Life in Context

The circumstances in which we experience things significantly inform how we relate to them. At first glance, this makes perfect sense. What we do at work is not what we do at home. Who we are with our friends in a bar is not who we are at a family celebration. Different situations call upon us to act in certain ways, be different people.

The standards we are expected to maintain depend a lot on context as well. Lots of people have affairs and no one makes anything of it. If a politician has an affair it can be splurged across the media and bring an end to their career. In times past here in the UK (and it may well be true still for other parts of the world) if you had a more sensitive job – like teaching, then it was not ok to be pagan.

There are contexts in which it is acceptable to express our beliefs, ethics, political stance and so forth and places where we can’t. This is especially true around work. Who we are at work is an employee, and in many places, the rest of who you are has to stay outside.

Another one that fascinates me is that there are plenty of places people don’t want children, because it makes them uncomfortable. There are things we do as adults that we don’t want our younger folk to see or know about. Things like 18 films are there to protect the young. But they also exist to protect the adults from the very young knowing certain things about us. Children should not see us when we are drunk, on the pull, or otherwise messing about. If children saw how adults behave when they ‘let their hair down’ we’d have a deal more trouble getting them to accept our authority.

Some of the rest of it comes down to authority and power too. Who has the right to be what, and when? Who is allowed? But there’s also the issue of the ways in which we compartmentalise our lives, what we choose to let out and when. As with most things, there are no hard lines here, no clear cut certainties. There are times when what is required of us varies. But there is, I think, a difference between modifying your behaviour and presentation style to fit a circumstance (how we talk to a Judge is not how we talk to a lover) and not feeling like we are, or can be the same person in different settings. When the sense of what is permissible starts to impact on your sense of identity, there are questions to be asked.

If someone – be it yourself, or someone you know – is an entirely different person in some circumstances, how do you tell what is real? It might be all real. It might be that one character portrayed is just a mask. That’s when the problems begin. If fitting the context ceases to be necessary social flexibility and becomes a charade, then it’s a lie. It raises issues about honour. To spend any significant amount of time pretending to be someone you aren’t isn’t healthy either. It isn’t good for the soul.

It’s worth taking the time to consider how your identity changes (if at all) in response to people and situations. Does that feel comfortable? If it does, then the odds are that all is fine. If, on reflection, it makes you uncomfortable, then it’s worth thinking about why. I’ve had one of those today – a situation which only works if I am docile, co-operative, make no attempt at having or expressing an opinion and pretty much do what I am told. While the co-operative bit is very much in my nature, the rest of it isn’t. How do I respond to a situation in which I am not allowed to be myself? How much is conditional upon my behaving in the manner expected of me? There are no easy answers, but the process of considering is important.