Roles come from the outside. You come from the inside.
You adopt life roles because they are neat and ready – and because you have no clue what else you should be doing. Roles offer an answer to the pesky questions of life: They offer identity and goals: the two things you should find for yourself – but really don’t know how to.
But these roles are not working in your favour. Things that come for free and without effort never do. You accept them for relief but you pay a heavy price.
Relationships (and the subsequent package of marriage, mortgage, parenthood, saintly death) are the most universal life roles – assigned to you at birth. But there are less pervasive life roles, such as your job, your education – and to a large extent your age that dictates the “age-appropriate” goals for every other life role.
Some of the roles are chosen – others are prescribed to you. But even when they are forced on you by the power of society, they make sure to get your explicit consent at some point. Needless to say, it will be used against you when you first shyly complain that the role is too tight and maybe not altogether for you. By then it will be too late.
But even when the roles are chosen, such as your job, they can still use you as a sock puppet. Imagine two people who love the same movies, have the same hobbies, and both share a passion for wildlife. Both are friendly and cheerful and have plenty of friends. Yet, they don’t get along. The reason is that one is acting out the role of a Customer Service Clerk – and the other one the Disgruntled Customer. And the two fight each other, wear each other down, attack each other – on behalf of the roles they are made to play. Lose-lose, or worse.
What Are Life Roles?
Roles are scripts of who we are and what we should want. They even suggest how to achieve it and when. But these roles are not created by us.
They are functions we serve in other people’s lives. Curiously, we don’t seem to have a function in our own lives – only in others’. And we don’t seem to be able to give purpose to ourselves – but we all do that for others.
Same with identity. ‘I’ is not a good enough identity. ‘Father’ is, even though is is derivative. It is someone’s father. And someone’s child. Someone’s accountant and someone’s dentist.
Philosophy is here to teach us that we only really have two jobs in life: 1) To find out who we are. And 2) to decide what we want. The second comes from the first, but we are clueless nonetheless.
Life roles to the rescue
Who are you?
A man (to a woman), a boy (to your father), a father (to a child), an accountant (to a company), an introvert (to a friend), a Russian (to your country), a body-builder (to your club), and a Christian (to your church).
What do you want?
Being a real man, a good boy, a good father, a good accountant, a proud Russian, a good Christian. What would Jesus do? Isn’t that enough hard work?
But who are you when you’re alone and unobserved in a dark room? And what do you do with your life when you are not pressurized to serve others?
If I pressed you to tell me who you are without any of your roles you would strike back with the very predictable demand that I should at least give you an example.
And life roles are exactly that. Examples of who you can be and what you can want. Except they are the same for everyone, and the definitions they offer are not designed to serve you. They serve the world around you. This is what you deserve when you are too lazy to make your own definitions.
We accept life roles because they conveniently dictate not just what to do and how to spend our embarrassingly long and empty lives but also what we should think and aspire to. So we drift into life roles because we don’t want to think and make these choices. Or take the responsibility that comes with them. This way if we fail, we are blameless. Unhappy, unsatisfied, full of doubt and regret for missed opportunities – but blameless. We even cherish these roles because we (correctly) realise that we would have nothing better to do.
This is why you will attack me and defend the roles. They provide the comfort of living a life without shaping your own identity. It gives a ready-made target when your age (also a role) dictates that you’re running out of time and should be doing something. You probably call it motivation – but it’s really just chasing you and threatens you with punishment if you don’t comply. Not exactly your innate drive.
Roles provide identity – At a price
Life roles give you an identity, an aim, even a personality and a taste. Just take gender roles. Your taste in colours, clothes, music, flavours are heavily suggested to you. So is your sexual orientation, your temper, you preferred hobbies and sexual positions. It dictates what you’re supposed to want in life (marriage, children).
“Most people are nothing and are considered nothing until they have dressed themselves up in general convictions and public opinions — in accordance with the tailor philosophy: clothes make people. Of the exceptional person, however, it must be said: only he that wears it makes the costume; there opinions cease to be public and become something other than masks, finery, and disguises.”
Most people are like the
ogre onion. They have layers. All their roles and opinions supplied by those roles fill up their lives – sometimes they even blend together. When you need to react, you quickly ask yourself the question what would an accountant / a mother / a Christian / a policeman do. Or what would your reference point think? What would he or she approve?
But if you leave them without any role to play, they disappear. They wouldn’t know what to do or who they are. Most of them would probably die.
