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TED2014

Andrew Solomon: How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are

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Writer Andrew Solomon has spent his career telling stories of the hardships of others. Now he turns inward, bringing us into a childhood of adversity, while also spinning tales of the courageous people he's met in the years since. In a moving, heartfelt and at times downright funny talk, Solomon gives a powerful call to action to forge meaning from our biggest struggles.

- Writer
Andrew Solomon writes about politics, culture and psychology. Full bio

As a student of adversity,
00:12
I've been struck over the years
00:16
by how some people
00:17
with major challenges
00:19
seem to draw strength from them,
00:21
and I've heard the popular wisdom
00:24
that that has to do with finding meaning.
00:26
And for a long time,
00:28
I thought the meaning was out there,
00:30
some great truth waiting to be found.
00:32
But over time, I've come to feel
00:35
that the truth is irrelevant.
00:38
We call it finding meaning,
00:40
but we might better call it forging meaning.
00:42
My last book was about how families
00:47
manage to deal with various kinds of challenging
00:49
or unusual offspring,
00:52
and one of the mothers I interviewed,
00:54
who had two children with
multiple severe disabilities,
00:56
said to me, "People always give us
00:59
these little sayings like,
01:02
'God doesn't give you any
more than you can handle,'
01:03
but children like ours
01:07
are not preordained as a gift.
01:09
They're a gift because that's what we have chosen."
01:13
We make those choices all our lives.
01:18
When I was in second grade,
01:22
Bobby Finkel had a birthday party
01:25
and invited everyone in our class but me.
01:27
My mother assumed there
had been some sort of error,
01:32
and she called Mrs. Finkel,
01:34
who said that Bobby didn't like me
01:36
and didn't want me at his party.
01:38
And that day, my mom took me to the zoo
01:42
and out for a hot fudge sundae.
01:45
When I was in seventh grade,
01:48
one of the kids on my school bus
01:49
nicknamed me "Percy"
01:52
as a shorthand for my demeanor,
01:54
and sometimes, he and his cohort
01:56
would chant that provocation
01:59
the entire school bus ride,
02:02
45 minutes up, 45 minutes back,
02:03
"Percy! Percy! Percy! Percy!"
02:07
When I was in eighth grade,
02:12
our science teacher told us
02:14
that all male homosexuals
02:16
develop fecal incontinence
02:18
because of the trauma to their anal sphincter.
02:20
And I graduated high school
02:25
without ever going to the cafeteria,
02:26
where I would have sat with the girls
02:29
and been laughed at for doing so,
02:31
or sat with the boys
02:33
and been laughed at for being a boy
02:35
who should be sitting with the girls.
02:37
I survived that childhood through a mix
02:39
of avoidance and endurance.
02:42
What I didn't know then,
02:45
and do know now,
02:47
is that avoidance and endurance
02:49
can be the entryway to forging meaning.
02:51
After you've forged meaning,
02:56
you need to incorporate that meaning
02:58
into a new identity.
03:00
You need to take the traumas and make them part
03:02
of who you've come to be,
03:06
and you need to fold the worst events of your life
03:08
into a narrative of triumph,
03:11
evincing a better self
03:13
in response to things that hurt.
03:15
One of the other mothers I interviewed
03:18
when I was working on my book
03:20
had been raped as an adolescent,
03:22
and had a child following that rape,
03:25
which had thrown away her career plans
03:28
and damaged all of her emotional relationships.
03:31
But when I met her, she was 50,
03:35
and I said to her,
03:38
"Do you often think about the man who raped you?"
03:39
And she said, "I used to think about him with anger,
03:42
but now only with pity."
03:46
And I thought she meant pity because he was
03:48
so unevolved as to have done this terrible thing.
03:51
And I said, "Pity?"
03:54
And she said, "Yes,
03:56
because he has a beautiful daughter
03:57
and two beautiful grandchildren
04:00
and he doesn't know that, and I do.
04:02
So as it turns out, I'm the lucky one."
04:06
Some of our struggles are things we're born to:
04:12
our gender, our sexuality, our race, our disability.
04:15
And some are things that happen to us:
04:21
being a political prisoner, being a rape victim,
04:23
being a Katrina survivor.
04:27
Identity involves entering a community
04:29
to draw strength from that community,
04:32
and to give strength there too.
04:35
It involves substituting "and" for "but" --
04:37
not "I am here but I have cancer,"
04:42
