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Forge meaning, build identity: Andrew Solomon at TED2014

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Andrew Solomon. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Andrew Solomon. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

The extraordinary and eloquent Andrew Solomon closes TED2014 with a talk that brought the theater to its feet. Popular wisdom, begins Solomon, is that we find meaning, that it is an external truth to seek. But after a lifetime as a student of adversity, he has found that meaning, in fact, is forged.

Solomon recalls the misery of his childhood: Bobby Finkle’s birthday party, to which everyone was invited but him; his demeaning nickname, Percy; and his 8th grade science teacher, who told the class that “all male homosexuals develop fecal incontinence because of trauma to the anal sphincter.” Poised and unflinching, Solomon says he graduated high school without ever going to the cafeteria. “I survived that childhood,” says Solomon, “through a mix of avoidance and endurance.”

Solomon’s mantra as an adult became: Forge meaning, build identity. “Forging meaning is about changing yourself, building identity is about changing the world,” says Solomon. He gives the example of Burmese political prisoner Ma Thida, who told him she and the other prisoners were grateful to their jailers for the time to think, the wisdom they gained and the chance to hone their meditation skills. She had sought meaning and made her struggle a part of her identity, says Solomon. But for all the grace with which she viewed her imprisonment, Ma Thida was still deeply frustrated by the government’s reform pace, showing that “you can forge meaning and build identity — and still be mad as hell.”

In 1991 Solomon went to Moscow to visit with some underground artists, and ended up being involved in the final putsch that ended the Soviet Union. On the third day, confronted with tanks at Smolenskaya, one of the artists asked the soldier operating the tank to allow him to explain why the protesters were there. He launched into a “Jeffersonian panegyric about democracy”; at the end, the soldier who’d been ordered to run them over stopped, thought, and said: “What you have said is true, and we have to bow to the will of the people.” Forge meaning, build identity, change the world.

Identity politics can be narcissistic, and the gay rights movement seems to run that risk at times, but we’re not yet at a point when the movement should be quiet, says Solomon. In 29 states one can still be fired or denied housing for being gay; 27 African countries have laws against sodomy; and recently in Saudi Arabia two men received 7,000 lashes each for homosexual acts. “Someday being gay will be a simple fact,” he says, “free of party hats and bling — but not yet.”

Today Solomon is married with children, and his life is full of joy. At his fiftieth birthday, Solomon’s 4-year-old son George gave a speech: “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.” At the end of a very emotional Friday, Solomon completes his mantra: “Forge meaning, build identity. And then invite the world to share your joy.”