Roles are not designed to serve you
No one will blame you for adopting these life roles. On the contrary, they will make your life miserable if you don’t. A fine human resource like yourself cannot walk around untapped. So you get all the encouragement to play roles and all the disapproval and unpleasantness if you try to skip. There is no one to enforce your own identity. But everyone is enforcing roles. And you don’t want to swim against the current.
There is the child, the groom, the father, the mother, the friend, the colleague, the accountant, the good neighbour, etc. They dictate what you can allow yourself, what you’re entitled to demand, what others are entitled to demand from you, what to want, how to get it, what to say and whom to love. You can rebel against them and swear to only play parts of the role – but that’s a defeat already.
You want to play them – And want others to do so
Many recognize the existence of life roles at least once in their lives. Most only see them when they hurt. They moan a little and say it’s unfair but never bother to look very deep into the system. Never look at its purpose, never question its morality (you should) or challenge its (arbitrary) rules.
You assume that whatever a billion other people are doing must be right and the only thing to do. It is definitely the thing you get least resistance doing. And you want the least resistance. You only wish you could fit better and with less effort. Because the role tells you what you are (your function) and what to do (serve your function) and how you’re doing (as well as you serve them). All the questions you cannot answer for yourself in life.
An added benefit is that roles make it easier to label and treat people you don’t really care about. Everyone knows the cliches about each life role and it is always easier to react to the roles than it is reacting to a person.
And finally, no one knows how to make a judgment on a person – but we all feel competent to judge whether said person is good at his or her role.
And once you’ve agreed to play the roles you cannot uphold beliefs (feelings, curiosities, desire) that question or risk them. It will be uncomfortable. And when your feelings and belief clashes with the opinion of the world around you – your opinion will bend.
Even though society has a solid track record of being on the wrong side in everything. Being on the side of misery – for misery’s sake. Promoting self-mutilation and the suicide of the soul early in life in order to break each other into these life roles that are unsuitable for 99.9% of people. They set you up for failure, and yet every time you look at what they dictate you will try to convince yourself how exactly they are right. There’s always an angle…
Resistance would be much harder work.
The individual thinks – The role is dumb
An individual reading this blog may understand how I love you had been hijacked by society. But a role would never understand. It will stick to the dumbed-down version.
When your role is speaking through you, you use cliches. Everything that is permitted to the role, you will allow to yourself. When your role is talking, you are primitive and predictable – even though the role is using your cognitive faculties, vocabulary and all the information you have. But your arguments predictably only serve the continuous existence of the role. It’s like talking to a semi-intelligent robot.
The role uses you to defend itself against me. You will be sorry to do that nasty thing to me but you do it “in my interest”. The role does.
So if your role is “single person dating” you will seek the “I love you” from the partner because that’s your milestone. And the happily ever after is your target. And you will feel entitled to manipulate and trap and even force me into acting them out – because the role dictates that I should be wanting that anyway.
Roles deny choice
They are the opposite of choice. But of course, you will tell me that you totally chose your own role. And agreed to play them.
Yes, choosing between life roles can be presented as choice – if you present it from the usual dishonest angle. You get to choose whom you marry – not whether you marry. How many children you have – not whether you want children. What your job might be – not whether you want to be the breadwinner of a family in the first place.
For these people there can only be one choice: to enter the role. No other choice is respected or allowed, but this one is necessary because it legitimizes your exploitation. The role players will never respect your choice – unless it is to act.
Roles can be violent and still get what they want
You may say that violence defeats the purpose because you wouldn’t play a role that hurts – but you would be wrong. Their purpose is not being loved or to be attract you – it is to bring you and keep you in the role. And that can be achieved by hurting you.
Take a husband who feels threatened because his wife wants a divorce. She doesn’t want to play the role and wants out. He can not get her love back by threatening her – but that’s not what he wants. He wants the marriage. The living-together, the sleeping-together, the pretense towards the outside world. And he can keep the marriage by aggression, blackmail, or an accidental pregnancy.
He can keep the wife playing the role in their marriage. Of course, she would not enjoy it. She does not want the sex that comes in that marriage. You would call that kind of sex rape. But we don’t have a word for forced togetherness and forced pretend-love – even though they are as disgusting as forced sex. We should.
Continuous marriage (cohabitation, sex, shared budget) is against her will but her will doesn’t matter. Roles don’t respect feelings, choice or free will. She may have signed up for that marriage because she used to be in love – but that was the last time feelings were allowed. Marriage is a role. It is not about love. A role can keep you even when it hurts you. A lover (someone who wants love) couldn’t.
