spinal-cord injury

Who Am I?

It’s now been 3 ½ years since my accident, and as time marches on, I’ve been trying to make sense of my new identity. My son’s girlfriend, Kate, has only ever known me in my chair. To her, and to everyone I meet from here on in, I can only ever be an old man in a wheelchair. Jeremy was 16, and Jacob 13, but at the time of the accident Lachlan was 10. When he emerges into adulthood, what memories will inform the image he has of his father?

This begs the question of what is meant by identity. In previous generations, identity was a familial and communal concept – we understood ourselves (and were understood by others) as being sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – and members of a tribe, a province, a kingdom, a religion. This was sometimes oppressive, as individuals were trapped and controlled by their genealogies. But if modernity has meant freedom from such control, it has also left us bereft of the meanings and values that direct our life. In the place of family, we have come to understand ourselves by what we do. When we meet someone, we don’t care about their last name or ask about their parents but, rather, we want to know what they do for a living, for a sport, for entertainment.

In my mind, then, I’ve been a Christian scholar/surfer – and I have always been proud of the juxtaposition. What we expect of an academic, especially one who teaches (boring and abstract) theology, is a tweed jacket, confused fashion sense (sadly true of me), and someone who prefers chess to sport (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Being the egoist that I am, I’ve always loved the fact surfing shattered that expectation; so sport was central to my self-understanding (as it is to my parents and brothers). More than that, my identity as father and husband was also informed by my physicality in performing these roles. While I was never a successful handyman, I was at least a “lover and a fighter” – by which I mean to say my manhood could not be divorced from my strength. I was Elly’s “muscle”, and my boys partner in adventure (a fact that ultimately proved my own undoing).

So who am I without these things?

Actually, I’m not without these things. As Phil Smith notes, “we create stories in order to understand who we are, and what we are, and how we are, in the world (P. Smith 2013, 5).” Narrative informs personal identity by expressing our perceptions of the past and present, and capturing our hopes, fears, and vision for the future. So in telling my story, I’m reminding myself of who I am, not so that I can get depressed about a lost self, but so that I can take control of today, and make tomorrow meaningful.

Kate (and maybe Lachlan) will know little of the scholar/surfer, but I can still be more than just an old man in a chair. Of course I am that, but that’s not who I am. Make sense of that if you can.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • David McLennan
    March 8, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Who is Shane Clifton? Same as he has always been Ephesians 2:10

  • Tanya Riches
    March 8, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    So true Shane, hey. All of us mix of our pasts, our present and our future hopes in our conceptions of our self. I guess that’s why they say if you want to truly hurt a people group, eradicate their history. I wish I could find that quote… well, If it helps, to us you’ll always be a surfer/theologian and now a stealth ninja in a chair.

  • Elly Clifton
    March 9, 2014 at 9:32 am

    They say that ‘if you truly want to hurt a people group…’ thing in the new movie about to come out called Monument Men. They are the ones who fought to protect precious artworks and historical artefacts from Hitler during WW2.
    Looks like a great film actually, I’m really looking forward to it – superb looking cast!

    Love you Shane, you do so well.

  • jaymcneill
    March 9, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    This is a great blog Shane. Sincerely appreciate your willingness to do your journey so open – we all learn so much. Helena will get to met you at the CBM conference, I think she may be doing something. I hope you get to meet her.

  • Rowena
    March 10, 2014 at 10:45 am

    Great blog, can we use it for Anthropology please? It really hit the right note for me as I am busy writing on meaning in life. Love your work, love you xx

    • Shane Clifton
      March 10, 2014 at 11:07 am

      certainly – glad to see that it can be used

  • anthea
    March 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Shane -love your honesty; your clarity of thought and word. Love being confronted, inspired and challenged as a person, as a nurse and as a Christian in my dealings with all people (not just physical disabilities) -well maybe don[‘t always love it but am appreciative of the challenges it brings me!

  • labalienne
    April 24, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    In postcolonial theory, there is a famous character known as the ‘half-breed, mongrel, gypsy, queer, krip’ whose identity is slippery and unstable. In psychology, identity is like a kaleidoscope; shifting, changing, dynamic … a colourful pattern of the known and unknown self, including our relationships. In the postmodern era, identity is not a safe concept, and that my friend is a very exciting idea, particularly for those who have been pushed to the social margins. Who am I, you ask? Well that all depends on where the light falls. Rest assured, we will make our own judgements of you and yes, old man in a chair is an obvious identity marker, but, as I recall, you were (are?) so much more than either of the things you have suggested here (scholar/surfer). Scotch lover, art appreciator, author, former accountant (WTF?), heretic (at times) and prophet. These traits don’t define you, but they help us know and love you.

  • bethanynorton
    October 18, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Really helpful thoughts… Recently went through a situation which brought the sense of identity into question, and have been in the process of realising that those things which intrinsically are “me” are no more tied to my physical self than to any other part of me – and there is a continual growth and evolution… so while some things change, somehow, I am still the same.


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