“Who” vs. “What” – A Key to Overcoming Adversity

I recounted in my blog, last week, the story of Elizabeth Smart, the 14-year-old girl kidnapped from her home in the middle of the night and held captive and abused daily for nine months before being freed by law enforcement and returned to her family.

“Who” More Than “What”

You might recall that I posed a question at the end of the article: What enabled Elizabeth to overcome this horrible experience and move forward with her life? A number of you emailed me with some very thoughtful responses. Thank you. And I also appreciated a comment left on my webpage from Judy Sabah: “The reason Elizabeth Smart is able to overcome this trauma is that she knows WHO she is. She is not defined by WHAT happens to her. From my perspective, that is the biggest project in each of our lives, to remember WHO we are no matter WHAT others do.”

I love that concept. Elizabeth was not defined by WHAT happened to her because she knows WHO she is.

Elizabeth was treated in a cruel and demeaning way. She was forced to live a life-style and commit acts which must have been terrifying and repugnant, a violation of her personhood and deepest values. Yet she survived and even overcame these experiences because, as Judy, points out, her “who” was bigger than her “what.”

A Grounded Identity

I believe that deep inside, Elizabeth had a knowledge of who she is. Of course, I’ve never had a conversation with Elizabeth and so I’m taking a little liberty here. But, based on what we know about how she has moved on with her life, I would think that her identity was likely grounded in such beliefs as the following: “I am a child of God.”  “He created me in his likeness.” “He cares about what is happening to me. “I am a lovable person.” “I don’t deserve this.” “What is happening to me matters to lots of people.” “My parents are devastated and trying desperately to find me.” “I’m so blessed.” “I’ll survive.” “I’m strong.” “No one can take that from me.” “That’s who I am.” “I can choose.” “I have hope.” “I can heal from this.” “This won’t define me.”

In no way do I want to minimize the traumatic, even devastating nature of Elizabeth’s experience. No doubt there were moments of untold despair, grief and suffering. And yet, these moments fail to capture the whole story. More importantly, they fail to capture the most important story within her story.

Elizabeth talked to herself about what was happening. Some of that talk came from and reflected her moments of despair. Yet she was resilient. Other talk, in fact the more important talk, came from her deepest sense of who she is, her goodness, her hope, her love, her strength.

Which brings me back to the last part of Judy’s statement. “The biggest project of our lives is to remember WHO we are no matter WHAT others do.”

The truth is that the “what’s” of life happen to all of us. We all have the opportunity to learn the same lessons that Elizabeth learned (and undoubtedly continues to learn). It is just that these opportunities are more poignant (even heart-wrenching) for some than others.

But, for all of us, as we journey through life, there abides a deep and unspoken question–what is bigger the “what’s” or the “who?”

Please weigh in. Share your thoughts about the Elizabeth Smart story or the “what’s” and the “who” of your life.



  1. Karen Rieth

    I love the idea of remembering that who we are can help us overcome the adversity thst life brings us. I’m going to add the phrase “let the who outweigh the what” to my list every morning. Thank you!

    • Roger Allen

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for the comment and I’m glad the idea was helpful. I’d love to hear your experiences as you let the who outweigh the what.

  2. tephabond

    Very good blog you have here but I was curious about if you knew
    of any forums that cover the same topics talked about here?
    I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get
    feedback from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest.
    If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks a

    • Roger Allen

      I’m not aware of a forum, right off hand but am sure they are out there, if you google the topic and look through several links. I hope, in the future, to have a forum. I’d love to interact more with my readers and give them an opportunity to do the same with each other. It has not been possible, in the past due to employment demands. That may change in the future. Roger


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