Who are you?
A seemingly simple question made up of just three simple words.
Well, what is your answer?
Instinctively you’ll tell me the name your parents gave you, maybe the gender you were assigned at birth, or possibly the city, state, or country of which you were born. Depending on what you want me to think of you, you may even tell me what you do to earn money, or a title you obtained from a certain amount of education.
But really, who are you?
“To lose the thing that you think defines you, is the very thing that will teach you not just who you are, but who you’re not.”
Janine Shepherd’s answer is, “I am not my body”.
To give you context to this answer, Janine was an Australian olympic athlete at the age of 24. Her answer to , “who are you?” at that time would have pretty much been, “I am my body”, because everything she thought she was, her entire life, revolved around the capabilities of her body. That was, until the day when it was all taken away from her. Hit by a speeding utility truck during a routine training bike ride, she was left with a broken neck, a broken back in six places, five broken ribs on left side, a broken right arm, a broken collarbone, and several broken bones in her feet.
During the next six months of recovery in the hospital, Jeanne would not believe the doctors when they told her she may never walk again. It wasn’t until she was home, in a wheelchair, in a full plaster cast, unable to walk, that she hit “rock bottom” and finally realized her body was broken.
“The pain of holding on to who I thought I was was so great that it was untenable. And the only choice for me, I decided, was to let go and to trust life. So I let go.”
Jeanne has since become a commercial pilot (within a year of her accident!), an aerobatics flying instructor, the first female director of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the author of several books about her experiences. She couldn’t have pictured a more different life for herself, but believes she is a better person after the accident.
“The way I communicate with the world now, is not through my body, I think it’s through my heart.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ― Viktor E. Frankl
Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who lived through the Holocaust. He survived the most cruel, painful, and dehumanizing conditions yet after liberation, wrote a book about these experiences. He was a thought leader in existentialism, a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life according to philosophy basics.
He is thought to have coined the term, Sunday neurosis. This refers to a form of anxiety resulting from an awareness in some people of the emptiness of their lives once the working week is over. This arises from an existential vacuum, or feeling of meaninglessness, which is a common phenomenon and is characterized by the subjective state of boredom, apathy, and emptiness. — Yalom, Irvin D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy
IF EVERYTHING WAS TAKEN AWAY FROM YOU TODAY — your job, your titles, your possessions, your body, your freedom, ask yourself again, “WHO AM I?”
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love.”
Inspired from these exemplary tales, when we ask ourselves “Who am I?” the answer is simple. Love. I am love. You are love. We are love.
Be cautious in finding meaning outside of yourself. In Western culture today, we are often sold back things that we already possess, such as spirituality and love. We find meaning in our titles and possessions, but just as Janine Shepherd so eloquently put it, we often find out who really are when we lose these things that we thought defined us. Our jobs, our possessions, our partners, everything around us is impermanent. So, remember the answer to who we really are — love, and act on it.
P.S. Life is a party, and it’s B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bliss!) This is the mantra at Om the Go, because we want to inspire you to know that whatever you seek, (meaning, happiness, love, bliss) is already within each and every one of you. You just have to be quiet enough to hear it, still enough to feel it, and patient enough to see it. Getting on the mat helps! The path is the goal. Fall in love with the process of becoming the very best version of yourself.
Watch Janine share her full story on the TED stage here.