I’ve just watched an excellent TED talk by Andrew Solomon about finding the meaning in life’s struggles as a way of moving forward, entitled “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are”.
In it, Solomon describes how he and other people he has met have used adversity and terrible experiences to grow their inner strength through finding meaning in what happened to them. He draws on interviews he has done with victims of crimes and political prisoners. He describes the discrimination he has suffered due to homophobia, and how he believes the courage and strength he uncovered in facing it have made him the man he is today. He suggests that our identity is forged in adversity, not when things are easy. That reminds me of the John Churn Colins quotation, “In prosperity, our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends.” I would also add to that, “and ourselves.”
A section which really struck me with its power was when Solomon said “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.”
This talk reminded me strongly of Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning“, which made a strong impression on me when I read it some years ago. Frankl writes about his experiences in the concentration camps, and how he transcended those experiences in order to survive them and be able to move on with his life after he was liberated. His discoveries led him to develop a whole new model of therapy, and use his experiences to help many many other people.
Re-integrating your experiences into your life story can be hard work. You may find yourself denying that you have any of the strength you showed – it might be hidden from you. It’s there. How will you find the meaning in your experiences? How will you use what you have learned about yourself and others to forge a new and stronger identity? What does your story look like? What do you want it to look like?
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