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David Cowles

Jul 15, 2023

“Turns out, I am the Worldwide Wrinkle…and so are you!”

In our last issue of Aletheia Today Magazine (Summer 2023) we explored the ‘role of roles’ in the formation of the human ego. Searching for a core identity, we are stopped at the level of the Earth’s Mantle.

We can go no further. We have reached the limits of spacetime. We can peer over the edge into an abyss and fantasize that there is a Pearl of Great Price at its center, but there isn’t! In this model, beyond the Mantle there is nothing (Le Neant), the Great Wall of Darkness.

The Mantle is suspended between the spatio-temporal realm of experience and the atemporal realm of Le Neant. At this level, the innumerable unique experiences we call ‘life’ have been abstracted, sorted, and combined into a finite assortment of roles.  

A role is a set of personae, generalized to cover a range of contexts and a myriad of interlocutors. It is the calcification of habit. Due to the complexity of socio-economic relations, the average person plays a half-dozen different roles at any one time. Here are a few of the overlapping roles I got to ‘try out’ as a child:

Cute Baby, Curious Toddler, Performer on-Demand, Friend, Student, Athlete.

As I’ve aged, I’ve added new roles to my repertoire:

Political Activist, Truth Seeker, Employee, Employer, Customer, Salesperson, Executive,

Spouse, Parent, Homme d’affairs, Bon Vivant, Grandparent, Retiree, Writer.

So yes, I need roles. We all do. Roles are levers: they allow me to navigate the world…and to manipulate it. They are octagonal keys that fit perfectly into octagonal locks. Roles are massive data compressors; they allow me to convert a welter of raw experience into small, repeatable, and scalable snippets of code.

Just as importantly, if I’m honest, my roles allow me brief and shallow respites from the sheer terror of being alive. They give me an instant sense of Identity and Belonging. I have a place now in that giant Calder mobile that is the world. 

I make a difference in that world; I imagine it would be very different without me. Like Atlas, I have the weight of the world, quite literally, on my shoulders. I am one of the ‘charms’ that keeps the mobile du monde balanced.  Whatever this is, we’re all in this together. That knowing I’m not alone gives me unwarranted but still very welcome relief from otherwise unremitting existential angst. 

I have an identity now, I belong. I am no longer a piece of beach litter, crumpled up and thrown away thoughtlessly on the sand. I am ‘someone’, i.e., a tapestry woven from my roles! Yet, at the end of the day, when the bedroom is darkened and the ceiling looms lid-like above me, I know I am lying to myself…and you. I am not ‘Cute Baby’, I am not ‘Student Athlete’, I am not ‘Writer.’ Of course, I do baby-like, student-like, and writer-like things, but I am none of these personae.

Dilemma: I am pretending to be someone (i.e. a nexus of roles)…and I seem to be getting away with it. My act is convincing. The others recognize me as one of their own, and as someone with something unique to contribute. Accordingly, life is a little less terrifying now; in fact, it is sometimes even fun. So take the win?

The flip side of security is complacency. The ‘win’ is bad faith. By taking it, I officially give up my quest to figure out ‘what the hell’s going on here’; but if I reject it, I am doomed to live out my life alone, as an ontological exile.

Well, the choice is easy, isn’t it? “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; am an attendant lord, one who will do well to swell a progress…” (Eliot) I have to get by after all – pay the mortgage, pick up the kids from school, take the family to the Isle of Wight for a summer holiday. I don’t have time for nonsense.

I’m ok being Atlas, holding up the world, but not Jesus, saving the world; I’m too frightened. But for a tortured few, the trade-off itself, the bad faith, is more than they can bear. I’m thinking Socrates, Nietzsche, and of course, Jesus himself…but not me.

I put on my roles each day as a police officer puts on her uniform. We both know that we are not what our uniforms denote. But wearing those uniforms sure helps us get through our day. We are all of us in ‘the uniformed services’. Every role has a prescribed wardrobe, even if it's business casual…or overalls.  

Plus, if an identity isn’t working for me, no problem, I’ll just try on another one instead! I can keep trying on uniforms until I get it right. The process is what society calls, “Finding yourself.”  

The trouble is, it never comes right. It’s not that you’re not this role or that role, it is that you aren’t any role; you are not a role at all! Oh, life would be a heck of a lot easier if we could just be the people that we’re pretending to be. Imagine!

We are like human babies raised by wolves. We don’t fully realize that we are not in fact wolves. It’s going to be a rude awakening when we find out…if we ever do.

Caveat Lector: If you prefer to think of yourself as a full-fledged member of the wolf pack, then stop reading this article right now…and thanks for visiting. 

For the rest of you, personae and roles are props we adopt to get through life. Unfortunately, most of us come to believe that we are those props. My mask becomes my face. Even so, the reward for believing is just too great to pass up: ‘a temporary but pervasive sense of wellbeing’!

