Taking Off Our Masks: Ruminations on Being Real
Oscar Wilde once said, "Be yourself, everyone else is already taken." Sounds so simple. But is it really?
One of the traditions of my high school is to attend a four-day retreat during senior year, which I did a remarkably long time ago now. It’s an emotionally exhilarating, intensely profound and crazy-bonding, life-changing experience that is filled with thought-provoking discussions, late night deep talks, heartfelt letters from friends and family, tears and laughter and hugs and heavy emotion. It is a group of 17-year-olds who are just trying to understand more about who they are and what their place is in the world while discovering that, despite how worthy or unworthy they may deem themselves to be, they are profoundly, unconditionally and exquisitely loved.
I often think about one of the talks that someone gave during my retreat. I didn’t really get it back then. Or maybe I got it, but I was too afraid to actually admit that I did get it because of the self-exposure and vulnerability that would have followed. The talk was about wearing masks. Throughout our lives, and even more specifically, throughout any given day, we choose from a myriad of masks and hide our true selves behind whichever one seems to be most insulating and protective at that time. We hide because we don’t want to expose who we really are. We hide because we are afraid that if we allow our true selves to be truly seen we will be rejected, ridiculed or dismissed. Huge risk factor. So we protect ourselves. We pretend to be someone other than who we really are.
After the talk, our small group leaders asked each of us to identify our favorite “go-to” masks- the ones that fit so nicely that we just loved to keep wearing them. So it went around the circle, one-by-one, my honest group members exposing their vulnerability and divulging their moments of in-authenticity. I remember the feeling of the anxiety rising inside of me. My skin started to burn and my hands turned clammy. I was not ready to be so open and so raw -- so real. At my turn I promptly reached for that really worn-in mask that allowed me to look like I had all my shit together -- the one that (I thought) kept me from looking scared and insecure and so very uncertain about who I was. I put it on and it fit just right so I “confidently” said to my friends, “I honestly can’t think of any -- I really don’t ever wear any masks.” Just like that. Point blank lied to the kind beings who were only holding the space for me to be completely genuine and truthful. It felt just as awful when I said it then as it does now remembering it. They knew I was not being honest. And they even knew that I knew I wasn’t being honest -- at least I sure hope they did! But perhaps they also knew that I wasn’t quite ready to put that mask down -- that I needed to hide behind it just a little bit longer, just long enough until it wearing it started to become really uncomfortable and tiresome -- which it inevitably did.
That’s the thing. 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. The masks become barriers instead of protection. They become obstacles instead of insulation. Maybe we begin to experiment with just setting the masks aside for moments, and then days and then even longer as we experience what it feels like to be truly seen and loved for who we really are. By setting the fear aside and removing the barriers, we open ourselves to this more profound and genuine love. We can land in our own truth and discover how much more comfortable it is to reside there than it ever was to hide behind an illusion.
The illusion only creates a false sense of love and self and everything else that is latent with expectations for how we want something to be and we become so attached to those expectations. We start to cling to them and become really grippy and graspy. All that does is transform something into something that it really isn’t. All that does is put conditions, boundaries and limitations on love. But, by resisting the temptation to live in that masked world of false reality we can open ourselves to more love and compassion and joy that is already a part of what really is.
And, then it becomes even bigger. Because as we become more accepting of ourselves, we become more accepting of others. We realize that when we can genuinely let love in, we can then genuinely let love out. Everything becomes more spacious. More expansive. Then there can be this subtle surrendering to what really is. When we settle into that space of loving acceptance of ourselves and others, we don’t confine ourselves or them to a set and very limited expectation of who we all should be. Instead, we hold the space for everyone to completely real. Real doesn’t always mean pretty and perfect. In fact, “real” can be incredibly messy, but even with all of the messiness that comes with it, being “real” feels so much better than wearing mask ever did.
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