, of course, actual kissing. Much like hookers, actors have to do it with people we may not like or even know. Pretending or acting is a very valuable life skill and we all do it all the time. We don’t want to be caught doing it, but nevertheless it’s part of the adaptation of our species. We change who we are.

In high school, I wanted to learn how to be appealing, so I studied the character I imagined I wanted to be, that of the generically pretty high school girl. I tried to imitate her hair, her lipstick, her lashes, the clothes, the lithesome, beautiful, generically appealing high school girls that I saw. This was all about appealing to boys, and, at the same time, being accepted by the girls. I reached a point senior year when my adjustment felt like me. I had actually convinced myself that I was this person and she, me. Pretty, talented, but not stuck up. A girl who laughed a lot at every stupid thing every boy said, and who lowered her eyes at the right moment and deferred, who learned to defer, when the boys took over the conversation.

Outside of any competition for boys, my brain woke up. I got up and I got outside myself and I found myself again. I didn’t have to pretend. I could be goofy, vehement, aggressive, and slovenly, and open, and funny, and tough, and my friends let me. I became real instead of an imaginary stuffed bunny.

The things are changing now. This is your time and it feels normal to you, but, really, there is no normal. There’s only change and resistance to it, and then more change. Never before in the history of our country have most of the advanced degrees been awarded to women, but now they are. Since the dawn of man, it’s hardly more than a hundred years since we were even allowed into these buildings, except to clean them. But, soon, most of the law and medical degrees will probably also go to women. Around the world, poor women now own property, who used to be property.

Cracks in the ceiling, cracks in the door, cracks in the court and on the senate floor, and the door into this emotional shift is empathy, personal happiness. That comes from studying the world, feelingly, with empathy. It comes from staying alert and alive and involved in the lives of the people that I love and the people in the wider world who need my help. As Jung said, “Emotion is the chief source of becoming conscious. There can be no transforming of lightness into dark, of apathy into movement, without emotion.” Or as Leonard Cohen says, “Pay attention to the cracks, because that’s where the light gets in.”