but rather, "I have cancer and I am here."
04:46
When we're ashamed,
04:51
we can't tell our stories,
04:53
and stories are the foundation of identity.
04:55
Forge meaning, build identity,
05:00
forge meaning and build identity.
05:04
That became my mantra.
05:07
Forging meaning is about changing yourself.
05:10
Building identity is about changing the world.
05:13
All of us with stigmatized identities
05:17
face this question daily:
05:19
how much to accommodate society
05:21
by constraining ourselves,
05:24
and how much to break the limits
05:26
of what constitutes a valid life?
05:29
Forging meaning and building identity
05:32
does not make what was wrong right.
05:35
It only makes what was wrong precious.
05:38
In January of this year,
05:43
I went to Myanmar to interview political prisoners,
05:45
and I was surprised to find them less bitter
05:49
than I'd anticipated.
05:52
Most of them had knowingly committed
05:53
the offenses that landed them in prison,
05:55
and they had walked in with their heads held high,
05:58
and they walked out with their heads
06:01
still held high, many years later.
06:03
Dr. Ma Thida, a leading human rights activist
06:07
who had nearly died in prison
06:10
and had spent many years in solitary confinement,
06:12
told me she was grateful to her jailers
06:15
for the time she had had to think,
06:19
for the wisdom she had gained,
06:21
for the chance to hone her meditation skills.
06:23
She had sought meaning
06:27
and made her travail into a crucial identity.
06:29
But if the people I met
06:33
were less bitter than I'd anticipated
06:35
about being in prison,
06:37
they were also less thrilled than I'd expected
06:38
about the reform process going on
06:41
in their country.
06:43
Ma Thida said,
06:45
"We Burmese are noted
06:47
for our tremendous grace under pressure,
06:48
but we also have grievance under glamour,"
06:52
she said, "and the fact that there have been
06:56
these shifts and changes
06:58
doesn't erase the continuing problems
07:00
in our society
07:02
that we learned to see so well
07:04
while we were in prison."
07:06
And I understood her to be saying
07:08
that concessions confer only a little humanity,
07:10
where full humanity is due,
07:14
that crumbs are not the same
07:16
as a place at the table,
07:18
which is to say you can forge meaning
07:20
and build identity and still be mad as hell.
07:23
I've never been raped,
07:29
and I've never been in anything
remotely approaching
07:31
a Burmese prison,
07:34
but as a gay American,
07:36
I've experienced prejudice and even hatred,
07:37
and I've forged meaning and I've built identity,
07:42
which is a move I learned from people
07:46
who had experienced far worse privation
07:48
than I've ever known.
07:51
In my own adolescence,
07:53
I went to extreme lengths to try to be straight.
07:55
I enrolled myself in something called
07:59
sexual surrogacy therapy,
08:01
in which people I was encouraged to call doctors
08:03
prescribed what I was encouraged to call exercises
08:07
with women I was encouraged to call surrogates,
08:10
who were not exactly prostitutes
08:14
but who were also not exactly anything else.
08:17
(Laughter)
08:20
My particular favorite
08:24
was a blonde woman from the Deep South
08:26
who eventually admitted to me
08:28
that she was really a necrophiliac
08:30
and had taken this job after she got in trouble
08:32
down at the morgue.
08:35
(Laughter)
08:37
These experiences eventually allowed me to have
08:43
some happy physical relationships with women,
08:46
for which I'm grateful,
08:49
but I was at war with myself,
08:50
and I dug terrible wounds into my own psyche.
08:53
We don't seek the painful experiences
08:58
that hew our identities,
09:01
but we seek our identities
09:04
in the wake of painful experiences.
09:06
We cannot bear a pointless torment,
09:09
but we can endure great pain
09:12
if we believe that it's purposeful.
09:14
Ease makes less of an impression on us
09:18
than struggle.
09:20
We could have been ourselves without our delights,
09:21
but not without the misfortunes
09:24
that drive our search for meaning.
09:26
"Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities,"
09:29
St. Paul wrote in Second Corinthians,
09:33
"for when I am weak, then I am strong."
09:35
In 1988, I went to Moscow
09:39
to interview artists of the Soviet underground,
09:42
and I expected their work to be
09:46
dissident and political.
09:47
But the radicalism in their work actually lay
09:50
in reinserting humanity into a society
09:53
that was annihilating humanity itself,
09:56
as, in some senses, Russian society
09:58
is now doing again.
10:01
One of the artists I met said to me,
10:03
