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Who not what

Caught behind a truck in Christchurch New Zealand and the message caught my eye!

I was delivering a hire car back to Christchurch airport several years ago and was frustrated as I was caught behind a truck. At a set of traffic lights my eye noticed the message on the back of the truck.

“Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to slide in side-ways, totally worn-out, yelling ‘holy shit’ …..what a ride!”

I think I am a very slow learner. It has taken me a lifetime to realise that ultimately it is WHO we are as a person – who we are as community – that really matters and not so much what we do or have. Many years ago I was seeing a counsellor and was all confused about some big life decisions that I had to make. Should I do this or should I do that – I was going backwards and forwards, oscillating between one option or the other. I was so confused. In the midst of it all the counsellor said, “You are a goose!” Taken aback I said, “What do you mean?” “You’re asking the wrong question Damien!” replied the counsellor.

I was continually asking questions that were focusing on the ‘what’ of my life. What role will I play? What job will I do? What form of commitment will I make? My friend simply said, “Damien keep on asking yourself – who are you and who do you wish to be – that is ultimately all that matters. If you ask yourself this and each day get up and seek to be a better YOU – a better WHO – then the what questions will take care of themselves.”

I often find myself giving input to groups of young adults around the age of 17 as they begin to take on leadership roles within schools. I often say, “The key to great leadership is simple; to be the best ME that I can be!” If I can become my best me and you become the best YOU then we will become the best US and the world will be a happier place. It all sounds so simple and in one way it is. Following up my blog “the power of five second choices” – life is quite simple. Each day I am called to get up and become the best ME I can be. That sounds so easy but I find it so difficult as I go into comparison of self with others, allowing my ego to run rampant, living in the past or the future and not the present moment of NOW. So when I break it down and make heaps of small five second choices to be the best ME in this situation and this encounter and this moment and this awareness and more – then I will grow into the WHO, the best WHO I can be.

And I’m not talking perfection. I’m not talking the perfect me – the perfect you – but rather the best, human, fragile, broken, fallible, feet of clay ME and you. As I have said several times now I have never taught a young person who needed me to be perfect. But they needed me and longed for me to be faithful, real, humble, authentic and there!

Can you think of a time in your life when you focused too much on the ‘what’ of the issue confronting you and not on ‘who’ you want to be in and through it? What lesson did you learn from this time?

A great example of this who – what balance would be Lucas Patchett and Nick Marchesi the founders of the Orange Sky movement. Orange Sky is a community of people throughout Australia and New Zealand who build community with homeless people and who provide a mobile laundry and shower service for the homeless. What Lucas and Nick and their many volunteers do is fantastic. But what makes it the inspiration that it is is the WHO that Lucas and Nick bring to what they do. Right from the start Lucas and Nick have been insistent that the laundry and shower service must be built on respect filled, reciprocal relationship. If you ever listen to Lucas and Nick give an address at a dinner or something they constant refer to “our friends on the street”, “sharing story”, “building relationship” and more. Their brilliant WHAT flows deeply from who they are.

Lucas Patchett, Conor Finn and Nick Marchesi – all three have brought the depth of their ‘who’ to what they do with vulnerable people.


The whats of our lives are important. Our career, our business, our CV, our home are all wonderful things. But whats without an authentic WHO behind them are hollow and shallow. How many great movie stars or great musicians or great anything for that matter have we all seen who come crashing down with substance abuse, with infidelity, with suicide! How sad. When the focus is on the what – the thing – often as an end in itself we will finish up lonely. Our whats do NOT define who we are.

Think of pretty well anyone that you admire. They will often have great ‘whats’! Nelson Mandela was President of South Africa, Gandhi was the leader of one of the world’s greatest non-violence movements, Oskar Schindler saved thousands of Polish-German Jews from the holocaust, Teresa of Kolkata spent her life helping the poor on the streets of her city find dignity, Rosa Parks challenged racial prejudice in America and Florence Nightingale gave birth to a whole new way of looking at nursing. But while each of these are famous for what they did – it was ultimately based upon the person they were – their WHO.


