Friday, March 11, 2011

Role Playing

Note:  This is a reposting from May 24, 2010


Are we all just actors on a stage?

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players; 
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts," 
--William Shakespeare 

We all play roles in life. And for some folks, "role playing" is a form of sexual release. However, roles can also be damaging and limiting to your life. Why do we play roles in life instead of living it? What sort of roles do we play? And how do we break free of roles?

Why we play roles is very simple - they can be comforting and sometimes useful. When we don't know what to do in life, we simply ask ourselves, "What would a person in my role do?" and then simply follow the stage directions.

In times of stress, roles can be comforting. When a loved one dies, for example, many people take on the role of the grieving widow or widower. They may feel like they are watching events happening to someone else, and directing themselves like they would an actor or robot. It helps to deal with the stress of the situation, at least for the time being.

Adolescents take on roles, often referred to as "stereotypes" or "cliques" in High School, as it is a way of providing themselves guidance during a period of their lives when they are unsure how to act or proceed. And the roles are all there waiting for you. The scripts are written, the staging set, the costumes hanging in the dressing room. All you have to do is pick a role - Nerds, Jock, Redneck, Stoner, or whatever - or wait for the role to be assigned to you.

And this illustrates neatly how roles can be destructive to your personal life. To begin with, you take on a role that is not YOU or are assigned one by your peers, you may be uncomfortable in that role, as you feel you are "living a lie" which you are doing, quite literally. You are not enjoying your life the way you want to. And moreover, many of such roles can be very damaging to your future life, your potential in life, or whatever. For example, if you pick a role of the "loser", or "stoner" or "redneck", chances are, you are limiting your future earning power and career options. If you define yourself by these roles, you will find that they become self-fulfilling prophesies.

And parents can often be the worst instigators of this type of role-play. They pick out destinies for their children, often in the crib. We all do it, too. We see a small child play at the piano, and suddenly, she is destined to be a concert pianist! Or we see a child spill a glass of milk, and he is marked as a "troublemaker". And these sorts of labels are assigned early on and are very, very hard to break. Many people live well into their 30's before they break out of these types of molds. Some never do.

I was at a campground in North Carolina a few months back. I saw a young Mother with her two kids, and the one kid, probably 3 or 4, asked her, "Momma, am I a Redneck?" and she answered "Yes, hon, you certainly are, a natural-born Redneck!" (you have to imagine the accents yourself).

What astounded me about that interaction was that the Mother was all too willing to label the child and provide him with a predetermined set of expectations - enthusiasm for NASCAR, Lite Beer, Underemployment, and Trailer living. Don't bother trying for anything else - your destiny is pre-ordained. It is an example of poverty of the spirit. 

The correct answer, of course, would have been "Son, you can be whatever you want to be, and if you want to be a Redneck, you can be that". Because, who knows, maybe the kid is the next Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, or Truman Capote? Just because you are born in Southern poverty does not mean your life is pre-ordained for you.

What are some other examples of these roles we play? Well, you know all the High School ones. The Nerd studies science and gets beat up by The Jock. The Slut sleeps around and gets a "reputation" (even in this day and age, High Schoolers are misogynist). The Stud, in contrast, sleeps around and gets a good reputation. The Stoner hangs out with other Stoners and smokes pot ("420, dude!") and quashes his personal ambitions.

There are, of course, others. The Crazy Person (male or female) decides that they are "troubled" and act accordingly. That sort of role can be good defensive camouflage, as people tend to leave crazy people alone, which in High School, can be a blessing. Now granted, mental health issues are not necessarily role-based (or are they?). But there are some folks out there who make a hobby out of it, or view their life in terms of "what would a crazy person do?" I knew a girl like that in High School. And it worked, people left her alone.

The Good Son is a role many take for most of their lives. They sacrifice their own personal ambitions or lives so that they can "take care of" Mom and Dad. Never mind the fact that Mom and Dad can care for themselves, the "Good Son" will break off relationships, forgo job opportunities, and limit his own personal life so that he can be on-call to Mom and Pop, 24/7.

Or consider the Activist, always taking on a cause, while neglecting their own personal life. Or the Born Again, proselytizing about Jesus as a way of dealing with their own inner demons. Defined roles, defined behaviors - but is it living?

And roles are not things necessarily set in stone. Many people cast off one role, only to take on another one, living up to the expectations of a new stereotype instead of an old one.

So, for example, after "living a lie" for 30 years, a man "comes out of the closet", divorces his wife, and throws himself into the "Gay Scene" - living in a gay neighborhood, going to Gay bars, and dancing to Gay disco, all while wearing a rainbow tank top and matching sticker on his Jeep Wrangler. A former construction worker, he now calls all his friends "Girlfriend" and affects a mincing, effeminate attitude.
He has gone from living on lie, to living another. They even have a name for it in the Gay community - Gay Clones. Actors on a stage, complete with costumes - like the Village People.