"We were in training to be not artists but angels."
10:05
In 1991, I went back to see the artists
10:10
I'd been writing about,
10:13
and I was with them during the putsch
10:14
that ended the Soviet Union,
10:16
and they were among the chief organizers
10:18
of the resistance to that putsch.
10:21
And on the third day of the putsch,
10:24
one of them suggested we walk up to Smolenskaya.
10:27
And we went there,
10:30
and we arranged ourselves in
front of one of the barricades,
10:31
and a little while later,
10:35
a column of tanks rolled up,
10:36
and the soldier on the front tank said,
10:39
"We have unconditional orders
10:41
to destroy this barricade.
10:43
If you get out of the way,
10:44
we don't need to hurt you,
10:46
but if you won't move, we'll have no choice
10:48
but to run you down."
10:50
And the artists I was with said,
10:51
"Give us just a minute.
10:53
Give us just a minute to tell you why we're here."
10:54
And the soldier folded his arms,
10:59
and the artist launched into a
Jeffersonian panegyric to democracy
11:01
such as those of us who live
11:05
in a Jeffersonian democracy
11:07
would be hard-pressed to present.
11:09
And they went on and on,
11:13
and the soldier watched,
11:14
and then he sat there for a full minute
11:16
after they were finished
11:18
and looked at us so bedraggled in the rain,
11:20
and said, "What you have said is true,
11:22
and we must bow to the will of the people.
11:26
If you'll clear enough space for us to turn around,
11:30
we'll go back the way we came."
11:32
And that's what they did.
11:35
Sometimes, forging meaning
11:37
can give you the vocabulary you need
11:39
to fight for your ultimate freedom.
11:42
Russia awakened me to the lemonade notion
11:45
that oppression breeds the power to oppose it,
11:48
and I gradually understood that as the cornerstone
11:51
of identity.
11:54
It took identity to rescue me from sadness.
11:55
The gay rights movement posits a world
12:00
in which my aberrances are a victory.
12:02
Identity politics always works on two fronts:
12:05
to give pride to people who have a given condition
12:09
or characteristic,
12:12
and to cause the outside world
12:13
to treat such people more gently and more kindly.
12:15
Those are two totally separate enterprises,
12:18
but progress in each sphere
12:22
reverberates in the other.
12:24
Identity politics can be narcissistic.
12:26
People extol a difference only because it's theirs.
12:30
People narrow the world and function
12:33
in discrete groups without empathy for one another.
12:36
But properly understood
12:39
and wisely practiced,
12:41
identity politics should expand
12:43
our idea of what it is to be human.
12:45
Identity itself
12:48
should be not a smug label
12:49
or a gold medal
12:52
but a revolution.
12:54
I would have had an easier life if I were straight,
12:56
but I would not be me,
13:00
and I now like being myself better
13:02
than the idea of being someone else,
13:04
someone who, to be honest,
13:07
I have neither the option of being
13:08
nor the ability fully to imagine.
13:10
But if you banish the dragons,
13:13
you banish the heroes,
13:15
and we become attached
13:17
to the heroic strain in our own lives.
13:19
I've sometimes wondered
13:22
whether I could have ceased
to hate that part of myself
13:23
without gay pride's technicolor fiesta,
13:26
of which this speech is one manifestation.
13:29
I used to think I would know myself to be mature
13:33
when I could simply be gay without emphasis,
13:36
but the self-loathing of that period left a void,
13:39
and celebration needs to fill and overflow it,
13:43
and even if I repay my private debt of melancholy,
13:47
there's still an outer world of homophobia
13:50
that it will take decades to address.
13:53
Someday, being gay will be a simple fact,
13:56
free of party hats and blame,
13:59
but not yet.
14:02
A friend of mine who thought gay pride
14:04
was getting very carried away with itself,
14:06
once suggested that we organize
14:08
Gay Humility Week.
14:10
(Laughter) (Applause)
14:12
It's a great idea,
14:18
but its time has not yet come.
14:21
(Laughter)
14:23
And neutrality, which seems to lie
14:25
halfway between despair and celebration,
14:27
is actually the endgame.
14:30
In 29 states in the U.S.,
14:33
I could legally be fired or denied housing
14:36
for being gay.
14:39
In Russia, the anti-propaganda law
14:41
has led to people being beaten in the streets.
14:44
Twenty-seven African countries
14:47
have passed laws against sodomy,
14:49
and in Nigeria, gay people can legally
14:52
be stoned to death,
14:54
and lynchings have become common.
14:55
In Saudi Arabia recently, two men
14:58
who had been caught in carnal acts,
