The other day I heard someone say “It’s all right: I know my place.” This was said humorously but it made me think nonetheless. Living in society, we inevitably play roles and these roles both limit what we can do and impose duties upon us. In other words, they put us in our place.
We are adept at working out what a person’s role or place is, often merely by looking at them. We may not get it exactly right in all cases but we generally come close enough. We not only recognize people’s roles but also have firm ideas about how we expect them to perform them. For example, if I saw a crime being committed and were lucky enough to spot a policeman, I would not expect him to sit down on a convenient bench, pull out a cigarette and wave me away with an airy “Not now, mate. I’m on me break.” A perception of someone’s role brings with it a perception of the rights and duties incumbent upon the person by virtue of the role.
We ourselves are also constrained by other people’s perceptions of our roles. The fact that people projected a persona onto me because of whatever job I was doing often made me feel uncomfortable, as though I were playing a part rather than being myself. It also leads to the curious fact that, for many people, you are whatever job you do. I don’t know how many times I have been asked by strangers at parties and so on “What do you do?” When I said “Teacher” or “Book shop assistant”, they would reply something like “Oh, right.” and that would be that. I was classified. Shut the notebook.
But knowing your place does not come solely from others. It is all too easy to come to think of yourself as a teacher, a police officer, a lorry driver, a window cleaner, or whatever job you do, rather than as an independent individual and then to feel bereft and disoriented when you no longer have that job to define you.
Does anyone ask an apple tree what it does? Or a skunk or a pebble on the beach? No. Why not? Well, because… Well, because an apple tree is just an apple tree and a skunk is just a skunk. Maybe I should have been a skunk. Who can tell? Perhaps that is the answer, though: instead of worrying about what to be and how to be it, just be.
Society, of course, will always have the last word. Either you play the game and accept your place, in which case you will be known as your role – as a tax inspector, a garage manager, a bank clerk – or you will sidestep the beaten track and be yourself in your own way. In this case you will be known as an eccentric, a ne’er-do-well or even a “nutter”. It might be worth it.