One of the opening social gambits to which I have long been allergic is “What do you do?” I cringe when I hear myself asking it – I want to find a different way to find out about this endlessly fascinating individual standing in front of me.
When we ask each other what do we do it’s so we can neatly assign each other a role, a level of competence and perceived importance. It’s a polite way of judging each other. And it always feels wrong to me.
The best conversation opener I have ever experienced at a party was being asked what vaguely shameful thing I’d done in my life that could get me into the papers. OK, perhaps not quite the opportunity to discover the hidden gems of a person, but certainly a long way away from the usual chit chat that doesn’t uncover anything valuable to know about your new acquaintance.
As I recall the conversation that ensued ranged over art, love, relationships, horse-racing and philosophy. Not once did I mention what I did. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.
When we focus on what our role in life is we soon become slightly bored with ourselves. Instead of paying attention to what we uniquely bring as a human being, we’re tempted to obsess about the things we SHOULD do as a parent, spouse, business owner, project manager, student, widow etc. Our own list of roles is endless.
If we’re not careful we can spend our lives trying to carve out our niche, our neat little compartment, without fully appreciating the heart and soul of who we are. There really only ought to be one neat little compartment we ever need to occupy – and by that point the heart and soul are long gone.
From a journaling perspective it is useful to make a list of all the roles we have in our life – and to write a few lines about the version of self we bring to each. If you do decide to undertake this exercise, be vigilant about how the SHOULDs creep in, how you begin to compare your actual performance in the role against your imaginary bench-mark.
Another thing we soon discover is that what we’re writing against each named role doesn’t feel enough. That there is so much else that we wish to express about ourselves – and inquiring solely of our roles just doesn’t deliver it. In this situation, reflecting on ‘what’s missing’, or better put ‘what else’ can be very enlightening.
A beloved friend of mine likes to paint scenarios of things that will and will not happen. As I listen and feel rising constraint and suffocation I realise that much of what he’s saying is based on his own perceptions of the obligations and expectations associated with particular roles – with perhaps a dash of bet-hedging. Few of these kinds of scenarios are based on how the people themselves are likely to feel, respond and behave, in a given situation, were they truly left to their own devices.
This feels sad to me, and limiting. While it is important to assume our various responsibilities in life it is very often mistaken to do so under the guise of superficial roles, without the guidance of our true heart and soul.
In this sense we never shake off our responsibilities, but we do have a better chance of tackling them with originality, creativity and flair.