The one who wants you is good for you – but you will very likely choose the other that only wants a role to be played. Because the latter can hurt you – and you will prioritize avoiding hurt to pursuing love. When your love of life clashes with your life role, you choose to obey the role. But because it achieved what it wanted by hurting you – it will hurt again next time.
This is how your initial cowardice to stand up to the ones who guilt/pressurize/hurt you will always come back to haunt you. And every time you try to resist it will be a bit stronger.
Roles require all your resources – and some more
Stop fooling yourself, you cannot just act them out and keep some of your life to yourself. These roles are designed to require more than just superficial commitment.
You live and breathe them. You think the way they want you to. You adopt the role-dictated opinions. You internalize their logic, the way they see the world. You know their perspective more than your own. Because you don’t have a perspective of your own, just an amalgamation of all the roles you play.
And they are designed to suck in 110% of your energy and attention. You run faster, they give you more tasks. Comply with them and there will be follow-up. The most obvious of them all: just make children, so that your parents and peers would shut up. Do you really think that would be it? That they wouldn’t have child-specific demands on your life immediately after the baby is out? You’re a great breadwinner – make even more and do more chores. You are a great mom – but you could even add chopped celery to every lunch bag.
So tell me again how exactly does it make sense to comply just to make them shut up? What exactly did you plan to do with the time “left over” after fulfilling this particular role?
Yes, acting out a role is hard work. But just because it is hard – it is not necessarily right. Acting out roles is mindless work. And it is the easy way out. Because if you think that following roles is hard work, try not to do so.
Approval is expensive – Yet, it doesn’t exist
Just as the role is not written to serve you, its evaluation is not in your hands either. You simply don’t get to decide how you’re doing. No one is. You are looking for outside approval. Sometimes it is someone specific, but mostly it’s just society. And it can even be someone who is already dead.
So you are going for outside approval – and yet it doesn’t exist. It’s all in your head. No one gives approving looks – they are merely looking for mistakes to frown upon or gloat. They are as frustrated as you are so they live for the moments they can disapprove you.
And even if public approval existed, the fight for approval would still take all you have – by definition. If the role wants all you have, approval cannot come for less than a 100%. There will always be “room for improvement” for them.
But again, public approval doesn’t exist. You are merely running from their disapproval. A life well spent…
That moment when you get to tell me that you have been together for 50 years. That’s it. But there’s a problem with this: I don’t care because I don’t judge by those metrics. And those who do will only listen to your story to find some fault. 50 years together… but didn’t you neglect your parenting/career/hobbies?
So your payoff is illusory at best.
So which one would you choose? Sitting in front of me, holding the hand of the man you just contemplated to poison because he didn’t recycle just to spite you, telling me about your 50 years – or the 50 years? 50 years of seeking, finding, seeking again, trial, error, more error – but definitely life. Or 50 years of self-absorption in a role, and competing who managed to suppress themselves better.
There is no reward for good role playing…
Roles are expected from you so the world doesn’t care if you succeed.
Only if you fail, or want out. Then the world gets busy and comes down on you like a ton of bricks. People who have no stakes in your life and don’t bear the consequences of your decision will feel entitled to talk you back into your role. And you will not find it obnoxious because guilt will make your head spin and your judgement turn against you.
You are just furniture in other people’s lives and you upset them if you try to crawl away. If you are a dentist and all your friends are counting on you they will resent you giving up your practice and launching a sailing career. And that’s just a soft resentment. Not like your family. Give up a role in your family and they even feel entitled to punish you.
So you will end up supplying your own rewards for acting the role. Like your teenage daughter not being a complete douche today – it will give you tears of gratitude. And giving yourself badges for pushing ungrateful, unappreciative 20-something through college. You will go and brag about it – so you get something back.
There is no love in roles – Only dependence. And no pleasure – Only relief.
If it sounds like Stockholm syndrome – it is because it is. Confusing relief with pleasure goes a long way explaining society’s jilted view of love. And the disappearance of sex from our “love” life after marriage.
What roles do is not love. It is dependence: Exiting them would trigger nasty things you you’d rather not. And that makes you extremely motivated to explain it away as your choice and that it is what you wanted. And if you find someone to act together and thus averted the disapproval of your family – you will feel so relieved, it can also be mistaken for love. In the first years at least.
You can’t completely fool yourself. That’s why you are anxious
Roles are useful to avoid confrontation with other victims who put their energies into enforcing the non-choice on you. Roles are useful to avoid the only questions in life you should answer yourself. I almost said that they are also useful in avoiding existential dread – but they aren’t.
