Throughout my adolescence, I collected masks that covered an entire wall of my bedroom. I do not recall exactly what incited my attraction at the time—perhaps it was their mystique. I just remember the feeling of delight when I occasionally discovered one of those unique ornaments hanging alluringly on the wall of a nondescript store. Today, my visceral response to the mere mention of the word “mask” is one of suffocation in the context of our present-day intimacy with face coverings. The ubiquitous conversation, or debate rather, around the topic of masks in our contemporary dialogue not only jogged the memory of my juvenile fascination, but also drew my attention to their wide-ranging significance.
The origin and function of masks is wildly diverse: they have been associated with everything from warfare to disease prevention to ceremony. One of their most symbolic historical applications in my opinion, was to allow one to become anonymous – with the freedom to be and do as desired. The Venetian masks in particular were frequently worn to allow the rich to mingle with the poor or a bored housewife to enjoy a fling with a mysterious lover. While this may seem like an unusual custom, I would contend that it is not so different from our contemporary realities. Today, we are no stranger to masks; not just because they have been accepted as one of the principal remedies to curb the rampant spread of a virus, but because the majority of us spend our days donning masks of a figurative nature.
Every day when we prepare to confront the world, not only do we choose our clothing as an expression of how we want society to perceive us, but we also select our emotional and characteristic masks of sorts. Typically, this choice is more subconscious than it is conscious; we are conditioned to define our ego identities based upon familial and cultural norms and expectations. Once we are old enough to speak, we begin to gradually abandon our inherent essence in order to feel a sense of belonging. So often that sensation is artificial, however, because the person who strives to belong on the outside rarely belongs to himself. This has never felt truer for me than it has over the last ten months. Now that I am spending 90% of my life at home with only my neck and head visible to others, I neglect an impressive closet full of clothes and consistently wear a rotation of the same five pairs of sweatpants. The lack of a physical barrier between home and work has also emphasized the drastic difference between how I show up in a professional setting versus a personal one. In a mere click from one video call to the next, I can instantly transform my identity. Although I know this is normal adaptive human behavior, this year’s massive life upheaval has given me an opportunity to observe how much of the person that I present to the world is theater. Author Sue Monk Kidd describes this phenomenon beautifully in her book, When the Heart Waits. She writes, “Throughout our lives we create patterns of living that obscure [our] identity. We heap on the darkness, constructing a variety of false selves. We become adept at playing games, wearing masks as if life were a masquerade party. This can go on for a long while. But eventually the music of the True Self seeks us out.”
I wonder, then, how do I begin the journey back home, to belonging to my true Self with a capital “S”? Sue Monk Kidd says “that’s the sacred intent of life—to move us continuously toward…recovering all that is lost and orphaned within us and restoring the divine image imprinted on our soul.” I certainly know when I am on the opposite path; I assume my mask of perfectionism and lead with my professional accomplishments, or even more superficially, my fashion-forward accessories (the same collection that rarely sees the light of day anymore). Yet that fleeting hit of dopamine I feel when I am recognized or sense acceptance as a result of these material effects quickly fades once I am alone with my thoughts. Intellectually, I know that belonging to myself is fundamentally believing in my own worthiness in the absence of everything that is outside of me. It is the stripping away of layers upon layers of masks that I have accumulated since before I ever hung that first one on my bedroom wall as a kid. The illusion is that those metaphorical masks offer protection from the inherent dangers of engaging with society, which assumes that not only are we separate from everyone and everything else, but that we must reinforce that separateness with additional armor.
I believe the quest, should we choose to embark upon it, is to move beyond the subtle awareness of the existence of a true Self and into the wisdom that derives from regularly exposing her to the world. Thereby we must recognize that instead of defending our personal value through separation, we are actually a reflection of everyone and everything in unity with our surroundings. This requires engaging intimately with that colleague and even the stranger on the street with compassion and empathy, remembering that his challenges and insecurities are just like our own. It also calls for our own forgiveness for everything that we think we are not, for we are already whole. I am not neglecting life’s human challenges, which include real dangers, fears and suffering (and yes, sometimes even a need to wear physical masks). Instead, I am proposing that we integrate those experiences as we embrace the mystery of the unknown future and release the fear of judgement along the way. We must trust the beautiful dance between our embodied and our spiritual selves where ultimately, we lean on love, not masks, to protect us.