“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts… Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Shakespeare)
My wife and I were having a heated argument on the way to a dinner party. I was angry that we were late, had to turn around, go back and put the chicken in the refrigerator so it wouldn’t spoil. She was upset at my anger, tone and raised voice. It got into “You can never admit you are wrong” and “You can never accept criticism” and “You make me feel like an idiot when you contradict me.” A whole bunch of things like that. She is probably right on most counts, but I would strike the word “never” and insert “most of the time.” It escalated from there until we parked in front of the home of the party. We slammed the doors, walked up the walk, rang the doorbell and immediately put on our party faces. We had a good time – laughing, eating hamburgers, and sharing stories. My wife and I played a role on the stage of a party, and fooled everyone there, I think. It was a farce.
When we got back in the car, we drove home in absolute silence (mostly my fault again). It was tense. It is still tense two days later, and I am in depression because I asked myself, “Is life a farce, a fake?”
Is life simply a series of roles we play and the winner is the best actor?
As Shakespeare observed, we all have many roles to play. Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Islamists, husbands and wives, parents and children, boss and employee, revolutionary and conformist, conservative and liberal, elites and commoners, giver and taker, leader and follower, teacher and student, and a thousand other roles. Before going “on stage,” we sit “backstage” putting on our makeup, adjusting our costume, and going over our lines for our play of the day. Then we go act out our role for that performance like my wife and I did at that party. We have to learn different lines for different plays in life.
Every group demands we play a different role. It can become very confusing. We play so many parts, we don’t know who we are.
In politics, the best actor wins. He has his lines memorized and comes across as a caring person, and millions believe it and rewards him with votes. As they say, “In politics, perception is reality.”
Frenchman, Blaise Pascal wrote about the mystery of costumes in the 17th century. “Our magistrates have known well this mystery of imagery. Their red robes, the ermine in which they wrap themselves like furry cats, the courts in which they administer justice, the fleurs-de-lis, and all such august apparel were necessary; if the physicians had not their cassocks and their mules, if the doctors had not their square caps and their robes four times too wide, they would never have duped the world, which cannot resist so original an appearance. If magistrates had true justice, and if physicians had the true art of healing, they would have no occasion for square caps; the majesty of these sciences would of itself be venerable enough. But having only imaginary knowledge, they must employ those silly tools that strike the imagination with which they have to deal; and thereby in fact they inspire respect.”
Watching the pretense of men, Malcolm Muggeridge comments, “Judges need their wigs and robes, priests their vestments, scholars their gowns – for that matter, hippies their long hair and fancy dress; otherwise the fraudulence of their pretensions would be all too apparent. Similarly the British Raj needed majestic titles, silver thrones, and ceremonial durbars. In my years of journalism, I have never seen authority that did not give off a whiff of decay, or power that was not sawdust stuffed, or glamour without grease-paint. The White House smile! That Kremlin glower!”
That is an interesting phrase: “sawdust stuffed,” because “farce” means “To stuff, to improve as if by stuffing, or a funny play or movie about ridiculous situations and events”
Even in marriage, we have to play a role. My script calls for a soft voice, speaking in the write tone of voice, never getting angry, and not contradicting. When I shared this with a buddy of mine, he laughed and explained that, he too, had to play a role with his wife – mainly agreeing with what she says. Peace was more valuable to him than being right. Me too!
But what if we come to the play with the wrong lines? It is like recurring scene that comes to Malcolm Muggeridge’s mind: “I am standing in the wings of a theater waiting for my cue to go on stage. As I stand there, I can hear the play proceeding, and suddenly it dawns on me that the lines I have learned are not in this play at all, but belong to a quite different one. Panic seizes me; I wonder frenziedly what I should do. Then I get my cue. Stumbling, falling over the unfamiliar scenery, I make my way on to the stage, and there look for guidance to the prompter, whose head I can see rising out of the floor boards. Alas, he only signals helplessly to me, and I realize that of course his script is different than mine. I begin to speak my lines, but they are incomprehensible to the other actors and abhorrent to the audience, who begin to hiss and shout: `Get off the stage!’ `Let the play go on!’ `You’re interrupting!’ I am paralyzed and can think of nothing to do but go on standing there and speaking my lines that don’t fit. The only lines I know.”
Somehow we feel out of place. The lines we have learned are not being received, but we go on speaking them, because it’s all we know. It is very uncomfortable, but we don’t know what else to do. Husbands and wives can walk through life disconnected with each other. The roles for peace are so defined, we know every line. We even know every detail of the script of an argument. Our true selves never emerge because it is unsafe.
Why do we learn our lines? To be accepted? To fit in? To not be alone? Significance? Applause?
The best actors get the awards in the end, so we do our best to play our roles. But the trophies leave us empty, and crowd is envious, even with the practiced lines of our acceptance speeches – with the proper amount of humility and gratitude.
Living a divided life between role and soul is unhealthy. It lacks integrity. The outside does not match the inside. “Every discrepancy between our outward behavior and our inner feelings is both a moral fault and a psychological injury to our personality.” (Dr. Paul Tournier)
When we hide behind a wall, we cannot enlighten the world with truth and authenticity. We cannot receive the light to penetrate our darkness. (“If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness.”) Others begin to distrust us and distance themselves from us. We are not a safe place for their true selves, and they distrust our duplicity and hypocrisy. We alienate ourselves from others and loneliness kicks in.
“We all know stories of people who have wandered off into the madness of economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war. Their moral bearings and even their mortal lives make headlines because they take so many innocents down with them.” (Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness)
The good news is that while the soul may be lost in a blizzard of lies, it can never be destroyed, because lies can never conquer truth.
Palmer continues, “As we cross the rising terrain between infancy and adolescence-still close enough to our origins to be in touch with inner truth but aware of the mounting pressure to play someone else “out there”- the true self starts to feel threatened. We deal with the threat by developing a child’s version of the divided life, commuting daily between the public world of role and the hidden world of soul.”
There something fundamentally wrong with life that has turned itself into a role to play rather than a person to be. “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.” (Thomas Merton)
I believe the appeal of great literature is that it reveals the true soul of man, by going behind our masks and roles and veils. In “C. S. Lewis’s classic Chronicles of Narnia, we read about a magic wardrobe through which young Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy pass from their humdrum existence in the English countryside into a parallel universe of light and shadow, of mystery and moral demand, confronting the daunting and bracing challenges of the inner journey.’ I have never doubted the truth of the Narnia tales: that magic wardrobe was in my bedroom, too! But when we turn from literature to life, this charming feature of childhood soon disappears, to be replaced by an adult pathology. As the outer world becomes more demanding (and today it presses in on children at an obscenely early age) we stop going to our rooms, shutting the door, walking into the wardrobe, and entering the world of the soul.” (Parker Palmer)
The hypocritical Pharisees are called “play actors.” Jesus said, “Watch out for hypocrisy.” Why? Because the outside does not match the inside. We are not whole. We are living a divided life. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees. I’m talking about their hypocrisy. Nothing has been covered that will not be exposed. Whatever is secret will be made known.” (Luke 12:1-2) This seems to indicate that the inside will eventually be exposed. I used to think this was a negative about our faults, because I heard sermons on God exposing all our sins on a giant screen in the sky. Now I see this exposure totally differently. It is a good thing, because our true self will come out and we will be whole again. And Jesus goes on: “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. Whatever you have whispered in private rooms will be shouted from the housetops.” This seems to apply to everyone. If this is true then we all will come back to our souls and be whole. When this happens the human race will become “one new man.” This is my hope out of the dark place of my divided life.