“Know thy self”

Photography-Emily Tsui


Why is it so hard to find the correct words to describe (explain) yourself?

“It is almost unfathomable to think that creatures as egotistical and as intellectually advanced as ourselves are often stumped by one question – Who am I? It may seem simple enough but, one soon discovers that the answer is not as forthcoming as expected. The initial responses to the question often answers a completely different question all together. “I am Xhosa, South African” or “I am a son (a daughter), a brother (a sister) and a student (a consultant)” these are the first things to spring to mind. These, however, only serve to describe what you are and not who you are.” Qaqambile Mapukata

I’ll tell you this: After listening to Who Will Save Us from the Self-help Revolution I kinda’ got hesitant about putting this post together. You see, I wouldn’t like to think of it as a “self help” guide especially after reading about the rise of the anti-self-help revolution .

But then, I kinda had, to be honest with myself.

You know… Just a little bit


Generally, I have always enjoyed collecting quotes (and embarrasingly requoting them in conversation). I was that child, the one that asked the “unnecessary questions.”

Questions like: How did you become who you are?  Did you always imagine that your life would unfold as it has?  What did you take from that experience? Can you share a little more about that please… 

And of course I often got those soft hushes and “please stop asking” (evil) looks from my sisters. Oprah often asks her Master Class guests a like-minded question. She puts it this way:

“What do you know for sure?”

I like these kinds of socratic questions ’cause they stir you. You know.

I believe and I think you’ll agree with me that in hearing the responses:

There is a wealth of wisdom to glean from what other’s have discovered about living and being human and knowing the self.


Since moving to China, I have thought a lot about ‘the self’. I have found myself pondering on  key  existential questions like, -Who are you Sihle?  -Why do you do what you do? -What do you really believe? -What drives you?

-Why do you want what you want- is it because it’s wantable orrr?

You get the gist. A year from home, away from family, familiar community, small groups, best friends will inadvertently take you there.

Perhaps it’s not a China thing, perhaps it’s all part of adulting.

Hi-Hello there-How are you? I really hope you’re well. Do share.

In today’s post, I thought I could share 5 personal experiences with you that have opened me to think and dig deeper into “knowing the self.” You can read these as complements that fast-track the process. For me, God has been at the core and these experiences have served as tools (from Him) to get to grips with Him, self, and worldviews. So here goes…


1. Living in another country

“To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark

Over the last year I have been living in Beijing, China. When I left home I knew I had somewhat reached my personal growth ceiling. My career in Cape Town had just begun but on a personal level, I had a sense that I needed something new.

A year in, I can not explain how refreshing and eye-opening living in China has been. Particularly because of how different this place is from my home South Africa (S.A). China is a homogenous society (S.A is diverse #11official languages), has no dominant religion (S.A is predominantly Christian), it’s thriving economically and opening to the world which means there’s an inflow of curious Africans from all corners of the continent (S.A has had episodes of #Xenophobia not to say discrimination towards African’s can’t be seen in China #recentRacistChineseAd).

Living here has felt like being on the brink of a new world order. An opportune time to mix with other young-gifted-black people. It’s been awakening.

Being able to see myself in a context that is outside my known world has led to an often quiet and at times explosive inner revolution. A new imagining. A thinking about the possibilities. Realising & acknowledging that my hands and feet and mind and experiences can build new realities for others.


2. Death 

“The trouble is you think you have time.” Buddha

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life (Lord) so that we may grow in wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

As we grow up, more and more people who are closest to us pass on. The harshness, the uncertainty, the untimeliness. Everything about death jerks us, leaving us with wrangled souls and baffled minds. Amid that (I have found) one is often filled with a ‘hurtful clarity’ and a depth of thought that leads you to think about purpose and living and dying and all those known unknowns that aren’t always at the top of our minds. Death is so intricately tied to living that the experience bends us, leaving one to engage and think about living.


Later on, when we begin to heal from the brutal experience of loss, “when peace begins to bloom when our senses  begin to restore (and even then never to be the same again)” we gain a renewed sense of purpose as we are reminded;  

“They existed. They existed. 

We can be. 

Be and be better. 

For they existed.

Somehow, this tender reminder nurtures in us a faith that stirs us to see and to feel and to believe. Right there and then you

start to imagine and to grasp the many things that you “could be” in your own lifetime.


3. Travelling

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese


One of my favorite quotes on traveling reads:

“If you can’t travel, read.”

The quote’s sentiment on reading outcomes resonates with the joyous moments of learning, unconsciously rewiring the brain, fostering an understanding of different cultures, enlarging empathy, seeing images and ways of living that ignite you to think and rethink and then think again, all gained through traveling.

I remember traveling to Europe for the first time in 2011. On my Top deck trip I met a Chinese girl called Yiyao, she has since become a good friend. Early in on the trip, we were having a simple conversation, two newly acquainted strangers making small talk really. She made a joke and it was so funny that we both belted off laughing. Heartily so. In that moment, I remember thinking “she’s Chinese and she just made me laugh like my friends from back home (you know the ones who really get you).”

It sounds simple but I distinctly remember that moment of escaping my own biases feeling a rush of mind renewal. I think moments of that nature alter your thinking.

Whilst traveling, even the simple act of listening to people speaking their own language-you unable to understand what they are saying they completely oblivious to you and your conversational ques- this humbles you.

Traveling offers you a window to simply observe, listen and learn.

Added to this there is something softening about being able to connect laugh with people despite the obvious cultural & language barriers. This softening something makes you see and feel and appreciate your own humanity and their own.


4. Writing

“When I write. Stories unfold from my inside. Stories that I didn’t even know I had stored up” Sihle Nontshokweni (Quote me, haha)

To be honest I discovered writing when I felt pain. The first serious poem I wrote was when a dear friend of mine passed on. Since then I have found that when I put ink on paper, I discover deep inner thoughts that live in me, thoughts that I am usually unaware of until I begin to write.

As a woman (especially) I deem it important to find my voice and to know what it is I truly think (and then to learn to say what I think in the way that I think it-unadulterated). Writing reveals those honest thoughts to me.

For me, there is something about writing that takes me back to basics. Sometimes when I try to put a story together, I have to think about my own story first (roots), where I come from and what I want the world to hear my words.


5. Romantic Love

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18

Romance is something divine, to be honest. The vulnerability. The liberation. The seriousness of feelings. The devotion and commitment towards another human. I don’t know if there is any other relationship (apart from that with God) that can make you “jump hurdles, leap fences, penetrate walls ” with the same vigor and hope.

In all this flurry of feelings and trying to maintain a sober mind, you begin to see your self. How you love, how you want to be loved and cared for. You see how thin your patience can be and you recognize that maybe, just maybe you’re human. Hurtable. Vulnerable. Sometimes in need of reassurance. As you imagine syncing your life together with someone else, you begin to ask yourself vital questions like: Is this what I want? Is this whom I want to become with? Are our core values congruent? Again, such questions provoke you to look deeper to find answers about how you will choose to spend your life.

So that’s my 5. Feel free to share your experiences below. I would love to hear from you.


“I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing”

And as always, “let the ache keep you daring.

One thought on ““Know thy self”

  1. Pingback: Stock Taking – Sihle's Apple Crunch

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