Sound familiar? Perhaps it is Identity, not religion, not alcohol, that is the opiate of the masses. But again, I take the win! I trade truth for peace. I’m pretending to be some pretty interesting people, after all. If only I could actually be one of them! But I know I can’t. All the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll in the world can’t make me forget for more than a few minutes at a time that I am not any of the people I pretend to be. 

Philosophers say that the purpose of life is personal happiness. I sure hope they’re wrong because I can never be ‘happy’! Not that I’m unhappy; I certainly am not! These ‘states of mind’ just aren’t in my repertoire. They’re not ontologically compatible with who I am.

My avatars are happy, or not - but not me! I feel my avatar being happy, but I quickly catch myself. I remember that I am not the one who is happy. I realize that I am watching the equivalent of a ‘movie’ of myself being happy. 

Speaking of movies, I’m watching Gone with the Wind. I’m heavily invested in the characters. I let myself feel their joy and their pain. Then I recall that nothing’s actually happening…except me eating popcorn. 

I am watching images ‘painted’ on celluloid and then projected onto a giant screen in front of me. The images are of Civil War Tara. The story is drawn from history but the characters, the plot and the dialog are 100% invented by the author, Margaret Mitchell, who knew neither the Civil War…nor me.

Nothing that’s happening on the screen has anything to do with me. The relationship we have with characters from fiction is very similar to the relationship we have with our avatars, ‘characters from our own fiction.’ 

We yearn to belong to a larger social group: family, community, country, congregation, union, pub darts team, Man U fan club, etc., and avatars get us in the door. They are like the fake ID I had in college.

And we covet specific identities within those groups – not so much personally chosen identities, rather sub-roles we can comfortably step into to support in an identifiable way the overall ‘mission’ of the group. If I cannot invent my own identity, I am not above going with a store bought costume.

Bottom line: everyone wants you to know their name! (Cheers) Nobody wants to be anonymous. When you call me by name, you testify to the fact that I have an identity, that I belong in this world. What a (superficial) relief! Of course, in truth, I have no name, no face, no identity, and I belong nowhere.

My mother said it best, “Be somebody!” Worst advice anyone ever gave me! Sorry, Mom, somebody is precisely what I can never be. In the idiom of Jean-Paul Sartre, I am not who I am, and I am who I am not. 

This sense of disjunction accompanies every experience we have. You are none of the people you’re trying to be. You’ll never be a wolf, no matter how much you wish you were. You’ll never be your parents’ child, you’ll never be your spouse’s spouse, you’ll never be your children’s parent.

I am sitting in a Paris café, sipping Beaujolais Nouveau, watching the world pass by. What could be better? Surely, now I am happy. Well, in fact, no! Not that wine sipping in Paris isn’t good; it’s the best! It’s just that I am not that café-sitting wine sipper. I am watching that café-sitter. He seems happy and I’m glad for him. I wish him well, but he’s not me. 

I am experiencing his wine-sipping through the prism of my thoughts: “How marvelous to be sipping wine in Paris! I must introduce X to this experience. If only it was a little less breezy! I wonder how this year’s vintage compares with last. I must make plans to come again next year at this same time. I wonder if they’ll come a time when I can’t get to Paris anymore. If only the waiter hadn’t put a pea underneath my seat cushion.”

I don’t know who I am, but I do know I am not the one sipping wine…but I can’t let on. Sharing my angst would be like donning a dunce cap…or worse, like being an artist. So now I’ve discovered my ‘role of roles’, my uber-role: it’s reinforcing the roles of others. 

“Isn’t this marvelous?” I offer the table next to me, as I shoot a selfie to a few friends back in the States. Everybody needs to know, “This is a good as it gets!” And it is…for café-sitting wine-sippers.

Now imagine yourself at the table next to mine. You hear me singing the praises of Paris wine sipping. Of course, you’re having your own disjunctive experience, which you dare not own up to either. Hearing me only alienates you further from your actuality. “What’s wrong with me,” you think, “that I cannot enjoy this experience the way the guy next to me is experiencing it?” (Pretending to experience it, that is.)

We are all part of a global enterprise to build the Worldwide Wrinkle, a membrane that separates all of us from ourselves, a distortion on the edge of Being that prevents us from ever seeing what’s below the surface. 

No matter what experiences the universe cooks up for me, I won’t experience any of them directly. I will experience myself watching myself having those experiences. My avatar experiences; I just watch!

I’m not unhappy; it’s just that I’m not the sort of thing that can be happy. I’m not the sort of thing that has experiences. I am the sort of thing that watches myself having experiences.

I am not a noun; I am not a verb (apologies to Buckminster Fuller). Syntactically, I am some sort of ‘reflexive particle’, an indicator that the proposition in question is recursive. But in truth, I am not any ‘part of speech’; I am the phenomenon of recursion itself. “It recurs; therefore, I am.” Turns out, I am the Worldwide Wrinkle…and so are you!


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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