Because Biography is not Identity: From what we do to who we are…

Posted by on Jun 25, 2023 in Blog | 3 comments

close up of pink tulips in the garden

In a throw away line in a podcast shortly before his sudden death, philosopher-poet-theologian John O’Donohue observes that, “biography is not identity.” Think about it. We spend so much time trying to impress people about what we do, or the achievements we can list on our CV, and far too little time focusing on the inner landscape of our life. In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks differentiates between what he calls resume virtues and eulogy virtues . The first focuses on the virtues that leave people saying “wow, I’ll employ you”, the second on what we hope people will remember about us after our death. We often spend most of our energy accumulating resume virtues, even though if pressed, we would acknowledge it’s the eulogy virtues that matter more.

What does it mean to say “biography is not identity”?

It’s the reminder that I am more than the list of things I have done. While what I do matters, who I am matters more. We don’t all start at the same point. Some have unreasonable hurdles blocking their pathway to life. Their biography might be thin. But that does not mean there is not much more to them.

Let me tell you about John – surname unknown to me – who worked in the garden of a church I pastored during the apartheid era in South Africa. A black South African, the unfairness of the apartheid regime meant he had never learnt to read or write. He was a fair amount older than me, and this was a long time ago, so I imagine he is no longer alive. His biography would have read: Name: John. Surname: Unknown. Occupation: Casual gardener. Promotions: Nil. Outstanding achievements: Nil. Summary: Did what he could to keep food on the table for his family.

But that is not who John was. Let me tell you what I saw in John. He might not have been able to read or write, but my, he had an amazing memory. If anyone popped along to the church while I was out, he would get their details, storing them carefully in his head, for he did not know how to write them down. His memory was astonishing. “Mrs Jacobs came,” he would say. “Please phone her before 6pm on 372578. Mr Otto also stopped by. Said it wasn’t important but if you wanted to call you can get him after 8pm on 392852.”

He might have been a casual gardener, but there was an artist inside of him. Asked to mow the lawns and keep the garden weed free, he often suggested new layouts for the beds. He advised us to put some benches under a shady tree so people could come and sit quietly, think and pray. Under his care, the grounds became a delight. He took pride in his work – and so he should have, because he created spaces of beauty, a little oasis of calm in the turbulent South Africa of that time.

What was the landscape of his soul? I don’t know. He had every right to be bitter – for he was a man of obvious natural ability, held back by a system that saw only the colour of his skin, and defined him as a non-participant because of that. Was he bitter? No, I never sensed even an iota of it. And self pity? Never. He had an air of quiet dignity. Was he happy? I think so. He threw himself into each day and performed its tasks to the best of his ability. Was he beaten by the apartheid system – simply a pale shadow of what he could have been? To be clear, that system was draconian in its unfairness – but I don’t think it beat him, I think he beat it. Day after day he turned up and did good and made the world a better place. I never saw him flustered or angry. I saw contentment and a deep inner peace. I was the one who stepped up to the pulpit each week, but I often wondered if he didn’t have more to teach. Biography is not identity. Deep in his inner being he was a good man, and a free man. He shaped beautiful things, and I think that was because he was beautiful inside.

Some of us get to do exciting things. Doors open for us, and the potential inside is able to bubble outwards. For others, door after door remains closed. Many seem to be born out of time – the injustices of history aimed directly at them. For others it is not injustice, but simply the way it is. We might be talented, but not quite talented enough to achieve anything of serious note. Or health may not be our friend, or family responsibilities might dominate our landscape. What we do might have limited outlets. But who we are… ah, that’s a different story.

Whatever your biography, why not cultivate the inner landscape of your soul. Perhaps a work of great beauty is underway…

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by Kevin Burnell on

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  1. Hi Brian, We have our youngest daughter living in Perth and four grandchildren living there. Blessings Kathy and Paul

    • Good to hear from you Kathy. Let us know when you and Paul visit.

      • Sure will. They live in Yanchep. We are paying for the oldest grandaughter Kyana to go to a Christian school as they all had trouble settling in after moving from the Gold coast. Been there about a year now.Carlin fly in fly out so quite difficult with no family there sometimes but she gets through it. Hope all is well with your family. Mt Roskill Baptist was never the same when you left. We are now with a group that broke away from the Anglican church. Our minister has a good sense of humour and a group of us rebels. Auckland Anglican mission under Gafcon and Bishop Jay Behan.

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