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

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

100 thoughts on “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are | Andrew Solomon

  1. …making what is wrong, precious… is indeed seeing things from an eternal perspective. Mankind's divine author has filled our lives with great meaning & Beauty 🖤

  2. Thank you for sharing your story! Refreshingly honest. Brings so many memories up from the hatred I have seen others experience as well as my own challenges. I remember an eighth grader, from a beautiful family, who hung himself because he could not handle the bullying, from his classmates, on a daily basis. That was about 47 years ago. The emotional and physical pain I saw in his parents was inconceivable. Never forgot it and committed to myself that I would never mistreat another human being the way he was. I was in fourth grade at the time. Throughout life, even though sometimes difficult, I am mostly grateful for the lesson of being taught who and how not to be. Thank you again, for your eloquent words. Needed to hear them.

  3. I'm just crying through this whole talk. The poetics of his phrasing and an incredible sensitivity to the reimagining of pain touch the darkest, loneliest parts of me.
    "Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong, precious." I hope this is the philosophy we all try to lead with. We all try to remake the pain that has touched us into the identities we find so precious.

  4. Such a powerful, impressive speech!I hope this video will have enough impact on some of our politicians who are against homosexuality to their core, and help them join the crowd of humanity and stop provoking the naive people against homosexuals.

  5. how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are? really? when i was a bad kid i was spanked and yeah i got spanked a lot when i was a kid but i did learn respect for everyone until they showed they didn't deserve it and i thank my parents for those "lessons" from the belt. today kids are fed pills and told to go sit in time out teaching them nothing at all except how to think about not getting caught the next time because there is no punishment so today american prisons are full and the majority of prisoners are these kids who were never spanked they are not going to learn from their extended time outs they will be in and out of prison their whole lives. drop the pills and the psychiatry in a dumpster and start using what worked since the beginning of recorded history because pills and timeouts are not working and never will

  6. Wow. How have I not heard of this man? I listen to Alan Watts, Sadhguru, and so many other inspirational people. This guy is awesome. I will be binge watching his material.

  7. Inaccurate point here:

    In Nigeria, gay people are not being stoned to death. In northern Nigeria there are sharia laws which condemn gay rights, this is the closest to being stoned to death Note that, this is only in northern Nigeria.

    There are other laws against gay people in Nigeria asides Sharia. For instance, in Lagos, Nigeria; the penalty for being gay is 14 years in prison.

    All I am saying is, people don't simply get stoned to death in Nigeria for being gay.

  8. Something I always known. We are a collection of our experiences, we can become bitter and stay victims or we can choose to become powerhouses. I took adversity as a challenge and constructed me.

  9. That story of bobby finkle made me weep for you & the unnecessary pain inflicted on you & your mum not by bobby tinkle, but by his thoughtless selfish mother, this was her opportunity to teach her child Bobby a very valuable lesson & she blew it, Jesus said to someone once, what you inflict on one of my children you also inflict me. You remind me of my grandchildren for whom I wrote this song . & now I know, it was also written for you Andrew.

  10. I think Andrew has indeed gone through something(s) very difficult I feel his pain for that. Everyone loves their Mama's. I wish you happiness Andrew.

  11. His face shows terror. His eyes shine with strength. I feel this man is still struggling to find himself, not realising he already is there. His words tell a much smaller story than his demeanor. Beautiful eyes.

  12. That story about the RUssian soldier is the one that got me. I love when unconditional Power recognizes its limits and sheer humanity.

  13. I didn't like this talk, I can't explain it why, but I feel that the society is a mix of all kind of people and I should know this fact and should teach it to my children so there is no surprises at all.

  14. Andrew's book on depression, The Noonday Demom, is excellent. One of the best books on the subject in my opinion. I highly recommend it.

  15. I'm sorry you had such a bad time as a child, and surrounded by unkindness. There is very few times we humans get it right. For me, being gay is a choice very deep driven, complicated even unfair for some, but still a choice. Be gay! Just leave the rest of us out of it. The way it's been presented, you would think that 23% of Americans are homosexual, the number is 5%. So…

  16. Love this. Especially that I am going through self hatred because I am gay and born into a Muslim community. LGBTQ is such a taboo topic in the country I live in (Egypt) and you can be imprisoned if I ever dared to share my identity or hold a rainbow flag. This gave me hope. You are right. If i were straight, it would’ve been easier. But I wont be who I am today. Being gay taught me to believe in myself even if the ones around me don’t. Forge meaning and build identity! Love this!!

  17. “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”

    ― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

  18. He's a great, thoughtful writer/speaker who often gives readers & listeners precious hope, inspiration & food for thought.

  19. BUt what about the pain if he had taken the other path. Then it would be another sweet struggle to forge alternative meaning and build alternative identity? wouldnt it? Could it work work both ways?


    He got me first time with the Russian tanks turning around but then killed me with his kid's speech, LAWD A MERCY

    Beautiful speech, wonderful message, and I am glad he mentioned the double edged sword of identity politics, but still he's right, ideally we will one day live in a world where we stop abusing each other and the planet

  21. I'm fucking trying man. Typing this with tears rolling down my face. I take care of my younger siblings. My mom got diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychosis. My dad is going through stuff, my stepmom has cancer. I'm drowning right now I'm fucking drowning. I want to give up more than ever.

  22. Wow, He had me crying 2 minutes in. I decided a long time ago to be a survivor instead of a victim. But not everyone is able to do this.

  23. a great bit of wisdom in an age where we need it desperately… I'm better for having listened today… Thank you…

  24. The story about his son, him saying he would be his dad's friend, the fact that he is able to raise beautiful minded children with his husband after the discrimination and hate he has been through, I am weeping. I went into this video to pass some time meaningfully, but now I come out of it tearing myself apart, questioning my sexuality again. I have to say thank you for sparking this inner conflict again, its somewhat comforting to know I still have room to grow.

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