I have recently discovered Andrew Solomon, a writer who nearly won the Pullizer prize 10 years ago for an exceptional book, The Noonday Demon, in which he recounts his own battle with depression and takes an in depth look at this modern plague, affecting an incredible number of people world-wide.
Now I am reading another book by Solomon that I’d like to share with you – “Far From the Tree” – a book about parents who have exceptional children or children born in unusual circumstances – and the amazing journeys of these people who learn not only to deal with a son or daughter who is nothing like them, but discover deep meaning in loving these children who are so obviously different. Solomon tells the story of families with children who have autism, Down Syndrome, who are geniuses, who are gay, who are dwarfs or have been conceived in rape. The book captures the struggle, the joys, the amazing power of these parents to embrace a reality they had never envisaged before and for me, as a reader, was a precious reminder that often the “curse” of being different can be turned into a blessing, with the right attitude.
The book led me to think of all our struggles for fitting in, for being accepted, of the obsession for being liked that so many of us share. It made me realise that we are often forced to embrace our imperfections when we simply cannot hide them anymore. For those children Solomon writes about the choices were obvious – accept that you are imperfect, different, and turn this into a positive or lead a profoundly unhappy life. For most of us, who are born “normal”, the choices are more subtle. The many ways in which we are different from others are not that obvious and the social pressure to comply is higher. We are expected to fit in, to constantly improve whatever is not quite right with us, to follow the prescribed path in life. This makes it more difficult to actually become aware of our uniqueness, to find those things that set us apart form others and which could become our biggest gifts in life, if we allow them to be.
There are 100 billions neurons in our brains – about as many as stars in the Milky Way, and each of them connects to around 15000 others. This means there is literally a whole Universe of connections inside of us. We are, each and every one, unique, unrepeatable. We are born with innate talents and innate weaknesses. Yet, we spend most of our lives trying hard to become more and more “the same” as others, striving to be accepted, striving to smoothen those aspects of us which make us different, working at improving those facets of us which are not in accordance with what mainstream society says we should be like. Too seldom do we actually work on identifying those talents and building on them, even when that might set us apart from others.
Too often in my workshops I notice people struggling when asked: “What makes you unique?”, “How are you special?” and be very quick to answer when asked: “What are your flaws?”. We are not taught to embrace our differences in a positive way, nobody really shows us how we might discover the many wonderful ways in which we are unique and how we might bring these into our lives as our singular creative gift.
We seem to be so eager to integrate in society that we forget about all those things which set us apart in a good way. We are so busy “fixing” whatever we believe is wrong with us that we become blind to our talents, qualities, assets we might use to lead happier, more fulfilled lives.
Just as the parents Solomon writes about in his book have learnt to look at their children and celebrate their difference, to search for the hidden strength behind the imperfection, even when that seems very hard to do, so could we, each of us, start asking ourselves: “What qualities lie hidden beneath my flaws?” and “What is my unique creative gift?”.