“A mask, my first unfeeling scrap of clothing,” Down Once More / Down this Murderer, The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber
Masks are fascinating. They have been around everywhere in the world and since ancient times. Yes, in one way or another, masks are prominent elements of our storytelling. Even more interesting is the fact that the power of the mask in our collective psyche and language comes not from the actual objects. No, masks are immortal because of the deep meanings they embody.
Here is my take on what we generally think about masks. Masks are crotches; they are hiding places for people who do not wish to be read or seen. Masks are for cowards. Masks are for liars. Masks are negative and transparency is positive. Masking is hiding the truth; unmasking is shedding light on it. Good people do not wear masks; people who wear masks cannot be trusted. We should strive for a world without masks, where everything is out in the open and we must not fear deceit.
“And we all have so many faces the real self often erases, enticing lies flicker through our eyes,” The Riddle, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Nan Knighton
That is my perception about how we generally think about the metaphorical mask. But, perhaps they are something more, something deeper.
I believe our quarrel with masks is in the idea that they are unnatural. We demand honesty and transparency and deem masks as foreign objects utilized to hide and deceive. “Be yourself! Be natural! Remove the mask!” I could almost hear while writing. I am certain I have heard these phrases used more than once and in many different ways throughout my life.
But, are masks not part of the natural human experience? We craft masks all the time, consciously and unconsciously. We craft them with care. As a toymaker creates dolls for children to play with and pretend that they are holding small human beings, people craft and wear masks. I would not dare call a child a liar for playing with a doll. I think we could think twice before doing so with anybody else around us.
I remember the night when my parents separated. I was 15 years old and my little sister, which will forever remain little for me, no matter how long we walk this Earth, was 13. She looked at me, wanting to understand what was going on that night. She was undecided on whether this was the end of our family or not. At that age, it might as well be the end of the world as you know it. She looked up at me and stared at a mask.
Was I being dishonest, deceitful, cowardly? Perhaps, and I will not deny it. I wore a mask that made me look strong. Truth is, I was not. Polar opposite, I was afraid. But I crafted that mask. I wanted her to feel safe when she saw me.
“Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes and I won’t be surprised if it’s a dream,” Top of the World, The Carpenters
The beauty of clear skies is one of the small great pleasures of this world. But it would not be so without cloudy (masky?) days to remind us of this simple delight. And even then, I know for a fact that many of us truly enjoy the sweet pleasure found in grey days, or those when the clear sky is masked. How can it be unnatural to wear them, then?
A professional I admire very much inspired this reflection in me. If you knew her, you would know of her flawless image. Spotless to the smallest detail, never a wrinkle on her demeanor, you could say she was finesse incarnate.
One day, after a particularly long day at work, we all sat around the table, powering through a task that demanded everything from us. Burnt out, I looked to my right. There she sat, holding a spoon and eating away from a big piece of parmesan cheese. There was no plate on the table, but her mask was resting there. She humbled me.
The parmesan affair left me with one lasting thought. Masks are not unnatural. They are not inherently vicious. Masks are part of who we are. We must value the courage and trust people put on us when they let down their masks.
We must be careful not to forget who we are behind the masks we craft and wear. But if we take the time to admire the masks we wear, we might be able to recognize how beautiful human existence is because of them.