Quick: In the next 30 seconds, think of all the hats you wear, and the roles you play—parent, child, breadwinner, friend, peacemaker, strong one—and perhaps even write them all down.
Now look over the list and think about which roles you could comfortably step away from. How many of them would you be reluctant to give up? How many cause you to feel overwhelmed?
This is not at all a novel exercise, but it is enlightening. I’ve tried to keep it in mind over the past decade, ever since I encountered it in a book our wonderful adult Sunday school class was reading: Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.
Tolle writes about the social roles we take on and how tightly they constrict us, if we let them. Like it or not, our social standing largely determines how we move through the world, and how others orbit around us. “The way in which you speak to the chairman of the company might be different in subtle ways from how you speak to the janitor,” he writes. True, and I’m ashamed to admit it. Watch carefully, he says, and you will detect this kind of performance first in others and then in yourself. It can be a formidable barrier to loving kindness.
But how do you not play a role? As soon as you try to be “just yourself,” Tolle notes, your mind creates a role for you, perhaps something like “wise one.” The only way to step completely out of role-playing is to admit you don’t know who you are. “If you can be absolutely comfortable with not knowing who you are, then what’s left is who you are—the Being behind the human, a field of pure potentiality rather than something that is already defined.”
“Give up defining yourself—to yourself and others,” he counsels. “You won’t die. You will come to life.”
I liked the idea of losing myself, of shedding my social standing like snake skin. I tried it and found that by not defining myself by vocation or any other label, I remained more open to the people I met each day, regardless of whether I knew them. It was remarkably freeing to step away from long-held constraints, such as being the family member who always bakes the traditional Christmas cookies. I hadn’t realized how much of the drudgery of my life was self-imposed. I was having fun with the whole concept—until our son was killed and the role of mother was taken from me.
Losing Reid robbed me of a key part of my identity (and my heart). But it also gave me a choice. I could wrap myself tightly in the cloak of the brokenhearted and no one would blame me. Or I could refuse that role. What if I chose something else? What new identity might I take on? When I stumbled across the idea that I might be able to again find meaning in life by learning to help people in need or trouble, I grabbed it and held on. And yes, bit by bit it has helped bring the light back.
The challenge now is for me to step into new situations without letting myself be pigeon-holed as someone who believes or acts or must be treated a certain way. I need to also avoid pigeon-holing myself. To keep my role as grieving mother from ruling my life, I had to take a firm step away from it.
Over time I’ve found myself working to discard another role: that of the knowing one. This one is especially difficult to shrug off when I’m trying to help someone else. As the perceived helper or rescuer, it’s assumed (sometimes by the other person, sometimes by myself) that I hold the knowledge to improve the person’s situation. But that’s dead wrong. The only way to make lasting change in someone’s life is to work with him to help him find ways to reach his goals. I hold no magic key.
When I make kindness and openness my prevailing sentiment, it lets me ignore the incessant voice of my ego if, for instance, it tells me that I know more than the person I’m with. Possibly I do. But as someone who is trying to give up myself in order to give of myself, I should assume that I do not. An essential part of the journey is letting go of my own lust to control things. I should allow people the space and freedom to become powerful in their own ways.
How comfortable am I, living with no prescribed role? Not at all, most days. How can I become more comfortable? I suspect it’s by gradually peeling away the layers of my artificial identity and, as I realize I’ve taken on yet more roles, being willing to let them go.
In the Shamanistic practices of Peru, there is a prayer that asks Sachamama, the Great Serpent, to help us learn to shed our pasts the way she sheds her skin. This is one of the points where aboriginal practices, Christian beliefs, and Eastern philosophies converge. Jesus asks us to be humble and to nurture the deepest compassion we possibly can. What better way to become “the Being behind the human” than to step away from the roles heaped on us since birth?