Jun 1, 2023
“Of course, I have no name, no face, no identity; I belong nowhere.”
It’s September 4, 1947, and an amniotic ocean has just disgorged a living organism that I will eventually come to call “me.” Waves of time and space have thrown me, naked, choking, almost drowned, onto a desolate ‘beach’ (it’s not Maui). I am dazed and confused and utterly helpless.
Immediately, I learn that I am not alone; there are other organisms on this ‘beach’ as well. At first, awareness of the others terrifies me, but very quickly I learn that, for the most part, these organisms mean me no harm. In fact, some of them actually seem to be taking care of me.
Job One, obviously, is survival. Even a newborn baby knows that much! Apparently, for now at least, I must depend for that survival on the kindness of others. That said, I must make sure that those ‘others’ continue to care for me. I must do everything in my power to hold their attention and to strengthen our bond. In short, I must be cute.
Survival strategy in place, it’s time for Job Two: achieving and maintaining a general sense of wellbeing. This requires an overarching sense of security (above) and the discovery of a lifestyle that more or less consistently delivers an acceptable ratio of pleasure to pain.
I’m not yet six months old, but I’m already hard at work on Job Two. When adults say that a baby is learning to comfort itself, that’s me working on Job Two. With Job Two comes my first intuition that we are not just Skinner Boxes and that our world is governed neither by stimulus-response (physiology) nor by cause-and-effect (physics). There’s something more going on…but what?
The alternating waves of pain and pleasure I’ve experienced since birth are perhaps not the final word, and as part of Job One, I’ve already learned some techniques for managing pain and enhancing pleasure.
Job Two stimulates the first dim awareness of something beyond just survival and pleasure: other, less obvious threads, connecting events. To achieve a general sense of wellbeing, I must travel deep into the lair of the others.
Time then for Job Three: “Get a job!”
At 18 months of age? You bet. I already intuit that ‘cute’ is not going to get me through. If I am to survive long term, post-cute, I need to find a way to fit into others’ lives and enhance them. I want to rebuild my relationships on a more reciprocal foundation.
This is the role of roles!
From birth, I prepare a face to meet the faces that I meet (Eliot). #1 – ‘cute face’; but that only takes me so far. I quickly learn that I need different faces for different people and different contexts. Potentially, at least, I can be a unique someone for each someone I meet.
But as I age arithmetically, my circle of interlocutors grows geometrically, and my database of social interactions grows exponentially. I can no longer afford to prepare a face de nuevo for every face I meet. “There will be time, there will be time”(Eliot) …until there isn’t.
It’s a dilemma, a dilemma society resolves with something called roles. On paper, I am a unique person every time I interact with another. But IRL, many of these unique personae overlap, sometimes massively. They have elements in common.
When that commonality reaches a certain level, a Gestalt occurs, and suddenly, I’m lumping those personae together into roles. A pile has become a heap; a stand of trees has become a forest.
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. Encouraged by our socio-economic system, the average person is playing a half-dozen different roles during any one time period. Here are a few of the overlapping roles I got to ‘try out’ as a child:
Cute Baby Curious Toddler Performer on-Demand Friend
Good Kid Playmate Student Junior Athlete
As I’ve aged, I’ve added a host of new roles to my repertoire:
Student Athlete Political Activist Seeker Employee Employer Customer Salesperson Spouse Parent Homme d’affaires Bon Vivant Grandparent Retiree Writer
So yes, I need roles. Roles are levers; they allow me to manipulate the world, to navigate 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; it would be different without me. I imagine it would be very different. 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. Knowing I’m not alone gives me another unwarranted but still very welcome sense of relief.
I have an identity at last; finally, I belong. I am no longer a piece of beach litter, crumpled up and thrown away thoughtlessly onto sand. I am ‘someone’, 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, athlete-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.
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 that!
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 now…and thanks for visiting.
For the rest of you, personae and roles are props we adopt to help us 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 that is the opiate of 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 booze, drugs, and sex 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’m certainly not miserable. 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 or with anyone who lived during the War for that matter. 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 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: everybody 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 and that I belong in this world. What a (superficial) relief! But of course, I have no name, no face, no identity; I belong nowhere.
My mother said it best, “Be somebody!” Worst advice she 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 isn’t good; it is. It’s just that I am not that café-sitting wine sipper; I am watching that café-sitter and I wish him well, but he’s not me.
I am not sipping wine; I am watching myself sip wine. I am experiencing the 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 come 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.
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.
Imagine yourself at a 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. 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 World Wide 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 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 someone (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.” Unfortunately, it took me decades to discover this.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.