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Relatively Speaking: Who am I?


There was a special tree my friends and I would climb when I was about eight years old. Its lowest branches grew out of its trunk about four feet off the ground and proceeded to extend horizontally for about eight feet before rising up. The branches were wide enough that we could crawl on hands and knees across the limbs to reach the spot where the branch split into two, creating a crook that one could nestle in, safe and snug, while chewing on an apple. The tree’s bark, the color of cinnamon, could be easily peeled into thin strips, revealing a smoother core. But the tree never seemed to mind. It was in the nature of the tree to be peeled and climbed to the delight of young boys.

Decades pass. I visit my home town and drive by that tree. Still there!A feeling of joy leaps into my heart. That tree had been a sturdy ship, allowing me to venture forth in all kinds of directions for some sort of seaworthy adventure, always having a secure crow’s nest to roost upon where I could ponder the mysteries of life or the sweetness of an apple. And when I look back on my life’s journeys I see the many branches my life has taken, all the adventures I have pursued, and the safe roosting places where I paused. Unknown to me, the tree’s spirit had been constantly whispering to my spirit, preparing it for my life’s upcoming adventures, teaching me to both explore and to roost; and to peel away my hard edges to reveal my soul’s true purpose.

The joy I feel when I see that tree five decades later tells me I am still that boy! But I am older, too.

So, who am I ?

I am a teenager wishing I was a Beatle. My name happens to be Paul. My brother is actually named John and my dad happens to be named George. Mom, alas, is not named Ringo but Frances. John, Paul, George, and Frances. But I play guitar and sing every Beatle song, always trying to imitate Paul McCartney instead of being pleased with my own voice. It is one of the ironies of our early stages of development that we strive to imitate someone we are notso that one day we might become who we are. As an adult I play Beatle songs for all my kids. One day a Beatle song comes on the radio and my three year old daughter exclaims “That’s Daddy!” My wish has come true. For a brief moment I am Paul McCartney. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

But who am I, really?

I am browsing at the bookstore. I hear someone behind me gasping, as if just having run a hard mile. I turn and see an old woman. She wears a scowl on her face, a face that also wears years of some kind of harshness either received or doled out--probably both. She scans the store as if searching for someone, clearly aggravated. Why is her breathing so bad?. Emphysema? Maybe. But I can’t relate to emphysema. A lifelong smoker? I can’t relate. Whomever she is searching for will be judged by her to be inconsiderate and rude for wandering off. And my spirit whispers “You can relate.”I can’t relate. Until I realize I am judging her for being judgmental so in fact she and I do have something in common. I open my heart. I can’t relate to her emphysema but I imagine how exhausting it must be for her to simply breathe. I can relate to exhaustion. And she probably had friends or family who have passed on. I can relate. So in some ways she is me, and I am her. “You can relate…”

Who am I?

I am in New York City. Walking to the conference center each morning I pass the same homeless man. He seems to be hallucinating. His fingers move as they might if he were speaking. Except he speaks to no one. His unexpressed thoughts animate his fingers. He never makes eye contact with passers-by. His countenance is serious; the kind of expression one might have in a hospital room sitting beside a loved one who is about to die. Or the seriousness of a quantum physicist straining to find the elusive equation that finally proves a Theory of Everything. To which shore the mind of this homeless man sails, I can’t tell.

Still my spirit whispers “You can relate.”

How can I relate to this man whose aura has a “Stay Away!” sign attached to it? His odd behavior calls attention to himself while he attempts to be invisible--a contradiction. Until I think of times I am with others but wish to be invisible; of times I say “Yes” when I want to say “No”, the authentic “me” hiding in full view.

And then one day while driving, my now adult daughter asks me who I’m speaking to.

“To no one,” I reply, perplexed.

“You were moving your fingers like you do when you are speaking. So you were imagining having a conversation with someone. Who were you speaking to?”

“I was practicing a talk I’ll be giving soon,” I say sheepishly. And then the homeless man comes to mind and my spirit whispers yet again, “You can relate.”

I can even relate to the stream that splashes over rocks, content with its own special kind of music, content to be what it is and no more—until it draws closer to the river and yearns to merge with something bigger. “You can relate.” And I can relate to the river when it eventually spies the ocean up ahead. Will it yearn to be something it is not so it can become what it is meant to be? “You can relate…”

Who am I?

And I think about having raised children with my wife, we being a sturdy place for them to grow; a welcome harbor for them to come back to after some journey; of how, when they were small, they would sit atop my shoulders--a place to roost and see the world from a higher perspective; how as youngsters they climbed and crawled over my limbs; how I am “still there” after many years; how their frolicking peeled away my outer “busy with work” skin to reveal the smoother me underneath;

And I suddenly realize…that I amthat tree I once climbed! And I amthat woman who cannot breathe, that homeless man who speaks with his fingers; that stream that yearns to merge with the river, and that river that has heard talk of some distant ocean but has yet to encounter it.

And, as is the way of things mystical, the spirit of the tree still whispers to the spirit within me; about journeys and adventures still to come; about people both strange and familiar; strangers both harsh and kind; rivers and streams both cold and comforting that continually seek something that is unseen but felt to be real.

It still whispers...


Dr. Paul Coleman is a psychologist, motivational speaker, and author of thirteen books including his newest “Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces” ( He has appeared on numerous televisions shows such as Oprah, Today, and Geraldo and has been interviewed on hundreds of radio stations. He can be reached at


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