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…
“As You Like It,” Act 2, Scene 7
How much do our roles define us, and how much is there a “real me’ playing those roles?
Becoming a pastor was an instructive experience. People treat you differently. Just after I announced I was going to seminary I was with a group of friends driving to a baseball game. Someone used a slang word in a conversation – a word that had been part of my vocabulary for years. But then the person said, “Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t use that kind of language around a pastor.” I wanted to say, “Hey, I’m just a regular person who happens to be going to seminary. Don’t change your language for me.” But people do.
I struggled with that at first. I wanted to be seen as a real person not only as a “pastor.” Sometimes I would say things that startled people to show I was a regular guy like everyone else. But in time, the compulsion faded. I realized that being a minister, rabbi, imam, or priest carries with it certain societal expectations, and accepted that.
We can tell we are in different roles based on the language we use. I was being interviewed for pastoral position in rural Washington. I met the search committee in one of their homes and they were asking me questions. Toward the end, the topic turned to bilingual education. After I’d given my perspective, an old farmer in overalls — who had not said a word the entire time – spoke up: “I’m bilingual. I speak one language at church and another at home.”
The same can be true of our roles in our family. Being a son or daughter, a mother or father, or a grandparent brings with it certain duties and responsibilities that are appropriate. There were times growing up when my parents had their friends over for drinks and dinner. When we kids weren’t at the table, they had different conversations — they were more relaxed, laughed more, and shared quips and comments they never would in front of us.
Isn’t it the case that when we are around long-time friends, we feel younger? As we share memories, we leave our current adult role (which may be full of responsibilities and worries) for the more carefree and simpler identity we inhabited back then. We laugh and smile more. The roles literally feel different.
In classic Hinduism, there are four stages of life, each with its particular duties. The first stage is “student” in which you learn what you’ll need to know in life. The second is the “householder,” in which you focus on work, raising a family, and serving your community. When your first grandchild is born, you are released from the prior duties and become a “forest dweller,” welcome to go away from your village in search of who you really are. The final stage is sannyasi, in which you have left everything behind and immersed yourself in a chosen spiritual practice. While this progression was limited largely to upper-caste males, the understanding of how our roles change is illuminating. How many people have you known that retire (leave the householder stage) then buy an RV, go on cruises, or visit the land of their ancestors? We embrace both a desire to go more deeply into our roots and the freedom to experience new things. (That energy can wear off as time goes on; as I once was told, there are three stages of travel in retirement: “Go-go, then slow-go, then no-go.”)
Is there a “real me” underneath our roles? Some folks say we are nothing beyond our roles. But I think there is a “real me” within all of us. We may play different roles as our situation requires, but it’s the same actor at work.
And I no longer believe we need to “escape” from our roles to live an honest life. At this stage of my life, I am a husband, father, grandfather, friend, pastor, board member, neighbor, citizen, and spiritual seeker. Each role brings with it certain expectations and certain satisfactions, and each is a way to be useful and find meaning.
I remember the words of a Buddhist teacher who once spoke as part of an educational program for our hospice community. After his prepared presentation, we were discussing what happens when we die. Someone noted that facial expression can change – the person can look at peace and even younger. “Maybe,” the teacher said, “They look younger because they’ve left behind all their roles.”
But, as long as we are still kicking, our scripts are waiting.
Top image: prolightsoundme.com
I have never been a sister, mother, wife.
A daughter a long time ago. And yet I play all these roles to different people.
Roles are tricky. Preconceived notions.
Ultimately, who we are to another is still who we are. As long as the ground we stand on is the same.