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Embracing otherness. When I first heard this theme, I thought, well, embracing otherness is embracing myself. And the journey to that place of understanding and acceptance has been an interesting one for me, and it's given me an insight into the whole notion of self, which I think is worth sharing with you today.
We each have a self, but I don't think that we're born with one. You know how newborn babies believe they're part of everything; they're not separate? Well that fundamental sense of oneness is lost on us very quickly. It's like that initial stage is over -- oneness: infancy, unformed, primitive. It's no longer valid or real. What is real is separateness, and at some point in early babyhood, the idea of self starts to form. Our little portion of oneness is given a name, is told all kinds of things about itself, and these details, opinions and ideas become facts, which go towards building ourselves, our identity. And that self becomes the vehicle for navigating our social world. But the self is a projection based on other people's projections. Is it who we really are? Or who we really want to be, or should be?
So this whole interaction with self and identity was a very difficult one for me growing up. The self that I attempted to take out into the world was rejected over and over again. And my panic at not having a self that fit, and the confusion that came from my self being rejected, created anxiety, shame and hopelessness, which kind of defined me for a long time. But in retrospect, the destruction of my self was so repetitive that I started to see a pattern. The self changed, got affected, broken, destroyed, but another one would evolve -- sometimes stronger, sometimes hateful, sometimes not wanting to be there at all. The self was not constant. And how many times would my self have to die before I realized that it was never alive in the first place?
I grew up on the coast of England in the '70s. My dad is white from Cornwall, and my mom is black from Zimbabwe. Even the idea of us as a family was challenging to most people. But nature had its wicked way, and brown babies were born. But from about the age of five, I was aware that I didn't fit. I was the black atheist kid in the all-white Catholic school run by nuns. I was an anomaly, and my self was rooting around for definition and trying to plug in. Because the self likes to fit, to see itself replicated, to belong. That confirms its existence and its importance. And it is important. It has an extremely important function. Without it, we literally can't interface with others. We can't hatch plans and climb that stairway of popularity, of success. But my skin color wasn't right. My hair wasn't right. My history wasn't right. My self became defined by otherness, which meant that, in that social world, I didn't really exist. And I was "other" before being anything else -- even before being a girl. I was a noticeable nobody.
Another world was opening up around this time: performance and dancing. That nagging dread of self-hood didn't exist when I was dancing. I'd literally lose myself. And I was a really good dancer. I would put all my emotional expression into my dancing. I could be in the movement in a way that I wasn't able to be in my real life, in myself.
And at 16, I stumbled across another opportunity, and I earned my first acting role in a film. I can hardly find the words to describe the peace I felt when I was acting. My dysfunctional self could actually plug in to another self, not my own, and it felt so good. It was the first time that I existed inside a fully-functioning self -- one that I controlled, that I steered, that I gave life to. But the shooting day would end, and I'd return to my gnarly, awkward self.
By 19, I was a fully-fledged movie actor, but still searching for definition. I applied to read anthropology at university. Dr. Phyllis Lee gave me my interview, and she asked me, "How would you define race?" Well, I thought I had the answer to that one, and I said, "Skin color." "So biology, genetics?" she said. "Because, Thandie, that's not accurate. Because there's actually more genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a black Ugandan than there is between a black Kenyan and, say, a white Norwegian. Because we all stem from Africa. So in Africa, there's been more time to create genetic diversity." In other words, race has no basis in biological or scientific fact. On the one hand, result. Right? On the other hand, my definition of self just lost a huge chunk of its credibility. But what was credible, what is biological and scientific fact, is that we all stem from Africa -- in fact, from a woman called Mitochondrial Eve who lived 160,000 years ago. And race is an illegitimate concept which our selves have created based on fear and ignorance.
Strangely, these revelations didn't cure my low self-esteem, that feeling of otherness. My desire to disappear was still very powerful. I had a degree from Cambridge; I had a thriving career, but my self was a car crash, and I wound up with bulimia and on a therapist's couch. And of course I did. I still believed my self was all I was. I still valued self-worth above all other worth, and what was there to suggest otherwise? We've created entire value systems and a physical reality to support the worth of self. Look at the industry for self-image and the jobs it creates, the revenue it turns over. We'd be right in assuming that the self is an actual living thing. But it's not. It's a projection which our clever brains create in order to cheat ourselves from the reality of death.
But there is something that can give the self ultimate and infinite connection -- and that thing is oneness, our essence. The self's struggle for authenticity and definition will never end unless it's connected to its creator -- to you and to me. And that can happen with awareness -- awareness of the reality of oneness and the projection of self-hood. For a start, we can think about all the times when we do lose ourselves. It happens when I dance, when I'm acting. I'm earthed in my essence, and my self is suspended. In those moments, I'm connected to everything -- the ground, the air, the sounds, the energy from the audience. All my senses are alert and alive in much the same way as an infant might feel -- that feeling of oneness.
And when I'm acting a role, I inhabit another self, and I give it life for awhile, because when the self is suspended so is divisiveness and judgment. And I've played everything from a vengeful ghost in the time of slavery to Secretary of State in 2004. And no matter how other these selves might be, they're all related in me. And I honestly believe the key to my success as an actor and my progress as a person has been the very lack of self that used to make me feel so anxious and insecure. I always wondered why I could feel others' pain so deeply, why I could recognize the somebody in the nobody. It's because I didn't have a self to get in the way. I thought I lacked substance, and the fact that I could feel others' meant that I had nothing of myself to feel. The thing that was a source of shame was actually a source of enlightenment.
And when I realized and really understood that my self is a projection and that it has a function, a funny thing happened. I stopped giving it so much authority. I give it its due. I take it to therapy. I've become very familiar with its dysfunctional behavior. But I'm not ashamed of my self. In fact, I respect my self and its function. And over time and with practice, I've tried to live more and more from my essence. And if you can do that, incredible things happen.
I was in Congo in February, dancing and celebrating with women who've survived the destruction of their selves in literally unthinkable ways -- destroyed because other brutalized, psychopathic selves all over that beautiful land are fueling our selves' addiction to iPods, Pads, and bling, which further disconnect ourselves from ever feeling their pain, their suffering, their death. Because, hey, if we're all living in ourselves and mistaking it for life, then we're devaluing and desensitizing life. And in that disconnected state, yeah, we can build factory farms with no windows, destroy marine life and use rape as a weapon of war. So here's a note to self: The cracks have started to show in our constructed world, and oceans will continue to surge through the cracks, and oil and blood, rivers of it.
Crucially, we haven't been figuring out how to live in oneness with the Earth and every other living thing. We've just been insanely trying to figure out how to live with each other -- billions of each other. Only we're not living with each other; our crazy selves are living with each other and perpetuating an epidemic of disconnection.
Let's live with each other and take it a breath at a time. If we can get under that heavy self, light a torch of awareness, and find our essence, our connection to the infinite and every other living thing. We knew it from the day we were born. Let's not be freaked out by our bountiful nothingness. It's more a reality than the ones our selves have created. Imagine what kind of existence we can have if we honor inevitable death of self, appreciate the privilege of life and marvel at what comes next. Simple awareness is where it begins.
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Actor Thandie Newton tells the story of finding her "otherness" -- first, as a child growing up in two distinct cultures, and then as an actor playing with many different selves. A warm, wise talk, fresh from stage at TEDGlobal 2011.
Swinging from Hollywood blockbusters to sensitive indie films, Thandie Newton brings thoughtfulness and delicate beauty to her work. Full bio »