You’ve been invited. The whole world is on the guest list; most of the people you know have already accepted. Everyone will be there. At some point in your life, you’ve been presented with the opportunity to join in.
The event I’m speaking of is this masquerade of life where we all have a handy set of masks, ready to slip on at a moment’s notice, tailor-made, uniquely fitted to best showcase the projection you want others to see, or to hide the aspects of yourself that you would never want to be seen.
We have all been guilty of wearing masks. If we are fortunate, and exceptionally honest, those masks will be few. More commonly, they become the norm instead of the exception.
The facades we present to the world – confidence, beauty, wealth, humor, pride, and even humility – are as varied as our personalities, and as complex as our situations. Sometimes the false fronts were built on to preserve the family image, maybe even long before we were aware of the addition. Sometimes they are grabbed in panic to cover up insecurities and the fear that if our true selves are really seen, we won’t be loved or admired. Other times they are layered, one on top of the other, slowly, as armor against a harsh world that constantly compares and bullies and devalues those it deems as less worthy.
If we hope to experience freedom and maturity, or if we ever hope to genuinely make a difference, the masks have to come off. At some point, we’ll have to make the decision to no longer support the masquerade. We’ll have to come to the understanding that who we are underneath is worth offering.
The very fact that we are human and alive and breathing, gives us intrinsic value and worth. Beyond that, we all possess skills and talents and gifts, we all have a calling, and a sphere of influence that desperately needs us to show up and be real.
We can’t afford to hide behind our own fear of inadequacy, agreeing to be boxed in, letting the world define who we are, how we should look, and who we need to keep up with… all the while living in dread of the moment when we’ll be found out, and everyone will know we aren’t exactly the face we’ve been projecting. That’s no way to live, and it’s no way to change lives.
The movie The Man in the Iron Mask from 1998, so well portrays this theme. Philippe has had his mask forced upon him by his evil brother. He has spent the majority of his life hating it, knowing it’s not a natural part of who he is, chafing under the constraints it has put upon him, but unable to rip it away; until finally he is rescued, and the mask is removed, and he breathes freely, sees clearly for the first time in years.
Then comes the scene in his room, where he reflects back over the recent events leading up to his release and inconceivably – almost – in a moment of panic, he slips the mask back on. It has become so much a part of who he is, it has been his identity, and the bareness feels far too overwhelming. I say almost because I can all too well relate, to that panicked uncertainty. Can I really afford to let them see who I am? Will I ever recover after being seen? What happens when I’m not good enough and have nothing left to offer, when I’ve given everything and risked it all and still don’t measure up?
So Philippe goes back into hiding, even temporarily, and tells Athos, “I’ve been wearing the mask for so long, I don’t feel safe without it.”
So much of life feels that way. And oddly enough, about the time safety seems within reach, our senses dull and deaden. Complacency and stagnation set in, and it becomes very hard to tell where the mask ends and the true face begins. Additional masks go unnoticed and unchallenged. As we hide deeper beneath the deceptions, with no clear vision of our identity, we forget who we are.
Then must come the slow peeling away, prying off of layers, and stripping down the false fronts and poses, until we are back to our authenticity. Like restoring furniture, the coats of paint need to be removed before the beautiful grain in the wood will ever show through.
If the process seems too painful, consider the alternative. Fear, anxiety, stress, guilt, loneliness, shame, and mere survival are what the mask offers. Keeping up appearances. Making the cut. Holding it all together. Never daring to let down and be who you are. That life of duplicity and double standards is exhausting, especially for those who have done it for so long that we are not even consciously aware of the double identity or the divergence from our true selves. We can’t seem to recall slipping the mask on in the first place, and now that it has grafted in, it doesn’t seem so much like a foreign object at all. It may block my vision, but it protects my weaknesses. Yes, it’s hard to eat and drink and talk, and friends never get to see my face, but it screens me from scrutiny and criticism. It’s safe. It’s familiar. It’s grown on me.
Such was Philippe’s dilemma the night it all felt too vulnerable. Just a moment of relief, found in slipping back into the comfort of the familiar, is all he’s looking for.
The flip-side of that choice, was turning his back on all the progress and plans of the next phase of his journey and, ultimately, his destination: the throne, his true inheritance and birthright.
Safety pales in comparison.
When we have the clear sight to really grasp what is hanging in the balance, a life spent behind masks is no longer an option.
Once we gain the courage to slip out of the masquerade, once freedom has been tasted, once we begin living from a place of authenticity, we become real and true and dangerous and wield an influence that will impact lives for good in a ripple effect around us. We become the ones who enter the prison cells of the lonely and isolated, and we are the ones encouraging them to ditch their false fronts, just as we, at one time, ditched ours.
Authenticity is contagious. Genuine character is attractive and life-giving.
So go spread some around. Take a risk and be original. Decline that invitation to settle for something fake and far less than you were meant to be. Abandon the glitter and clamor and false offers that swirl in the ballroom of the posers.