Universal Roles

Writers and social scientists have always given thought to the sequence of roles that dominate a person’s life and putatively apply to any and all people and so constitute “the ages of man”. Good role theorists that most of them are, they each pick out one or more salient circumstances of each stage that may be obvious but also illuminate the psychological dimensions of that stage as well as its overall meaning. Sophocles, in his riddle of the Sphinx, saw only three stages but his characterization is perhaps still the best in that it is the most minimalist: people crawl on all four as babies; walk erect as adults; and use a cane in old age. Physical frailty characterizes both the last and the first of these stages and so makes the Sophoclean sense of life very sad. Shakespeare thought there were seven stages and he characterized them, in his own vivid way, by a circumstance, an emotion, and an activity. Schoolboys head off to school with their satchels; they are unwilling to do so and whine about it; and they go to school anyway. Soldiers curse a lot, are jealous of their reputations and remain brave even while “in the cannon’s mouth”. All seven stages are portrayed in the most benign way and that suggests that Jacques is speaking in the mood of Arden rather than with the malevolence that Shakespeare usually ascribes to the human condition. That means that one should presume an expositor of universal human roles is not to be trusted, even the present author, whose descriptions are underlain with a sense of the isolation of each human being from other human beings. Erik Erikson, who  saw there to be eight stages of psychosocial development, based his view on the basic Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. He thought that the fundamental stage of human life was the first one, when an infant sensed that he could trust the outside world to be stable and reliable. Basic trust is a form of faith. But Erikson’s idea is also based on a deep insight into what are the circumstances a baby has to manage from the baby’s point of view: the problems of nourishment and comfort. A later stage in Erikson’s schema concerns the ability to engage in a meaningful conjugal relationship, which means having to develop a capacity for intimacy rather than isolation and that challenge is certainly a version of charity. A yet later stage, that of generativity, concerns how a person can take advantage of opportunities to do productive work during one’s adult years, and that is a version of hope.

Less attention has been paid by writers and social scientists to the things that have to be learned along the way so that one can master each of the stages of human life and to the fact that once those skills have been mastered they have to be abandoned so as to start learning the skills needed for the next stage. It is like being told during Freshman Week at college, as I was, that awards and trophies won in high school are to be put aside so that one can begin one’s new career in higher education, earning new trophies and awards as best one can. The old awards are now only indicative of what might be expected in the future, no guarantee of what will take place and certainly no longer to be mentioned on one’s mental curriculum vita. What a consideration of learning the ropes of each successive stage of life reveals is that it is full of choices about what kind of person one will be and so provides an operative meaning for that old philosophical term “free will”.

Children certainly understand that as soon as they have mastered the role of being a child something new is required of them. Here they are, having learned how to manage their parents so that they get some respect and do not get shouted at too much and found ways of keeping their secrets and not to be too much embarrassed by the way their parents behave in public and in private, as well as to cope with the first set of expectations set by strangers, their grammar school teachers, than they have to cope with their hormones, which buries boys, usually, even more deeply into their own selves, and having to decide whether to be aggressive or passive or highly moral with the opposite sex, while girls have to decide whether to be flirtatious or just feminine or “good girls” who deny or criticize such feelings. Literature and religion give a whole variety of responses to these new impulses and teens who do not feel them are required to decide whether to hide that or not to be aware of such feelings.

The circumstance that defines childhood is dependence, both for food and shelter and for emotional support, there being few other people than one’s parents who can shine so brightly as people who have mastered so much more of life than the child has, even as the child catches more than a glimmer of the fact that the adults in the room have not managed life all that well themselves. What goes along with actual independence is a characteristic emotion of this stage of life: accommodation. That means that a child both does and wants to put a best foot forward so as to earn points of approval from the guiding generation, even as the child may keep to his or her self his or her disapproval of parents and teachers, and create private spaces, whether through daydreams or books or somewhere in the basement or under the porch, where he or she allows his or her self to enjoy the self indulgence of selfhood. This becomes even more intense in the teenage years, where the sexual drive is sequestered or else indulged with peers in private retreats.

The separation between public and private life becomes ever more profound, however much that distinction has always been in play, as far back as a person can remember. It is true that the separation of the private and public spheres is given social display by the industrial revolution, when work is moved out of the family cottage or farm into the office and factory, and what are now recognized as private feelings are restricted to homelife, but the distinction between the private and the public voice is as old as Genesis. Noah and Abraham hear God as a private voice and then do what He asks of them. Moses carries the process of unfolding a relation to God further by having to convey what he learned on the mountain to his followers through the means of tablets. And then, in the next iteration, the public and no longer solely private voice of God is conveyed by the priestly class in I and 2 Samuel, and that leads to the modern circumstance where the spiritual side of a person’s life is inevitably quiet or unvoiced. One does not know what to make of what David thinks as he acts the role of King, full of lust and punishment.