As I have shared before my father Frank was a New Zealander. Kiwis have a special word MANA from the Maori people. Mana means integrity, courage, honesty. There is a powerful movie, “Once were warriors” and this movie tells the story of a family living in the poor areas of South Auckland. The father Jake is a tough, at times violent, man’s man. The mother Beth is the ever faithful, forgiving, accepting figure who keeps the family together in the face of violence and abuse. At one point the daughter is sexually abused by one of Jake’s mates and Beth confronts both Jake and his mate. The movie concludes in the most powerful of ways as Beth comes up to Jake who after bashing his mate thinks it will all be OK again back in the family home. Beth looks Jake in the eye and says,

“Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything.”

Jake has spent his life clinging to the whats of his life as gang member, tough guy, fighter, hard drinker and more. Beth walks away, not turning around to address Jake’s pleading for her to stay with him. She walks away noble and free – she claims her ‘who’ at the deepest level.

The whats of our life need to flow from our who, stretch it, reflect it, affirm it and deepen it. The danger is that in a world that is so materialistic we can focus entirely on the what. Building up possessions as an end in themselves, surrounding self with luxury, focusing on titles and power focused networks can all mean that underneath we lack a confidence, a belief in our WHO.

There is something truly beautiful and empowering when we meet someone who is totally at home in their sense of self; their who. These people have a presence about them, a freedom and no arrogance.

The invitation is to focus on who we are and who we wish to grow to be. When this happens, when this is our focus then the supporting whats of our life will flow naturally. I was once the school counsellor at a large school. I brought my sense of self to the role, I brought the wisdom of my journey, I brought the empathy and listening skills taught to me by my parents and those who have loved me. As I got into the role I was very aware that I needed to grow my skills in the counselling sphere so I enrolled in a Masters in Counselling. This ‘what’ empowered and stretched the who I brought into the counselling space.

I have had the privilege to know some people with high profiles. Edwina Gateley is an extraordinary English woman who for many years has lived and worked in solidarity with women living on the streets of American cities – especially Chicago. John Eales is a former Australian Rugby Captain and John Buchanan a former Australian Cricket Coach. Wayne Bennett is one of Australia’s most successful Rugby League coaches and Rohan Lund has been the CEO of some of Australia’s largest companies. But Rohan, Edwina, John, Wayne and John would all know that it has ultimately been who they are as people that has led to their success, their ability to influence their sphere of ‘power and control’ and their ability to harness their gifts for the common good.

Not for one minute would any of these people claim to be perfect and that their daily life does not have its share of mistakes. In fact, the ‘at home-ness’ with your fallibility is part of who-ness. It is not about being perfect. It is an authentic, humble, walking of life’s journey knowing that who you are in your ordinary day to day and also deepest ‘best self’ is your unique and special contribution to our world. What a gift!

Our struggles, our efforts to improve, our generous giving – all of this grow our WHO; our sense of who we are – our innate dignity. This engagement with our who is an ordinary, humble space. It does not have bands playing nor fanfare, it is not in the public eye and is not debated in the public sphere. Our who is built on our small daily, ordinary decisions for love, for forgiveness, for acceptance and for generous giving so that the other – in all the forms that the other takes – will have life to the full.

The paradox of ‘who’ is that it is gained and grown and deepened through giving. Some of this giving is to self – giving self time, space, relaxation, rest, rejuvenation and more. But much of it is giving to the other; generously, humbly, naturally – with no sense of needing to be given to in return. My wonderful father used to say, “Friends don’t owe!” How true! And when we give – we receive, when we die to self – we find we are re-born in ways we would never expect, when we forgive and accept – our hearts grow and deepen and in our own unique way – we dance – in whatever form OUR dancing takes!


When on your journey have you experienced the ‘paradox’ referred to above – a situation where in ‘giving’ you actually received?

What in this blog have you agreed with and why? How has it linked to YOUR personal experience? What in this blog are you struggling with and why? How is YOUR personal experience different?

1 thought on “Who not what”

  1. So important! Thank you, Damien Warm regards, Chris

    E:, T: (Australia) 0490 669 336 Global Ecovillage Network Oceania and Asia: Gunnebah Retreat Centre:

    On Tue, 2 Jun 2020 at 13:46, Encounter the Heart wrote:

    > damienfprice posted: ” Caught behind a truck in Christchurch New Zealand > and the message caught my eye! I was delivering a hire car back to > Christchurch airport several years ago and was frustrated as I was caught > behind a truck. At a set of traffic lights my eye noticed th” >

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