Writer Andrew Solomon closed out this year’s TED Conference in Vancouver with a talk titled, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are,” which explores the impact of the traumas people face and how they turn those traumas into the foundation of their identity.
His speech bought the audience to tears as he described his experiences with self-identity in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and, most recently, fatherhood.
Growing up, Solomon was bullied for being gay, leading to years of depression, during which he even attempted to change his identity through a version of conversion therapy. However, he soon realized that he would be unable to change himself, and instead, “forging meaning and building identity became my mantra.”
“I dug terrible wounds into my psyche,” he said. “I would have had an easier life if I was straight, but I would not be me. And I now like being myself better than I like being someone else.
“Stories are the foundation of our identity. It took identity to rescue me from sadness.
“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.”
Speaking of those suffering social discrimination or harassment daily, he added, “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.”
During the speech, Solomon also opened up about being a father, and in what ways he has taken joy from the trivial moments of his day-to-day life with his child and husband, aware that not long ago he never thought that level of happiness was achievable in his own life.
As the author of two acclaimed books, Solomon has had the chance to meet many people with different stories. His 2012 book “Far From the Trees: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” tells the stories of various parents dealing with their exceptional children. Solomon highlights the unity found in diversity, focusing on families dealing with Down syndrome, autism, deafness, dwarfism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, those conceived in rape, who become criminals, prodigy children, children who are transgender.
While writing about these people’s lives, Solomon also addresses his own identity and in what ways he was able to learn from others that adversity can be a blessing rather than just pain.
His first published work, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” won the 2001 National Book Award for non-fiction. It examines depression in personal, cultural, and scientific terms. Drawing on his personal struggle with the mental illness and conducting interviews with fellow sufferers, doctors, scientists, politicians, and philosophers, he explores and reveals the complexity and sheer agony of the disease.
He says, “We could have been ourselves without the delights, but not without the misfortunes that drive our search for meaning.
“There’s still an outer world of homophobia that it will take decades to address. Some day being gay will be a fact, free of party hats and blame. But not yet.”