Embracing Otherness

My journey from being an uncomfortably different child to the woman I am today.

We each have a Self, but I don’t think we’re born with one. Newborn babies believe that they’re part of everything, that they’re not separate. That fundamental sense of oneness becomes lost as we get older. At some point in early childhood our little portion of oneness is given a name, it’s told all kinds of things about its Self. These details and experiences become facts that build our identity, our Self.

But the Self is a projection, made up of other people’s projections. Is it who we really are, or who we really want to be? Is it who we should be?

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.

From about the age of 5, 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. 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 the Self is important. It has an extremely important function. Without it, we can’t interface with others. We can’t hatch plans and climb that stairway of popularity and 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 for me around this time: the world of performance and dancing. That nagging dread of Self-hood didn’t exist when I was dancing. I’d virtually 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 my Self.

Then at 16 years old, I stumbled into 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 into another Self, and although it was not my own, 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 full-fledged movie actor, but still searching for definition. I applied to study anthropology at university. Dr. Phyllis Lee gave me my entrance interview, and she asked me, “How would you define race?”

Well, I thought I had the answer to that, and I said, “Skin color.”

“So biology, genetics? Because, Thandie, that’s not accurate,” Dr. Lee said. “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. That’s because we all stem from Africa. 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 this was fantastic, life-changing information. On the other hand, society’s definition of my Self had just lost a huge chunk of its credibility. But what is 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 that our Selves have created based on fear and ignorance.

Strangely, these revelations didn’t cure my low self-esteem. That feeling of otherness and my desire to disappear were still very powerful. I had a degree from Cambridge and a thriving acting career, but my Self was a car crash. I wound up with bulimia and on a therapist’s couch. 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—fashion, beauty, fitness, psychotherapy, plastic surgery—and the jobs it creates, the revenue it turns over. We spend so much time, energy, and money animating this projection of Self that we’d be right in assuming that the Self is an actual living thing. But it’s not; it’s a projection that our clever brains create in order to cheat ourselves from the reality of death.

But there is something that can give the Self an 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—and by creator I mean you ... and in my case, 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 our Selves. For me, it happens when I dance and 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 audience’s energy. 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. I’ve played everything from a vengeful ghost in the time of slavery to secretary of state in the year 2004. Because when the Self is suspended, so are divisiveness and judgment. 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.

When I 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 now give it its due. I take it to therapy, where 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.

If we can all do that, incredible things will happen. If we can get under our heavy Selves, light a torch of awareness, and find our essence; our connection to the infinite and every other living thing. We knew it from the moment we were born. Let’s not get freaked out by our bountiful nothingness, it’s more a reality than the one our Selves has created. Imagine what kind of existence we can have if we honor the inevitable death of Self, appreciate the privilege of life, and marvel at what comes next. Simple awareness is where it begins.

Thandie Newton is an English actress who has appeared in dozens of British and American films, including Mission: Impossible II, Crash, and W. She was a TEDGlobal 2011 speaker.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson / Courtesy of TED

The Stuff of Life

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