I have mentioned before this effect in my blog - what I call the Mall Caricature Artist syndrome. You know how those guys work. They sketch a large cartoon head of you and while sketching, they talk to you and ask you about your hobbies. If you casually mention that you play golf, well the resulting sketch will show your big head on a tiny body, swinging a golf club and saying "Fore!". Based on a casual comment, you are now "Mr. Golf" as defined by the Mall Sketch Artist.

And for many people, this sort of thing IS an identity - Mr. Golf, Mr. Boat, Mr. Tennis, Mr. Sports Car. They take on a hobby as a form of an identity. What would Mr. Golf Do in this situation? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and a set of norms and expectations. Expect Golf presents for Christmas.

The problem is, we are all so much more than a hobby or pastime. Or at least we should be. And the people who identify themselves in such a manner are oftentimes the most boorish and trivial persons. They center their lives around one thing, and if they feel threatened or challenged at all about it, they lash out. Now granted, if your name is Tiger Woods, then maybe you ARE "Mr. Golf". But that is not what I am talking about here....

There are, of course, other examples. The main thing about a role is that is provides expectations, comfort, directions, even specific lines of script. Many roles are harmless enough, or at least they initially appear to be. But many are very damaging to the actor or others. 

Drug addiction and alcoholism, for example, are a form of role-playing. Many addicts, once reformed and well past the physical and medical effects of withdrawal, often end up "falling off the wagon" and going back to their drugs or booze. Why is this? It is not a physical craving caused by the drugs, as they are no longer on the drugs.

I think, in part, it is an aspect of role playing. The Addict or Alcoholic has a very defined role to play. Twelve steps, in fact. And "falling off the wagon" is one of the stereotypical things an Addict or Alcoholic does. It garners attention, which is one thing people like to do. Any attention, even the wrong type, is often better than none (which is why your dog pees on the carpet if you ignore him).

Breaking free of stereotypes and roles is not easy to do. And many people never do. They go through life, doing things because other people are doing them, trying to keep their head down and act like everyone else in their normative group acts. And as they hurl off the cliff like Lemmings, they never bother to ask themselves why they act as they do, or whether there is more to life than a rote set of rules to play by.

Thinking for yourself and being truly original isn't easy. And in many cases, even what we think of as original thinking ends up being rather conformist or predictable.

David Sedaris reported on this effect in one of his short stories. Upon visiting a novelty shop, he came upon a basket of glass eyeballs at the cash register. Attached to the basket was a sign that said "do not place these up to your eyes as they have sharp edges on the back and could damage your eyes."

What astounded him about this sign was that he was, at that moment, about to pick up a pair and put them up to his eyes and say to his companions, "Hey, look at me!" And he thought, up until he saw that sign, that it was an original thought - an original idea. And it depressed him that his "original" thought was basically the same idea that everyone else who had visited the novelty shop had. 

Cheer up, David. At least writing about the effect was an original thought. While most in the shop would attempt to pick up the eyes and make a face about it, few would bother to write a story about it or comment on the social effect. You can have original thoughts.

But role-playing is not original at all. We live near Ithaca, New York, in the summer, and people in Ithaca like to fancy themselves to be sophisticates. They would like to think they are original and "out there". But like the Gay Clones, Ithacans all dress and act alike. You have never seen so many green Subaru wagons in your life. And all with the same "social justice" bumper stickers. It would almost be hysterically funny, if they didn't all take themselves so deadly seriously and also believe that they were being original or "different".

Here's a hint: You can't be different like everyone else. 

The same is true of kids who wear tattoos or piercings and then decry when people "stare at them". "I'm just trying to express myself!" they cry, "What's wrong with being different?" But the joke is, they are being different like all their peers. And when you are different like everyone else, you aren't different. Or to quote a line from The Incredibles, "When everyone is 'Special' - nobody is."

And no, that's not an original thought, is it?

I guess it is human nature to want to conform - to fit in. The non-conformist often has a difficult time in life - ostracized and outcast, perhaps injured or killed. You can't go against the status quo and be lauded, except perhaps, posthumously.

And there is little point in doing so, if it is only done to be "different". Difference, without a purpose, is really nothing more than playing another role. And we've all seen the role-player who wants desperately to be "different" - but without any positive aspect on their own life.

I am not sure I have an answer to how to break free of roles. To some extent, we will all play them at one time or another. I think one answer is to try to identify when you are playing a role - trying to fit in or act a certain way, and then understand why you are doing it. And if the role makes you feel uncomfortable or causes you distress, then break out of it.

As I have illustrated many times in this blog, thinking "outside of the box" (a phrase so over-used as to be trite and perhaps role-playing itself) can save money and also be very profitable for the individual. Sometimes, this means having to go against your own instincts and think creatively or in a contrary fashion.

But the net result, I think, is a richer and more enjoyable life. The great masses of humanity, in the USA, at least, go through life living conservatively, over-insuring themselves against tiny risks, paying huge amounts of money for basic needs and services, watching hours and hours of television every day, and trying to fit into roles dictated by the television and work environment - and calling all of that "living".

I call that a "McLife".

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