It’s Time to Take off the Masks
Hallowe’en seems like the perfect time to talk about masks. Many of us take great joy in seeing the little ones dressed in their costumes for parties, parades, and trick-or-treating. Even some of us adults like to dress up for the holiday. Count me among those who think it is a wonderful tradition!
When I think of masks, I immediately think of a recent documentary called The Mask You Live In. Very well done and available on Netflix, the film gathers together expert advice and personal narratives about a toxic type of masculinity that has a strong foothold in our culture. This is the type of masculinity that forces boys to wear masks so that their real emotions aren’t ever known. It is a masculinity that portrays all things feminine as lesser or even bad. It says that only anger is an acceptable male emotion. It looks down on gay men and straight men who seem “soft,” equating them with women, which is seen as the ultimate insult. The film addresses the violence in our culture and wonders why we fail to see the connection between that violence and the toxic masculinity that often fuels it.
Years ago, Robert Fulghum wrote a short story in his well-known collection, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In the story, he described the neighborhood children who were playing hide-and-seek. Of special interest to him was the child who hides too well. Eventually, the kids give up on the hidden one, and the great hiding spot ruins the fun of the game. To Fulghum, it is a great metaphor for adult life where people put on masks and hide too well. Trying so desperately to keep up appearances, such people are deprived of the joy of genuine acceptance that comes from risking intimacy and openness.
In our time, the problem is multiplied by social media, especially for our young people who often feel the need to project a virtual self who is happy and popular, and who try to measure up to everyone else whose posts make them seem so perfect and fulfilled in life. The masks make it nearly impossible to communicate one’s real self to anybody, and they leave people feeling very alone, as if they were the only ones who feel the way they do. We live in an age where people who seem so happy sometimes feel desperately alone and empty.
Educational philosopher Nel Noddings gives us some insight into breaking through this problem. She contends that we have a deficiency of effective caring in our culture. We are all too good at hiding our real emotions. We too easily respond to, “How are you?” with “I’m fine” even when we are not. Noddings suggests we press further. Her hallmark question is, “What are you going through?” By breaking the social convention of call-and-response language, we signal an openness and a genuine concern for how the other person is really doing. We create an opportunity to take off the mask.
Taking off the mask is also a spiritual imperative. It is an act of humility, i.e. an act of self-acceptance whereby we neither aggrandize ourselves nor diminish ourselves, but rather simply accept ourselves for who we are, as God created us. After all, The Book of Wisdom addresses God saying, “you love all things that are, and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?” So much of the spiritual journey is a process of taking off the mask, desisting in our desperate need for the approval of others, and coming to self-acceptance as the Beloved of God. Then, like the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, we can recognize with joy, even ecstasy, “I was blessed and could bless.”
All of this relates to the overall theme of today’s readings, which is repentance with trust in God’s merciful kindness: “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.” Our masks are a form of dishonesty from which we must convert. God wants us in the world, to be there for one another in solidarity, to continue the Gospel message and mission; but God is counting on us to play our part as the person we were created to be. As often as we are untrue to our own identity, trying to be or to please someone else, we drift into dishonesty…. and beware! satan is “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Yet, when we accept the very blessing of who we are and come to believe in God’s love for us, specifically as unique individuals intentionally fashioned by God in love, then we are transformed by God’s Grace more and more into the very image of God, which is Christ.