How often we go through life wearing the masks that we have created for ourselves, formed and constructed in countless interactions throughout our life. Can it become a permanent state, always making sure we present ourselves in the right way in the right situation, so that we never know who we really are?
Sitting in a café one morning in Washington, D.C. (the latte and croissant were excellent!), I observed through the window the people rushing by on their way to work or some meeting. Mostly they wore the serious, determined look of people doing serious, important work in the nation’s capital. Others had an expression that is best described as – blank. When I have such an opportunity, I try to imagine what each person does and to where they might be going. I am also sure that my error rate most likely approaches 100%, but that doesn’t stop me. As I watched each person, I wondered how much of the face they presented to the world represented who they really were, and what mattered to them. Maybe I am transferring, but I suspect – especially in a city such as D.C. – that most people present to their work world someone other than who they really are. I would not be surprised if it extends beyond the work life, as well.
This is understandable. We have as a species developed, through time, all sorts of means to navigate this world. We engage in these tactics almost unconsciously to avoid danger (including through rejection) and to get what we need or want. We pick up on all sorts of clues that tell us how to behave, what to say, and, usually more importantly, what not to say. These can be in a myriad of situations and structures: social, moral, religious, professional, familial, ethical, pubic, private, and so on. We navigate the minefields; we learn what works and what does not. Even though this appears to be a natural process of socialization through evolutionary development (both biological and cultural), is there a personal cost?
In selecting the right mask for the right situation, is there a danger of losing one’s self? We might know the right way to act, or the right thing to say, but is the presentation false? I am not questioning that it may be successful, to be sure, but does it represent who that person truly is? Are we able to successfully separate the person buried beneath some sort of façade appropriate to the occasion from the skilled automaton who delivers the message the audience wants to hear? Do you, do I, perform like a trained seal? What kind of life is that?
There is a song by Michael Card titled “The Poem of Your Life” that contains the following passage:
So look in the mirror and pray for the grace,
To tear off the mask, see the art of your face….
Why would we want to do that? Because to discover the essence of who we are is something true. All of the constructs and posturing that make up the masks that we wear to get along, to be successful, to “be like folks” as C.S. Lewis used to say, are, to a some percentage, lies. They are false. We are false. Many go through this life unable, unwilling, or uninspired to be true to themselves and with others. I know, as one person told me, it would not necessarily be a pleasant thing to see people for who they really are. I know that – because I know myself. But it would be true. And are we so afraid of the truth that must keep it hidden to keep the peace? Are we so shallow, so lacking in depth that we cannot bear that reality, that the reality of those around us is different from what our fantasy has led us to believe?
Yes. Cultural and biological evolution have conditioned us to reject those that do not conform to the expected and who do not go through the ritual dance of the false face to achieve the desired end. And so, I can not advocate a mass tearing off of the masks we wear in every situation. First, no one pays attention to anything I say. Second, civilization, as we know it, would cease if this were to happen. But what I do urge is finding those places and spaces where, and the people with whom, you can tear off all of your masks and be the person you are and explore the true person you want to be.