And then, in a nonce, all people have to move on, from the concerns of being a child or a teenager, whether or not one has successfully managed the transition into being sexual creatures, however well or not one was prepared to cope with those issues by one’s pre-teen years, which Freud points out to us are crucial for determining how people will handle the problems of sexuality once they arise. That new stage or role is that of the adult who has to be responsible for activities with strangers, as in a workplace, or even in an academic setting, which delays the need to be accountable only a little bit by making allowances for still childish habits wherein one doesn’t turn in one’s work on time or otherwise falls short on the job, still thinking that what happens in life is about him or her rather than what a person takes on as their duties, these to be done pleasantly even if the work itself is not all pleasant. The pleasure principle, for an adult, is replaced by delayed gratification. You work for what a paycheck can buy and you reserve your pleasure for a mate, and even there an adult has to negotiate, come to terms, with how a person with whom one shares the most intimate of experiences is yet a different human being with a different set of needs and a different consciousness that has to be reckoned with so that both partners can get on with their individual lives as well as their conjunction with one another.

That adult role lasts a long time and so one would suppose a great deal is learned during that time on how to do being an adult better, though even here much happens early in the role to set a person on their distinctive way of how to be an adult, perhaps because of some combination of bad or lucky breaks as those too are forecast by decisions taken at an earlier stage of life when one’s character was being formed. It is only in adventure stories, like those of Robert Louis Stevenson, that those early formative influences become externalized as treasure hunts, wherein a boy learns the ways of men and has to become a man far too early, exposed both to evil and the need to make consequential choices. For most people, the course to adulthood is set by mentors met, women confronted, job opportunities taken or despoiled. In retrospect, it looks as if all these events were traumatic and transpired too quickly. If only one had a chance to reconsider a decision. That is the sense in which youth is wasted on the young.

The adult stage lasts a long time, and there is much to master in it. A person learns all kinds of wisdom, such as to let resentments and causes for vengeful feelings to pass because they inhibit rather further life; to take ordinary things, like changing diapers or the trip home on a busy commuter train, as experiences to be savored even if they occur with some regularity because they are also places where one can experience oneself as oneself, the rattle of the train becoming for a while one’s own harmony; or going to what turn out to be a bad dinner and a bad movie with a spouse as just an excuse so you can spend time together without even having to talk all that much to one another, just basking in the unmentioned mutual affection between the two of you. One learns not to be jealous of coworkers or of friends who look a bit too adoringly at your spouse: it just isn’t worth the time or the emotion. And then having risen to being a person who is regarded by oneself and others as mature, a person has to confront the illnesses and the deaths of friends, God or whomever presiding over the culling of the herd that will eventually reach to you and your spouse. Whenever they are cut off, it always seems too soon, unless one is already in anguish or played out by medical interventions and deteriorating energy so that one calmly awaits the inevitable, not going gently into that good night but not avoiding it either, as the gas chamber victims tried to do when they clawed at the concrete around them so as to find a way out of the gas that was enveloping them. Life always ends before one has learned enough about how to be, but that is a bathetic observation because death doesn’t have to do with robbing you of new things. It just is.

Worth noticing about all of these stages of human existence is that they involve a plethora of choices, which goes counter to the idea popular in post-religious thought that a person has no free will because behavior is determined by genes and hormones that make you do things your conscious mind would not have you do. But that is to misconstrue what constitutes choice. A person cannot be said to have no free will because a person can’t leap tall buildings with a single bound or because he or she cannot repeat a string of twenty numbers backwards. There are limitations imposed on people by physics and neurology. That simply means that free will can only operate when a mentality is not overwhelmed by its deficiencies, a minimally “healthy” mentality, rather, having the equipment it needs to make choices even more profound than those clearly made by dogs and gorillas. That is why we correctly say of drug addicts that they have lost their free will: the compulsion to take drugs has infiltrated into their biochemical systems. There are so many behaviors, however, where choice obtains.

The clearest examples of choice have to do with when people make overt decisions to do one thing or one kind of thing rather than another and are so self aware of having made a choice that they take a pledge to it. People make choices when they share wedding vows or take an oath to the Constitution when they enlist for military service. And yet even here, in these most overt and public of choices, there are a number of barely perceived but nonetheless conscious choices that went into the overt choices and of which a person may not be self aware, as when a fascination with the military set in because of books read or a love of the hardiness of the outdoors or a neighbor who was a veteran. Yet we do not think of a culmination of choices as therefore unfree or determined. Similarly, one makes a number of choices that may seem to be trivial yet are generally regarded as choices, as of a favorite breakfast cereal or a rock group or a brand of automobile, some of these becoming long term brand preferences and so to be thought of as commitments, as when a wife knows of a husband’s craving for Oreos. It is possible to dismiss these choices as engineered by advertising but that begs the question of why a particular commercial resonates well enough to lead to an impulse buy of one soft drink rather than another. These are subliminal choices but only in that most choices where the basis for choice escape us or are without intrinsic interest are also done on the brink of consciousness rather than as the result of active thought. There are also choices imposed upon us, as when we select a college based on the fact that it was one that selected us by granting admission and yet that choice can be very consequential in that one picks up the habits of mind that are stressed by that college rather than by another and that one identifies oneself ever afterwards as a graduate of that college, with all its rights and perquisites, which may mean prestige for future employment or a fond memory for the adages of favorite teachers.

And so every kind of choice has this essential element of being made on the threshold of consciousness as well as, in some cases, on the very forefront of consciousness, and so it goes with the choices made in learning how to be a child, a teenager, an adult and an oldster. These are the choices that constitute substantive free will and also makes sense as a theory of free will in that it counters theories of predestination with observations from everyday life that do not have any apparent connection to hormones or to a fate written in the stars.