For the third time, I’ve just finished watching the latest TED talk given by Andrew Solomon, the self-defined student of adversity.

In his honest and eloquent way, Andrew Solomon describes the potential to forge meaning and to build identity out of some of humankinds’ most painful and torturous struggles. He speaks of his own painful childhood experiences of exclusion, bullying, shaming, and isolation as well as some of the most horrific experiences that humanity can have. These struggles, says Solomon, have a much greater impact on our lives than ease, for they, in part, define us. Solomon himself used avoidance and endurance to get through his youth, which he says, were an entry into the pivotal work of forging meaning and incorporating that meaning into a new identity.

How do we do this work of forging meaning and building identity?

1) Solomon suggests we look for what has come to us from having had struggles, for what is now sweeter because of the struggles.  He describes his current day joy in marriage and fatherhood as being so much sweeter because of having suffered in his past, because of never expecting to have such joys.

2) In the work that we do at Tapestry with adults who have survived child abuse, I find myself often asking people, “What is unique about you because you’ve gone through this suffering?”  Or, “What characteristics do you hold now because you’ve suffered?” Every time I ask these questions I hear poignant answers like, “I am more compassionate toward other people, especially those that struggle or who are different.”

3) It has been my experience both personally, and in my work with adult survivors, that the simple act of telling our story, talking about our profound struggles, while it is at first painful, it lessens the load, it reduces the power of the pain, and it is integral in the meaning-making process. Solomon corroborates, “stories are the foundation of identity” and they allow us to “fold the worst events of life into a narrative of triumph.”

Forging meaning and building identity will never, as Solomon says, “make what was wrong right, but it has the potential to make what was wrong, precious.” We can forge meaning and build identity and “still be mad as hell.”  That’s ok, and we can have the added gift of gaining a fuller, deeper identity. I encourage you to watch Andrew Solomon’s TED talk and be prepared for both laughter and tears.

Written by: Devony Baugh