Those who have had the privilege and joy of meeting and spending time with the much loved Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, will know that instead of focusing his interest on what it is you do in the world, he chooses to ask who you are instead. This is an enquiry few are ready to answer without mindful consideration.
For years I have been fascinated by how easily some fall into the trap of believing that they can take cover behind their title, position in business and society or bank balance. People seem to slip into succumbing to the illusion that these titles automatically buy particular rights with regard to how the world ought to respond to them.
While the outward achievements of many may very well deserve recognition and applause, and the allocated labels provide an element of societal context, these do not necessarily illustrate who a person is – or has become – on the inside.
I have lost count of how many times somebody who has moved ‘up the ladder’ in an organisation, in a community or even on the world stage, has conveniently forgotten that there was a time when we each knew who we were as individuals, as well as shared a collective sense of being ‘in it together’, working and helping to create a better future. In essence, we identified with the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Although one accepts that there are natural personal and professional branches off into different directions as life progresses, more so as choices are made that resonate intimately with each of where we are in our lives, what is less acceptable is how quickly the process can deviate from our once known sense of self.
My fascination and sometimes sadness, is how those who were once ‘one of us’ seem to have forgotten where they came from, as well as forgotten who shared, toiled, cried and rejoiced alongside them. On occasion the distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is so vast it begs the question as to whether they even recognise themselves in having actively pursued setting aside the whole, in preference for the ‘part’.
These ponderings inevitably lead back to the realisation that, in order to live the most purposeful life possible; our actions, choices, lifestyle and position need to flow from the essence of who we are – not what we do or the labels we wear.
In my experience, it is when we embrace who we are on the inside and avoid the trappings of living in the (mis)belief that we have evolved ‘beyond’ the path that led us to where we find ourselves, that we risk losing sight of what really matters.
Archbishop Tutu cuts to the chase in his recognition of the truth that, in the end, what we leave behind in the hearts, minds and memories of others is far less the ‘what’ of our lives than the ‘who’.
What will your answer be when asked to describe the unique person you are?