The Phantom Rolebooth

The other day I was listening to the excellent podcast “Writers on Writing” (much easier to do than, y’know, actually writing) and George Saunders was talking about the way he would occasionally take inspiration from his dreams. The trick, he related, was to know which dreams were actually worth turning into stories, and which ones should remain just dreams.

I’m not George Saunders, so it’s entirely possible that I’m making a mistake with this entry. But not only was it a dream, it was an idea that stayed with me a few days afterwards…so bear with me, ok?

Available Space

In the dream, I was talking with my ex-wife about one of my daughters (I won’t say which one, since some of them read this blog) and we were talking about her booth.

In that surreal-is-normal way that dreams have, my daughter was standing inside of a kind of phonebooth/tardis-looking box which completely surrounded her without actually impeding her movement. My ex and I were talking about how long it might take for her to grow into that booth, as there was still quite a bit of space around her. The booth had a protective feeling to it, like it would shelter her as needed, and it also kept her from a full range of motion, a necessary sacrifice for that kind of protection.

The conversation wasn’t important, but the feeling was that the booth itself was a key part of her development. That there was some minor worry that she might not actually grow into the available space around her, that the walls might prove too strong, or not give her enough room to move and gain the strength she needed. Somehow I knew that when she grow into it the booth would disappear, no longer necessary.

When I woke – or maybe even before – I realized that the booth might be an apt metaphor for the roles we take on in our lives.

Structural Supports

I’m lucky enough to have friends who see more in me than I see in myself. There have been more than a few times that the way they treat me and the things they expect of me have pulled me beyond my comfort zone and into what I affectionately call “AFGO”‘s: Another Frakkin’ Growth Opportunity. One way of looking at that is to see these as times when my friends have put me into a role, into a box labeled “leader” or “teacher” or “writer” or “father” and simply treated me as if that were the reality.

My reality, on the other hand, is often simply feeling very small and ill-fitted to the walls of whatever particular box I am trying to fill. So I fake it, relying on the walls of the role – the conventions and expectations that go along with the cultural construct – to help me carry on through the process.

My own favorite box. Extra points if you recognize it, and what's inside.
My own favorite box. Extra points if you recognize it, and what’s inside.

In the best case scenario, I realize that the walls have disappeared, because now that role is no longer something I’ve put on, it’s something I am. In other situations, I realize that the box is not one that I really want to fit in, and I step out of it.

These boxes and labels can be incredibly useful for your development, regardless of age. There was a pretty and shiny booth of dark blue with red and gold piping labeled “Marine” that I grew into and it gave me the tools and strength I needed for many of the trials to come. Currently I’m trying to fit into the box labeled “writer”, with some success and some setbacks. As the saying goes, sometimes we are born into great boxes, sometimes great boxes are thrust upon us.

The Problem with Boxes

Of course, there’s a darker side of these kinds of booths. The thing about walls of any kind is that they are rarely smart enough to tell the difference between leaning and pushing. The one is for support, the other is expressing a desire to leave, but the walls of the booth don’t care.

They also don’t really know or care what they are keeping out. The constraints of the roles we maintain in our lives can hide things that we might want or need to see. Sometimes it’s because we can’t see over them, and sometimes it’s because the things are right next to us, just on the other side of the wall, but because we’re looking over, our perspective can be warped in a way that keeps things out of our perspective.

I think the worst problem can be when we forget that we are still growing into roles – when we mistake the walls of the booth for our real selves. Others do this too, and their reinforcement of the walls, while well-meaning, can be a real detriment to growth. Luckily there is a very easy way to tell when you or others I believe that when we grow into a role and absorb it into our identity: you or they start using a lot of “shoulds” and “could’ves” in your conversation, as well as creating a mythical Real Archetype. For example “A Real Writer would never sit and watch TV when there’s a book to edit.”

Dorothy: You’re a very bad man!

Wizard: No, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.

When we’ve grown into the roles, they provide us with the ability to stretch, to move, to continue to move. We define the roles, rather than being defined by them, and that provides the next wannabe with their own box to try on. Our examples of living our authentic lives provide the framework for other people to succeed. But never forget that it’s a privilege and a responsibility to yourself, not to them. They will find out the places where your Rolebooth doesn’t fit them, and deal with them.

Your job, whether you know it or not, is to test the boundaries of your own. What are you waiting for? No one’s gonna do it for you.

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