Part 2: The Masks We Wear
The other day I taught an English language class on tradition and I couldn’t resist doing some cultural activities on British Halloween customs. Doing my research for this gave me an insight into the real appeal of Halloween to modern British folk, not so much it’s spiritual heritage but it’s cultural heritage. Halloween is a time to make mischief, and it has been for a long time. Long before the time of Haribo and Miniature Heroes, people have disguised themselves as intimidating ghostly figures demanding “trick or treat,” taking advantage of the fear that people had of a genuine encounter with the “other world”, or just to have some fun.
This year I thought I had it sussed, I lovingly made a hat from an old top and some plastic flowers, I pulled out some old clothes from the attic and I watched a youtube video on how to paint my face like La Catrina. Much to my disappointment, I ended up with my face in the toilet rather than the apple-bobbing barrel on the night of my mischief-making, but at least, even without the mask, I probably had the scariest face in Saddleworth (I got ill).
However, it has given me a chance to reflect on some important themes that I’ve been chewing over for the last few weeks. Halloween night was the due date for me to chair a meeting with my fellow course mates for One Year in Transition (from now on 1YT) and I chose the topic of “the masks we wear”. Ever since my induction week I’ve been reflecting on this topic of authenticity and ways of covering it up. You see one of the tasks we had to do was a vision quest, the process of holding a question and taking time to reflect on it by going and taking a walk on your own. We were lucky enough to be based in the beautiful Devon countryside with the question How do I need to be to make my project work? (the project we are to design for 1YT). I found this activity particularly enriching as over the past year or so this has been a more important question without me really realising it, overtaking my previous one of What should I be doing?. It was a pretty intense experience for me and I managed to cover a lot of ground. My conclusion, which surprised me a little, was not an answer but another question; How can I acquire the resources to identify my own emotional needs?.
As you see, the question evolved quite a bit into something I regarded as more relevant. There’s something about coming back home after complete cultural immersion that makes you feel further away from yourself than you’ve ever been. Undoubtedly, after three years, you change. The problem is when you come back to people who haven’t seen that process and still expect you to be the same as before, you feel really lost. It’s literally like being sucked up by a vacuum from your life and spat out into another. There’s also this constant fear that you’re going to lose something that you found when you were away, the spirit of adventure or even a new ethos that a culture has taught you.
It has left me with a divided sense of self and I’ve noticed a lot of differences between how I think and feel and what I project. I came to the realization that I’ve been wearing a lot of different masks for a long time, even before the cultural transition. In fact I am a master of disguise, you want a mask? I’ve got them all. There’s the mask of nonchalant cynicism, the self-sacrificing mask, the teacher mask, the “funny girl” mask. The most recent addition has been the “hey did you know I used to live in Mexico?” mask, the mask that laughs at your pitiful attempt at spicy food, translates Spanish at every possible moment and scoffs at the Doritos advert’s paltry mariachi band. What I’m really saying behind that mask is “I’m sorry I’m not happy to be home” and “I’m confused about who I am and where I’m from.” Perhaps I’m schizophrenic, or maybe this is just normal. After all, which one of you can honestly say that you don’t wear a mask? Maybe it’s part of the process of becoming a properly functioning adult, repressing your own emotions and pretending to be something you’re not. It’s definitely a philosophy we tend to emanate: think about the shame of crying in public or how many times you’ve disciplined yourself to change the way you feel. It certainly may even seem useful to wear a mask, if everybody went around crying all the time then we wouldn’t get anything done.
So what’s the big deal? The problem is that, not being honest about how we feel inhibits us from obtaining any kind of healthy intimacy with other human beings. As Thomas D’Asembourg writes in his book Stop Being Nice, Start Being Real; “there is no intimacy with others unless there is intimacy with oneself.” It’s true that wearing a mask can protect us and make us feel stronger for a while but without that genuine intimacy in our lives, we fall into a lonely, solitary, Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque world, making the mask more cumbersome than your true, naked self. It also can actually be more exhausting and more painful to ourselves, as we live in constant fear of being discovered. Jennifer Jarrett discusses on the topic on the Mind Body Green website:
It eventually becomes much harder to wear the masks than it is to be authentically and completely who we are. Living in that place of fear becomes pretty lonely after a while. We discover that the fear is only blocking us from our truth and just plain getting in the way of us living a full and vibrant life.
(“Sing for me my angel!”)
Years of repression living beneath the stage have obscured my vision though, and identifying my emotions over time has become more and more difficult. The problem is that after a long time of wearing them, masks are not so easy to recognize and as some of my fellow course mates said in our meeting, we are often wearing new masks even after we’ve taken off old ones. Masks are shifty and they can appear in front of your face without you even realizing it.
That’s because we are not a fixed, unchanging being beneath our masks, but an ever-growing and ever-developing creature. Taking the mask off isn’t a one-off event, it’s more about having an intimate relationship with yourself and surrounding yourself with relationships that nourish you. As Jamie Catto from the band Faithless puts it “REAL is the new SEXY” (see his blog on this topic here http://jamiecatto.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/real-is-the-new-sexy/). I’m still not entirely sure what I have to do to make this happen and I’m sure I’m going to make some slip-ups on the way, but that’s the same with any relationship. The first step to solving any problem is identifying it, so you’re not up against the confusion of trying to find out what it is. I reckon I’ve got that one covered. My second step is going to be about recognizing when I’m wearing a mask and instead of frantically trying to pull it off, try to understand why I’m putting it on, which might help me to understand myself a little better. I’m going to observe myself and I’m going to stop pointing the finger at outside things as the cause of my unhappiness; I’m taking responsibility.
If you’re having the same difficulties, then please join me and let me know how it goes. After all Halloween is over, so why have you still got your mask on?