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Video: TED 2014: How the Worst Moments in Our Lives Make Us Who We Are

A moving, heartfelt and funny talk, sounding a powerful call to action to forge meaning from our biggest struggles. Recorded at TED 2014, March 21, 2014.


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00:11 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.

00:34 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.

00:45 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.”

01:17 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.

02:38 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.

03:17 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.”

04:11 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.”

04:50 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.

05:41 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.”

07:07 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.

07:28 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)

08:42 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.

08:57 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.”

09:38 In 1988, I went to Moscow to interview artists of the Soviet underground, and 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.”

10:08 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.” And the artists 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.

11:44 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.

12:55 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. 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, but its time has not yet come. (Laughter) And neutrality, which seems to lie halfway between despair and celebration, is actually the endgame.

14:32 In 29 states in the U.S., 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.

15:39 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.

16:17 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.

17:59 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.

18:14 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.”

19:08 And I thought — 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.

19:27 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.

19:51 Forge meaning. Build identity. Forge meaning. Build identity. And then invite the world to share your joy.

20:03 Thank you.

20:06 (Applause)

20:08 Thank you. (Applause)

20:11 Thank you. (Applause)

20:15 Thank you. (Applause)