Who Do You Think You Are?

“Who are you?” 

“I am George,” I replied awkwardly, trying to figure out where this was going.

“Oh yea, who’s that?” she asked facetiously.

Pausing for a moment to think, I smiled as it hit me.

‘’Well, that’s what they call me,” I answered.

I resolved from then on to say, “my name is George” and not “I am George.”

So many people are conditioned to believe that they are what they do; the doctor, the lawyer, the politician, the soldier and behave and think in accordance with society’s expected norms for those occupations. Are you really a lawyer or do you just practise law? Are you an eater of food or do you eat? Sometimes, we become consumed by the stories that we tell ourselves; these dramas in which we are usually either the hero of a success story or the victim of a sad one. 

How about the people who overly identify with their talent, looks, or station in life. The truth is that none of us chose any of this. Let’s face it, there are strange forces at work beyond our control. We had no choice in whether we were born into a life of luxury as the scion of a banking dynasty or a short life of misery as an exploited factory worker in Bangladesh. 

Let’s face it, the unique talents that we have been blessed with, our gender, our appearance—however attractive or ugly—are all the result of blind luck. Many religions have attempted to explain this, but it never ceases to amaze me how life can be so unfair. 

True humour begins when we cease to take ourselves seriously, and if you do, then the joke is on you. This notion brings psychopaths, cult leaders and celebrity meltdowns to mind; Michael Jackson, Britney Spears. Stay tuned, the Justin Bieber implosion will soon be televised and epic.

A good friend of mine, who I won’t name here, was notorious for taking himself way too seriously. His ego would fill up the whole room. He had achieved everything possible in sport. He was an Olympic and World Champion swimmer and defined himself by his heroic accomplishments in the pool. He deeply identified with the role of national hero and sporting superstar. For a while it worked for him, and to a certain extent this confidence helped his performances in the pool. However after his retirement from the sport, this friend fell on some very dark days of deep depression. Who he defined himself as no longer existed. He was lost and couldn’t cope with the new definition of “has been” and is still reeling.

I can relate to being a has been. Back in 2004, right after a streak of winning the NCAA Championships, breaking the world record and winning an Olympic medal in the 200m Individual Medley, I suffered catastrophic knee injury that would prohibit me from ever competing in this pet event that I had owned for years. I tore my posterior cruciate ligament in my left knee, and it would be eight years before I could manage any form of breaststroke kick again. It was obvious to me that no matter how I tried to improve my other three strokes, I would never be as good at the 200 IM as I once was. I remember the sadness when it dawned on me, looking up at the bright lights above a surgeon’s examination table, that I was now a “has been.” 

Fortunately, unlike many of my peers I never overly identified as a swimmer, far less a swimming champion. Swimming was always just something I did, never who I was. With that outlook I was able to weather the storm and embrace the challenge of mastering the sprint events.

Why we do something is infinitely more important than what we do. The why is the true expression of the self and not the what. It’s our sense of purpose that also provides the satisfaction. Why we do choose to do something says more about us than what we chose to do.