Andrew Solomon: Recent TED Talk “Forge Meaning, Build Identity”

When I introduce TED talks on this blog I usually stick to the shorter ones, recognizing that many readers lack the time or inclination to go bigger. Today, however, is a holiday, and thus I’m hoping you can fit in Andrew Solomon‘s recent “How the Worst Moments in Our Lives Make Us Who We Are.” About 20 minutes long, it’s a moving, eloquent, and personal presentation from an accomplished gay male about resilience in the face of adversity.

If you don’t already know writer Andrew Solomon, his most recent book is Far From the Tree (2012), a highly praised volume that “tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.” When it came out I did a series of posts on it, which you can see here.

Here’s the TED talk, filmed in March and received with much acclaim:

Some Highlights

Okay, so you skipped watching it, but you still want to know what it was about.

To begin with, it’s about finding meaning in one’s life experiences—or, rather, forging meaning, in his estimation. Emphasis on making it versus looking for it.

Solomon talks about being disliked and bullied in childhood, particularly for being, or seeming to be, gay. He was once the only kid who (purposely) wasn’t invited to a classmate’s party, for instance. He also, throughout his school years, was continually ridiculed for being different.

As a result of his marginalizing experiences, Solomon learned to keep his own company. “I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance.”

He also put a lot of effort into trying not to be gay, eventually putting himself through a type of sexual surrogacy therapy that of course didn’t work.

In adulthood Andrew Solomon has worked not only to forge meaning but also to build identity. He gives several interesting examples of how oppressed individuals across the world have done this. “Forging meaning is about changing yourself, building identity is about changing the world.”

About himself: “I’m 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.”

Toward the end of the talk Solomon speaks about marrying his partner as well as having kids. He now regularly feels joy in his life, a feeling he’s not sure he’d now have were it not for his history of victimization and his quest to create meaning and identity from it.

Then he talks about the party thrown last year for his 50th birthday. In the midst of the celebration, his 4-year-old son George insisted on giving a speech. After getting everyone’s attention, he 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.”

In closing, Solomon encourages us to share our struggles and identities with others. Why? Because it makes an important difference.

“Forge meaning, build identity,” he says. “And then invite the world to share your joy.”

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