Thursday, September 23, 2010

Playing a role, part deux

OK, in reality this is probably more like part 12 or 13, but we just liked the way that sounded. What got us thinking about playing a role was a television show we watched last night called "Lone Star," in which a con man (Bob) is living two lives (girlfriend in one, wife in the other) and gets upset when his scheme begins to collapse and he needs to leave the girlfriend. "I've always taught you," his con-man father admonishes him, "you can play any character you want...but don't play yourself. That's what lets you walk away when the time is right."

There is much to like in this quote, but what struck us was the glaring contradiction inherent in the concept that there is a real "himself." Indeed, at a later point in the show Bob tells his father that he wants to take a high-level job he has been offered at an oil firm, not as a way in to loot the company (their original plan), but to really do the job. "I've been pretending to do it for so long," he says, "that I think I can really do it."

So...which is the "real" Bob? If he renounces his con-man life and becomes a successful corporate exec, does his self undergo some sort of transformation? For that matter, who among us--even with the requisite training--has not, at some point, felt a complete and total fraud?

We had a conversation once with a former colleague who insisted there is indeed a self. We pushed on this, curious to see how she would defend something so clearly indefensible. (She is religious, and simply not willing to accept the premise that the self might be an illusion, as it would be far too damaging to her current worldview.) She backed herself further and further into a corner, until finally coming to the position that, at some indeterminate point in childhood, every individual "becomes" who they are; subsequent alterations are considered changes to their true nature.

This, of course, is ridiculous. But it is no more ridiculous than any other defense of the self, which, as the saying goes, becomes more elusive the more one searches for it. And yet, the illusion of the self is so powerful, so all-encompassing, that the vast majority of people simple accept it; or, as with our friend, twist themselves into increasingly contorted positions to defend it.

So what, exactly, is our point? The point is that Bob has it half right, but that other half is critical. While he is (or, apparently, has been) able to treat his life as akin to a role (or roles) in a play, he nevertheless believes there is something "real" outside this. Further, the longer he stays in the roles, the more "real" he believes the roles themselves to be.

Well, how exactly is this different from the way most people approach life? We speak of things such as relationships, work, and family in exactly the same terms ("this is what's real," "this is what really matters"), based almost entirely on the length of time we have been doing them. Consider how absurd (pun fully intended) this is. What if, for example, we lived for a million years - would we still consider a 50-year relationship to be "real"? Or would it be a mere dalliance--a blip in time, as it were--compared to our 500,000-year marriage?

Everything is relative, and by allowing ourselves to be sucked into the game of what is "real"--i.e, meaningful--and what is not, we lose our ability to see reality as it truly is. We are all playing roles, but while the absurd man recognizes this reality and embraces it--as Camus put it, he knows the rock will roll back down the hill--others fight tooth and nail against this simple truth, hoping desperately to be rescued from what they see as the hellish existence of life without purpose.

We, of course, think it's pretty cool.


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