Because you will always see through these roles and know that you are letting yourself down. The reason you feel that you are achieving nothing in this life despite running so hard to fulfill every function you have, is because you really are achieving nothing.
You can even rebel against the roles
There is a role for rebels in other people’s life games.
- There is the rebel who will succumb – and proves our point
- There is the rebel who meets a miserable end – and proves our point
- And there is the rebel who wins – but then your very own loved ones will make sure you fail. If nothing else, they ask whether you are alright.
They cannot allow anyone to not act and live to tell the tale. Compliance is their identity and your successful non-compliance would demolish it.
The role you address will answer
It’s a fun experiment in manipulation. Addressing the wrong role at the wrong moment is an entry-level tool in passive aggression. Observe…
- Your mother when she takes out your baby photos when you try to look serious
- Your colleague who compliments on your sexy look during a business meeting
- Your girlfriend using infantile baby-talk before other women.
Yes, they are punishing you.
Zero-sum game, or worse
If you don’t play the roles right, you’re supposed to feel guilty and the world is entitled to get something from you. You do this silly mental calculation all the time. Your ‘sin’ and their punishment is rarely proportionate – but that’s how guilt works. Otherwise there would be honest discussion.
But no one has to gain for you to lose. Guilt makes you hemorrhage resources even when there’s no one to soak it up. Because the role conditions you to turn against yourself regardless of whether others actually blame you. It is self-enforcement. Life roles can thus be worse than zero-sum. They can be negative sum.
What they can’t do is positive sum. Only while they align with your feelings and desires – but that early phase will pass and the roles stay and steal more from you than you ever can gain from them.
Try to resist
You think that your co-players truly appreciate you for who you are? Even though we just agreed that you cannot answer that question yourself? But surely, your loved ones know your True Self and love you for exactly that? Not for the role you play in your lives and the comfort it gives them – but yourself…
I’m sorry but it doesn’t make any sense.
But you know what? If you want to know how much love is dedicated to your person and how much to the comfort you provide, try to say no to the role. Just once. And sit back and observe the monsters emerge. Your loved ones are not in your corner when you try to say no. They are defending the role, not you. Because they want the role. Not you.
Now this is where it gets tricky. Every suppressed self becomes deformed and angry. Yours and theirs are no exception. So when they emerge, they will look like a monster – and you will see it confirmed that … no, not that roles are evil. You will never draw the right conclusion. You will conclude that you shouldn’t have resisted them. That’s the safe conclusion to make. There will be no resistance if you make it. You will not blame the stronger (the script) but tell yourself that you shouldn’t have provoked it. So you coward. Submit. Suppress. And die while you’re still legally alive. Just keep acting so you never see your loved ones turning into monsters. Hopefully.
And of course, you are not exactly a fully formed individual either. Remember? You drifted into this situation exactly because you found the task of creating your identity too onerous. So you adopted these roles – and now you want me to take your side when you suddenly find your non-formed individuality too precious to kill off?
That individuality that wasn’t quite ready or precious enough for you to keep it and work on it – suddenly seems super important to preserve.
Each other’s sock puppets
No, people playing roles are not consciously evil. They are acting out a role just like you, they don’t understand why it hurts, just like you, and they are anxious because it is not fulfilling. Just like you.
They are people labeling each other and accepting labels from others. People whipping each other into action because they couldn’t whip themselves. People conditioned not to trust their own inner drive and motivation – but follow instructions from others. Who, in turn, are also incompetent in giving instructions to themselves. And when it comes to judgement, it is a room full of distorted mirrors, holding distorted mirrors to each other that only reflect what they can understand.
But the really sad thing about you acting all your life is what you are not doing in the meantime.
Roles are fine – as long as they are voluntary, they should also be a conscious decision, and never outlast their purpose. Because their purpose should never be to own someone else forever – regardless of changed circumstances, choices or merit.
“It seems so ridiculous to me,” he said, “that a person should be expected to lock themselves into a suit of clothes. I mean, like the suit of clothes of an engineer or doctor or geologist, and then the skin grows over it, over the clothes, I mean, and that person can’t ever get them off.”
“He’s on drugs,” Alex said. “You can tell a mile off. His brain’s rotted with drugs.”
In the middle of the night he said, “Sex.”
Sally was lying beside him, wide awake.
“What about sex?”
“It’s what makes you do what he’s talking about—become a something-or-other so that you can earn a living. So that you can pay for your steady sex and the consequences. That’s not a consideration for him.”
Alice Munroe: Deep-Holes
Original post from 2014
Featured image: Tumblr – brightindie