Updated: Mar 21, 2020
We play different roles in our lives. Depending on our gender, we may be a son or daughter; mother or father; brother or sister; husband or wife. Apart from our gender roles, we play other roles in society as well. For example, we may be a supervisor or subordinate; seller or customer; teacher or student; and so on. In most circumstances, we can choose our societal roles; for example, we can decide not to buy, or we can change our profession if we’re not happy about it. Our gender roles however are bestowed at birth. In other words, we cannot decide to change our gender roles without repercussions. And although gender roles may appear to be quite straightforward; they tend to create the most profound happiness or sufferings as we foray into adulthood. The difficulty lies in knowing the boundary conditions for each gender role and learning how to fulfill each role within the context of our spiritual practice. Put simply, we must learn how not to be a father and a mother, a husband and a wife, a daughter, and a son, all in the same lifetime. Doing so will create even more pain and frustrations in our otherwise simple lives.
Along with each gender roles, there are responsibilities that we need to distill and fulfill. To illustrate this: imagine we depict each role as a circle, the size of which dictates the scope of that role. Depending on our Karma, there is a tendency in all of us to either enlarge or reduce the size of the circle, in relation to the person we are living or working with. This creates unnecessary strains because an over-inflated balloon is prone to rupture, whilst a deflated balloon is not much to work with. We often see husbands and wives at odds because neither party understands or knows the scope of their role in each other’s life. Over time, one of the roles is enlarged and overshadows the other, and soon after, the husband is taking on the responsibilities of the wife, and/ or vice versa. What about husbands and wives who are totally unaware of their roles? Well, a dirty, unkempt and cluttered home is often the outcome. Know our roles and we will naturally know to treat our homes as we will a temple or church - clean and uncluttered - in much the same way we treat our bodies and minds.
Associated with a role are responsibilities that we shall depict with another circle, the size of which dictates the optimal amount of responsibilities that we will need to deliver in order to fulfill the scope of the role. Ideally, the two circles (i.e., the role and responsibilities) must coincide (i.e. be of the same size). In other words, we should never overemphasize or undermine our roles (i.e., in terms of scope), and neither should we overindulge nor fail to deliver on our responsibilities. For each role we play, there are associated responsibilities we have to dispense. Distilling the amount is a trial we will need to surmise and surpass if we were to realise on our path to enlightenment.
To elaborate: a daughter who can’t bear to see her mother’s failing in her parental role may decide to step in to discipline her younger sister or brother on behalf of the mother. Such a decision, albeit out of the daughter's empathy for the mother, will create negative emotions in the siblings. Unknowingly, the daughter has taken on the role and responsibility of the mother and hence, disturbed the emotional (karmic) balance in the family. In another example, a husband and father, who's never provided for the well-being of the family; either financially or emotionally, is often regarded as irresponsible. On the other hand, there are those who are preoccupied with the provisions of financial security and material comforts that they fail to provide the emotional sustenance and guidance to bring up confident, conscience-stable children. Then there are those (men and women alike) who keep separate nests, as if migrating cranes escaping the cold weather as the seasons' change, much to the detriment of marriage and family. Of all the trials we have to go through, we will most likely fail in our gender roles and responsibilities. Mastering the skills necessary to distill our roles and responsibilities in this lifetime is noble cultivation worthy of our attention and efforts.
Keep the Balance
We take on new gender roles as we progress into adulthood. A daughter must quickly learn to take on the roles of a wife, daughter-in-law and eventually a mother almost all at the same time. A son, on the other hand, will have to fill the roles of a husband, son-in-law, and father after marriage. The first 5 years of marriage tend to be the most challenging because most couples are unprepared to take on these new roles. Unfortunately, the early years of a marriage are also the most important because uncorrected behaviours, once become habits, are the most difficult to change when they are ingrained in the relationship. For example, a husband who overly dotes on his wife early in a marriage, such that she doesn’t feel responsible to help out in the house, is cultivating damaging behaviours that will surface as the marriage progresses. Ultimately, marital fault lines appear and stress eventually breaks them apart. It’s ironic but the start of a failed marriage usually stems from nondescript and minuscule reasons which most couples will care to admit. Here’s another example: a wife complains that she seldom sees her husband because he dines at his parents’ home every evening and returns home late at night. And that she longs for the intimacy of being a married couple. We can imagine the delight of the parents to have such a filial son, but we cannot deny the behaviour (and habit) is causing the slow demise of the marriage. Notwithstanding your personal beliefs and understanding, a marriage is a sacred vow sanctioned by the Divine, and literally, “till death do us part” is not simply something we want to take lightly.
As we learn to be responsible for our roles, we realise our mortal lives are often intricately intertwined with that of our loved ones. How do interact with them such that we build strong and growing interdependent relationships with them?