A Personal Perspective
By Callum Greenwood
Working out who we are is never easy. In a world where all of our time and attention is spent navigating one pressing issue or another, we sometimes don’t give ourselves the time to catch up and reconcile who we think we are, with who the weight of our experience has made us.
I find this relationship difficult to balance sometimes because I’m never sure if I am who I am, or if I am who I am because of how my experiences have challenged me to engage with myself and others. Our self-reflections can often change on a day-to-day basis, and many of our friends, family and associates are likely to have their own unique interpretation of who we are too.
Do I trust in and know that empathy is one of my core values, because it inherently exists there, because I was born this way? Or does it learn and grow within me, because of the depth of suffering I have witnessed and experienced?
Do I find space and time for those around me despite this suffering because I know how difficult it is to face it alone and unsupported?
Do I recognise in those considered wretched, the holes smashed in the walls of the houses they grew up in by fists that were supposed to protect, that have twisted them into their current state?
Spending a lifetime helping others manage their pain and suffering, taught me how to keep patiently trying, when my own body let me down.
Some people say if you want to know what you value, learn from what presses you out of shape. I know I prize fairness, because of how heavily I feel the weight of unfairness is and how hard I fight against things that are unfair.
I know that humour is the best vehicle for the communication of pain. It is the deep uncontrollable laughter of my best friend that sticks in my memory and not her death.
It’s the laughter in the car at a joke in poor taste, after my doctor tells me I’ll be in pain for the rest of my life.
It’s hearing and witnessing the terrible hatred of the world in the face of people who are different and still holding my head high.
I know that I stand up in courage for myself, by helping others to stand.
I know that my curiosity. My desire to understand the unknown. The part of me that is constantly pushing to learn more, to reach out, to understand everything. Would be the part that helped to save me.
If we were to ask a psychologist, I’m sure some would say that our core values come from genetic predispositions and our childhood experiences and remain with us for life. They say that our values react and interact differently at various stages of our lives depending on how well our needs are being met by the lives we find ourselves in.
So if our values never really change, why aren’t we all perfect versions of ourselves? I think this has a lot to do with how we experience pain and suffering throughout life. From my own personal experience. Pain ruined my life. It obscured and covered every part of me. It made me bitter, angry, and consumed by feelings of worthlessness.
Reconnecting with your values, is reconnecting with yourself. But it is not easy. The task can seem pointless and insurmountable. Why should I bother trying to understand who I am, when all I am now is pain?
When every time I reached out for help, I was ignored, or told to suck it up, or the worst one… “there’s nothing more we can do for you”. The most powerful acts of courage in my life have come from continuing to reach out, continuing to try, when everything else in me, just wanted to make the pain stop.
I was very fortunate to be connected through a mutual friend to someone who was the first person I have told my story to in its entirety. This is someone who recognised how difficult something like this is to deal with all at once. He helped me work through the my31Practises approach and it really helped me to break things down and work them out into more manageable pieces.
By breaking down each of my values into several statements about who I am and what I value. I was able to have gentle self-made reminders every day to be who I think I am and live that value in each of my interactions that day.
One thing I know for sure, growth and understanding of any kind need to be handled gently, they can be crushed by too much suffering. Small doses are great for building our identity and expanding our abilities for compassion and understanding. But too much, and it becomes hard to hold onto who we are.
For a long time I let my own pain reduce all ideas of self, I let people’s voices get in my head, let them tell me, I didn’t matter, my pain didn’t matter, my life didn’t matter.
My life improved dramatically when I started letting the right people in, working with people to understand myself better and when I found the ability to think about other smaller things, rather than just pain 24/7.
If you’re struggling to find out who you are and what you value, find the friction. Breathe deeply and let your mind come to that place of discomfort, don’t run from it. Let it teach you what parts of yourself are going unattended and let your greatest pains, be your greatest teachers. I promise, once you start leaning into the friction rather than pulling away, life gets much easier to manage.
I was able to find myself again in the practise of small self-set daily tasks, ones that challenge me to see if I am really living my values or just think I am. These practises let me reconnect with the person I think I am and will continue to drive me to be the person I want to be.
And the greatest part about trying to understand and live your values is that there always seems to be another layer of unfoldment, more space to move and expand into as we get to know ourselves in a deeper and more meaningful way.
About the Author
Cal Greenwood taught at schools and universities in China, before sustaining a life altering injury. He is currently exploring philosophy and values in the context of pain management and personal development.