“How the worst moments in our lives, can make us who we are”.

“We don’t seek the painful experiences that hue our identities. But we seek our identities, in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bare a pointless torment. But we can endure a great pain, if we believe that it is 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. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” -Saint Paul, Corinthians 2.

As the days progress, I find it to be more and more challenging to write about myself. What can I say that hasn’t been said before? There comes a point, where all the thoughts I think and the words I say, become almost meaningless. So I’ve been searching for my words through others.

I came across a beautiful speech by Andrew Solomon. He is a man who has suffered many obstacles. One of them being Depression. He goes around the country, trying to shed light on such a terrible illness that is affecting way too many people around this world. He lectures on the symptoms, thoughts, emotions, daily challenges that one can go through and how it affects everyone around them, leaving a devastating path in its wake. He has also written a couple of books that are profoundly inspirational, which is helping many on such a taboo topic, on a daily basis.

The one lecture I came across of his was called, “How the worst moments in our lives, makes us who we are“.  He describes the lives of others he has met along the way in his life, and shares his unique stories of his self journey, in return. It’s all about the “inner conflict” we have within ourselves. In whichever form, shape or thought pattern, that is unique to you. He gives us examples, on how we can try to prevail from our inner destruction that some of us create individually. Below is the dialog that takes place at a “Ted Talks” speech he was lecturing at.

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 find 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 varies 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 anymore then you can handle.” But children like ours, are not preordained as a gift. They are a gift because, that’s what we have chosen.” We make those choices all our lives.

When I was in second grade, Bobby Finkle had a birthday party and invited everyone in our class, but me…

My mother assumed there must have been some sort of error and she called Mrs. Finkle, who said that “Bobby didn’t like me and didn’t want me at his party”. And that day, my mom had taken me to the zoo and out for a hot fudge sunday.

When I was in seventh grade, one of the kids on my school bus nicknamed me “Percy” as a short hand for my demeanor. And sometimes, he and his covert’s would chant that provocation the entire school bus ride. Forty five minutes up, forty five 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. (Andrew Soloman is openly gay and is an activist in LGBT rights, especially when it comes to depression and anxiety.)

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 had 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 forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the trauma’s 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?” She then 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.” (Many would argue her statement. But you have to see, I mean really see, all that she has gone through and how she has grown and moved on for the better, because of her unfortunate tragedy.)

Some of our struggles are things we are 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. Nothing like… I am here but I have cancer. But rather, I have cancer and I am here. (Had to wrap my head around a couple times for that one)

“But we are ashamed.” (Stigma) “We can’t tell our stories.”

Our stories are the foundation of our identity. The meaning of Forge is to: ‘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 do we accommodate society, by constraining ourselves, and how much do we 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 had 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, still, with their heads still held high.

Many years later, a doctor and a leader in human rights activists, who had nearly died in prison and spent many years in solitary confinement, told me she was “grateful to her jailers”. For the time she have had to think, for the wisdom she had gained, for a chance to hone her meditation skill (Andrew Solomon smiles brightly). She had sought meaning and made her travail into a crucial identity.

This doctor then said, about the reform process going on in their country, “We Burmese (a member of the largest ethnic group of Burma (Myanmar) in Southeast Asia) are noted for our tremendous grace under pressure. But we also have “grievance under glamour”. The fact there have been these shifts and changes, doesn’t erase the continuing problems in our society, that we learn to see so well, while we were in prison.

And I understood her to be saying, The 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 as a Burmese prison. But as a gay American, I’ve experienced prejudice and even hatred. And I’ve forged meaning. And I built identity. Which is a move I’ve learned from people who have experienced far worse deprivation than I’ve ever known.

In my own adolescence, I went to extreme lengths to try to be straight. I even enrolled myself into something called “Sexual Surrogacy Therapy”. In which people I was encouraged to call “Doctors”, prescribed what I was encouraged to call “Exercises”, with woman I was encouraged to call “Surrogates”. Who were not exactly “Prostitutes”, but who were also not exactly “Anything Else”. (You get chuckles of laughter and clapping from the audience. This poor guy!)

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 had gotten in trouble down at the morgue. (Andrew has his hands clasped behind his back, smiling shyly, looking downwards and you hear more laughter.)

These experiences eventually allowed me to have some happy physical relationships with woman, 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 hue our identities. But we seek our identities, in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bare a pointless torment. But we can endure a great pain, if we believe that it is 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. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” -Saint Paul, Corinthians 2.

To be continued…….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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