Andrew Solomon: How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are (1)
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. And 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)