15:01
were sentenced to 7,000 lashes each,
15:03
and are now permanently disabled as a result.
15:08
So who can forge meaning
15:11
and build identity?
15:13
Gay rights are not primarily marriage rights,
15:16
and for the millions who live in unaccepting places
15:19
with no resources,
15:22
dignity remains elusive.
15:24
I am lucky to have forged meaning
15:27
and built identity,
15:30
but that's still a rare privilege,
15:32
and gay people deserve more collectively
15:34
than the crumbs of justice.
15:37
And yet, every step forward
15:40
is so sweet.
15:43
In 2007, six years after we met,
15:45
my partner and I decided
15:49
to get married.
15:51
Meeting John had been the discovery
15:53
of great happiness
15:55
and also the elimination of great unhappiness,
15:57
and sometimes, I was so occupied
16:00
with the disappearance of all that pain
16:03
that I forgot about the joy,
16:05
which was at first the less
remarkable part of it to me.
16:07
Marrying was a way to declare our love
16:11
as more a presence than an absence.
16:14
Marriage soon led us to children,
16:18
and that meant new meanings
16:20
and new identities, ours and theirs.
16:22
I want my children to be happy,
16:26
and I love them most achingly when they are sad.
16:29
As a gay father, I can teach them
16:33
to own what is wrong in their lives,
16:36
but I believe that if I succeed
16:38
in sheltering them from adversity,
16:40
I will have failed as a parent.
16:42
A Buddhist scholar I know once explained to me
16:45
that Westerners mistakenly think
16:48
that nirvana is what arrives
16:50
when all your woe is behind you
16:53
and you have only bliss to look forward to.
16:55
But he said that would not be nirvana,
16:59
because your bliss in the present
17:01
would always be shadowed by the joy from the past.
17:02
Nirvana, he said, is what you arrive at
17:06
when you have only bliss to look forward to
17:09
and find in what looked like sorrows
17:11
the seedlings of your joy.
17:14
And I sometimes wonder
17:17
whether I could have found such fulfillment
17:19
in marriage and children
17:21
if they'd come more readily,
17:22
if I'd been straight in my youth or were young now,
17:24
in either of which cases this might be easier.
17:28
Perhaps I could.
17:32
Perhaps all the complex imagining I've done
17:33
could have been applied to other topics.
17:36
But if seeking meaning
17:38
matters more than finding meaning,
17:40
the question is not whether I'd be happier
17:41
for having been bullied,
17:45
but whether assigning meaning
17:46
to those experiences
17:48
has made me a better father.
17:50
I tend to find the ecstasy hidden in ordinary joys,
17:52
because I did not expect those joys
17:56
to be ordinary to me.
17:58
I know many heterosexuals who have
18:01
equally happy marriages and families,
18:02
but gay marriage is so breathtakingly fresh,
18:05
and gay families so exhilaratingly new,
18:08
and I found meaning in that surprise.
18:11
In October, it was my 50th birthday,
18:15
and my family organized a party for me,
18:19
and in the middle of it,
18:22
my son said to my husband
18:23
that he wanted to make a speech,
18:25
and John said,
18:26
"George, you can't make a speech. You're four."
18:27
(Laughter)
18:32
"Only Grandpa and Uncle David and I
18:34
are going to make speeches tonight."
18:36
But George insisted and insisted,
18:38
and finally, John took him up to the microphone,
18:41
and George said very loudly,
18:44
"Ladies and gentlemen,
18:47
may I have your attention please."
18:49
And everyone turned around, startled.
18:52
And George said,
18:55
"I'm glad it's Daddy's birthday.
18:57
I'm glad we all get cake.
18:59
And daddy, if you were little,
19:02
I'd be your friend."
19:06
And I thought — Thank you.
19:09
I thought that I was indebted
19:12
even to Bobby Finkel,
19:15
because all those earlier experiences
19:16
were what had propelled me to this moment,
19:19
and I was finally unconditionally grateful
19:22
for a life I'd once have done anything to change.
19:24
The gay activist Harvey Milk
19:28
was once asked by a younger gay man
19:30
what he could do to help the movement,
19:32
and Harvey Milk said,
19:35
"Go out and tell someone."
19:36
There's always somebody who wants to confiscate
19:38
our humanity,
19:41
and there are always stories that restore it.
19:43
If we live out loud,
19:45
we can trounce the hatred
19:47
and expand everyone's lives.
19:49
Forge meaning. Build identity.
19:52
Forge meaning.
19:56
Build identity.
19:58
And then invite the world
20:01
to share your joy.
20:02
Thank you.
20:04
(Applause)
20:07
Thank you. (Applause)
20:09
Thank you. (Applause)
20:12
Thank you. (Applause)
20:16

