You wear the mask

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar

Most of us have forgotten that we wear a mask, that the persona we concocted for public consumption isn’t who we are.

We started hammering out our facial armour on the anvil of our disappointments when we were too young to know what we were doing or what the long-term consequences would be.

We learned the world was not our playpen the first time our parents told us no or smacked us because we didn’t live up to their expectations, when our friends played with someone else, when we didn’t make the school play or the hockey team.

Each time, we forged more steel into our mask to hide our hurt and confusion; with each embarrassment, each rejection, we added more layers until by the time we were adults, our real face was hidden even from ourselves.

By the time we stumbled though university, marriage, mortgages and children, we didn’t particularly care who we were as long as we could get enough sleep and pay the next bill. The mask had become us.

It slipped sometimes, when we had one too many glasses of wine or in a moment of accidental reflection wondered who was behind the eyes staring back from the mirror.

Even if the questions keep us awake, just before dawn, as our body tightens and readies for the assault of another day, the mask locks into place. As the radio alarm clicks on and the all too-perky DJ marshals us for the day’s battles, we check our face shield to make sure we are ready for what lies ahead.

When — and if — we remember we wear a mask, contemplating taking it off is akin to Aesop’s fable of who will bell the cat. The task is daunting, but we don’t risk much; the most we will lose is an inauthentic life.

It is a creation of our fear — and we’re all afraid of something, even if it’s just fear. We are, however, so accustomed to the fear that we rarely notice the tightness around the chest, the knots in the stomach, the clenched teeth, and sphincter.

This dis-ease has become normal, one of the reasons some of us become ill on vacations. We hold ourselves together by will power and habit, and when we relax, there’s the universe waiting with a sickness — a warning that we can’t keep living like this.

ut instead of paying attention to life’s, or our psyche’s, warning, we take some pills and soldier on.

We can hide our fear behind our mask and suppress it, but it usually shows up, like a beach ball pushed underwater; the force we use to hold it down will be the power with which it comes up.

Eventually, we have to confront our perceived ugliness and emptiness and realize we aren’t any different than our neighbour. We like to think that the successful, the rich, the powerful and the famous are exempt from what troubles us, but the stories out of Hollywood and the sports meccas tell us differently.

At the core, we are the same, all connected. Daily, we breathe in the atoms that Lao Tse, Buddha, Jesus and everyone who ever lived exhaled. We are all atoms in the organism called humanity. There are different atoms — one with a nucleus of one proton and others with many more — but they all perform a vital function.

Atoms don’t — and can’t — judge. A hydrogen atom, No. 1 on the periodic table, doesn’t think it isn’t as good as one that has 68 protons and 68 neutrons.

We do judge, which is why we wear the mask. We think we aren’t good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, that we are empty as an atom, which is 99 per cent nothing.

We aren’t honest enough to admit we are afraid, but the amount of money spent on anti-depressants and alcohol suggest otherwise.

We can start taking off mast by accepting right now. If our luggage goes to Spain while we’re on our way to Mexico, the dry cleaner ruins our best dress and someone spills coffee into our computer before our big presentation, we can have a temper tantrum or we can smile graciously and deal with the problem.

The truly fearless and wise are open to what is. One definition of enlightenment is the acceptance of what is. When the fear, the anger or the panic hit, we don’t have to go into a rage or pretend it isn’t there, we can cradle it in our awareness and breathe it away.

It takes courage and patience to overcome ingrained beliefs, and leaving the mask on might seem safer than taking it off. We don’t have to go cold turkey. When it becomes too frightening we can always put it back on until we learn to appreciate the openness.

Like the coming of spring after a long, hard winter; the wind and the sun feel good on the exposed face.

“We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
     We wear the mask!”

— Paul Laurence Dunbar

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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