Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Masks: Like Hats, Come In All Shapes, Sizes and Colors

I remember in the movie “The Mask” – a comedy, Ben Stein plays a renowned author who has written a book about how people wear masks as a way to conceal themselves from the world. Our hero in the movie, portrayed by Jim Carey, sees the interview of the author on TV, and having acquired a real mask himself, one that has great powers of transformation, pays Stein’s character a visit. In fact, the mask doesn’t hide Carey’s character; it enables him to show his deepest self – the person he aspires to be.

The author explains that the book isn’t about an actual mask, but only a metaphor of how we try to hide our true selves. Who hasn’t been guilty of that at one time or another? We see others do it, but we are not readily prepared to catch ourselves in the act – maybe until later, maybe never.

The question is what do we hide from others? Guilt, pain and suffering, a weakness or two, wear and tear, maybe even sparing someone from hurt, disappointment. I think there are many reasons as to why this is done. Any psychologist will tell you that it’s done out of fear. Any spiritual or religious leader will tell you that it’s done out of pride.

Fear and pride. Two very human, but very profound weaknesses of being, well, human. If I were to wear a mask (and I admit being weak enough to do it, so give me some credit for honesty), my reasons would be fear. I experienced a privileged, never spoiled, childhood. I went to a private school, went to summer camp, lived in a big house with matching yard and enjoyed activities with my dad, whom I’m still close to after all these years. Family values, the work ethic and the value (not worship) of a dollar were ingrained in me.

However, even with the opportunities, were the abuses from my mother. I loved my mom, but abhorred her behavior. From the age of four I was screamed at, beaten, pushed, shoved, and ridiculed until the age of 17. Many would have predicted that the law of average would in favor of me turning out to be the same or turning to alcohol or drug abuse. But my life took a different path. I wore a mask to hide the shame of this horrendous upbringing and to hide my fear of being unaccepted – unacceptable. I had to go through it all over again in an abusive and unfaithful spouse.

It has taken me a while to realize all of this fear, hiding in a mask, put it all together and put it to rest, once and for all times.

I was fortunate enough to forgive mom later in life and had meaningful dialogue after she finally mellowed out, although I never quite knew what demons haunted my mom. My sister was able to forgive mom much later as mom was unconscious and slowly dying from a massive stroke – minutes before being disconnected from life support. The ex-wife, well, we had one final, peaceful communication, then all contact ceased. She had many masks that were more profound than any I had ever known. I have my battle scars, but better to show them and compare than to think they don't exist. I'm better for the experience and lesson learned.

I have often stated that life is a journey. It’s a forgone conclusion that no one is perfect out of the womb – aside from the idea that we are born in sin; it’s more than that. We have issues, like it or not, that through either nurture or nature we must face in our daily journey. It knows no boundaries – sex, age, race, color, creed, religion or national origin makes little difference in the equation. The tragedy is not that we have to face these personal trials and issues in the hopes of becoming a better adjusted person. No, I think the tragedy is some never see or face the concept that they have these issues and grapple with them. Facing your demons, it has been called; because the first step to solving a problem is recognizing it.

I’ve often heard that if we were to put our demons, issues, trials, what have you, out on the table – just laying the cards out for all to see, chances are good we’d take our own back in lieu of trading with another person (that is if we haven’t scared them all from said table). While that’s metaphoric in nature, it’s true in concept, while at the same time, it brings up a universal truth: despite the fact that we wouldn’t trade places with anyone if we were to know what is behind the mask, we would instead, in many cases identify with the other person’s pain, trials, ordeals. This probably isn’t because we have gone down that exact same path as the other person. I think it’s pure and simple empathy because we know the resulting feelings, not necessarily identifying with the cause. We all stumble. We all fall. Hopefully, we all get up again.

One important thing I learned when I did missions work (but unfortunately didn’t always practice in my lifetime) was that to be an effective Christian witness was honesty about your trials, suffering, flaws and stumblings. Let the world see you, warts and all. How many of us are brave, or better yet, fearless enough to let everyone see our burns, scars, scratches and patch work? Of course, there are some I know (not anywhere near me in physical location) who go the other end of the spectrum: they tell everything about themselves to the point that you fear them, not the dangling set of bones in your closet! You may know someone like that – and they won’t take good money to just take it down a notch. Still, you have to admire their courage. Or maybe they just don’t give a damn about what other people think; perhaps it’s even apathy.

And what about Carey’s character? He doesn’t keep the mask. He found out that he had everything he needed right inside. The experience with the mask allowed him to recognized that and tap into his true self. Ironically, the mask made him realize he didn’t need it at all. It was good therapy for him, like this blog sometimes is for me.

And finally, back to those we have known who wore a mask. Recently, it was former presidential candidate John Edwards. There are even people in my building who wear a mask, but are so convinced that no one notices. Sometimes, it isn’t so obvious to the actor nor to the audience they play to. Shakespeare had it dead to rights when he said, “All the world is a stage….” He knew.

Think about it and let me know. I’d like to hear your thoughts. What mask do you tend to wear? What mask have you discarded? Is there now a harmonious balance between being unmasked and on the edge of unbridled nakedness? An even balance is good. Nature likes a good balance. Nature doesn’t like a vacuum.


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