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About the speaker:

Andrew Solomon - Writer
Andrew Solomon writes about politics, culture and psychology.

Why you should listen

Andrew Solomon is a writer, lecturer and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University. He is president of PEN American Center. He writes regularly for The New Yorker and the New York Times.

Solomon's newest book, Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change, Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years was published in April, 2016. His previous book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction, the Wellcome Prize and 22 other national awards. It tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so. It was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback editions. Solomon's previous book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, won the 2001 National Book Award for Nonfiction, was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize and was included in The Times of London's list of one hundred best books of the decade. It has been published in twenty-four languages. Solomon is also the author of the novel A Stone Boat and of The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost.

Solomon is an activist in LGBT rights, mental health, education and the arts. He is a member of the boards of directors of the National LGBTQ Force and Trans Youth Family Allies. He is a member of the Board of Visitors of Columbia University Medical Center, serves on the National Advisory Board of the Depression Center at the University of Michigan, is a director of Columbia Psychiatry and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Solomon also serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yaddo and The Alex Fund, which supports the education of Romani children. He is also a fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University and a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Solomon lives with his husband and son in New York and London and is a dual national. He also has a daughter with a college friend; mother and daughter live in Texas but visit often.


More profile about the speaker
Andrew Solomon | Speaker | TED.com