“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”― Martin Luther King Jr.
There’s a reductive and slightly less noble version of Dr. King’s lofty exultation that most people have heard: “If you’re going to be a garbage man, be the best damn garbage man there is”. You could argue that the basis for this fine sentiment is the importance and integrity of work well done, regardless of the type. But I would say there’s a deeper message, relating to the critical difference between role and identity.
Role is the present. A role is anything that can be put on and taken off by virtue of choice, necessity, and the passage of time. It is your interests and activities, the sort of things you would put on a resume or dating profile. A role can be a job position, a relationship, a fan club, a socioeconomic status, a political affiliation, your age, and even aspects of your physical appearance. Roles are often dependent on other people, our needs, our ever-transforming perspectives, and our circumstances. They are influenced by what we think society demands of us, our responsibilities, our preconceived notions of what is desirable, good, and worthy of admiration. In that way, roles are our presentation to the world. They are the payment we make to be accepted and the toll we exact on ourselves to feel loved.
Roles are important and touch every part of our lives. But they change. They often end completely. Because life is change. Even if we choose a life as “safe” as possible, with few relationships, little vulnerability, and a transactional approach to each day, there are too many facets outside of our control to prevent change. Death, sickness, job loss, the stock market, a crazy parent, your genetics, an unexpected email, an overflowing toilet, divorce, and so on all rip roles from us or brutally smash new ones onto our shoulders.
By contrast, identity is the intangible. It transcends role, time, and circumstance. It is the things about you that are enunciated and strengthened by circumstances, not robbed by them. It is your character. It is your inherent value as a human coupled with every aspect of your personality and perspective that colors and informs each situation you experience. Though it would be a stretch to say identity never changes, it usually does so at a tree sap rate compared to the skittish kitten rate of many roles. If role is the crust of a person, identity is the core and sub-mantle. Everything revolves around the core, and the inner mantle turns and alters in slow-motion as it is tested and heated.
While neither role nor identity is bad, they are not on equal footing. This is evidenced by the angst, instability, and ill-health caused by conflating the two, elevating role to identity. While the misappropriated value of a role has often disastrous results, the primary positioning of identity has a commensurately powerful effect.
Identity is filtered into role; in most cases role is the “what” and identity is the “how”. If you believe you are worthy of pay corresponding to your experience and worth, you will negotiate a raise or find a new occupation. If you don’t, you’ll stay in your current position. If you believe you have agency in life, you’ll make choices and take action to support an upward trend toward your goals. If you consider yourself a victim of circumstance, you will accept your “lot” and refuse to even consider better. Identity will keep you stuck in a role, not the other way around. We joke about a natural aversion to certain topics, or people who cannot discuss anything beyond a certain subject. Take the proverbial uncle who waxes poetic on his political ideals and becomes incensed by any disagreement or the aunt who won’t stop blabbering about how carefully manicured her lawn is compared to the neighbors. These people can’t see beyond a role they are filling. “I am (pick a political party). We (pick some attribute they admire or think they should admire).” “I am the good neighbor. I run a tight ship.” They work at bolstering the role by insulating it with flawed logic. “We are the only hope for this nation”. “We have all the right ideas”. “I keep property values up.” “I am the only responsible adult on this street; people just don’t care about their homes anymore.” In their desire to legitimize their entrenched role, they build actual trenches, divisions between them and the “other”, whoever that may be. If you “other” long enough, then any kind of treatment or viewpoint is justifiable. After all, you are a “______” and they are just “_____”, barely human. The snide, derogatory, and cynical inevitably follow. “Dodge trucks are junk and the people who drive them are morons. Ford is the real deal.” “Cat owners? All lonely nerds with no friends. Dogs owners know a real pet when they see one.” “No, that Virtual Reality game is crap. I’m a REAL GAMER!” “I would never put my kid in public school. Public schools are the devil! I care too much about them to ever do that.” Ad nauseum (and nausea).
An elevation of role also leads to arrested development. I use that term broadly and without any psychological authority, but in the sense that it results in an inability to change. You know these sorts. Maybe you are “these sorts”. For some, they “peak” in high school (or another stage) and never grow UP. Their fear in nailing down an identity that endures by exiting a temporary role for another is paramount. Their desire for comfort in the known leads…right into nowhere. Role-attached people ruminate over the past. They are in perpetual mourning for what was and cannot embrace the now or hope for the future. The “good old days” are a recurring theme in conversation, regardless of how truly wretched those days might have actually been. For others, they max out in a role that should have been a brief stepping-stone. I’ve met women who are so devastated by the weaning of their young child, they manifest a death-like grief once it happens. Don’t laugh. Why do you think so many men suffer from the stereotypical “mid-life crisis”? They are unwilling to healthfully process, mourn, and transition from one role to another. The young man, young dad, or young professional is now the old man, the empty-nester, the 20-year-tenured office mummy. Instead of facing these changes, we all run for the hills and hunker down.
Role-wedged people are held captive to what they hoped for, felt safe, or loved in one season and it destroys their hope in and love of another. It steals their presence. It diminishes their capacity for joy. It crushes their spirit. “What am I, if I’m not ______?” It’s a good question to ask. The answer should be, “Me. Still me.” But it is most often, “Nothing. Nobody. Over. No good. Less than. A waste. A fool. Unwanted. Damaged goods. A loser.”
Lest you hold yourself above the descriptions of sad, sorry has-beens or wanted-to-bes, remember: We are ALL this. There is virtually no way to avoid the trap of living for a role and no shame in recognizing it. We live in a culture and world that demands a code of “bad”, “better”, and “best” for every category of life. But just because something is true, doesn’t mean it is truth. You can revolt. Doing so will change not just your perspective, but your mental health, your language, your adaptability, and your legacy. If you are stuck in a role or mourning that role’s end, you have pigeon-holed yourself. The best part of that sentence is “you”. YOU have pigeon-holed yourself. Follow that to its logical conclusion. Hint – You are the agent of change. Confound the naysayers! Even if they’re you. Especially if they’re you.
One of the greatest indicators of a successful life is the ability to manage and live within change well, since life is, by default, change. You can rebel against life, resenting role changes all you want, but you are railing against the inevitable, and the incredible opportunity these eventualities provide. You need a fixed point of reference. Otherwise you’re at the outer rim, being crushed as the wheels turn again and again. Identity provides this wheel hub, this anchor. It subjects the temporary to the permanent.
Perhaps a more relatable and succinct take on the value of identity versus role could be expressed in the words of Nacho Libre, said in the throes of role angst, “I am the gatekeeper of my own destiny and I will have my glory day in the hot sun.” (He did.)
Take the permanence view. You’ll change, but only for the better.