Taking Off the Masks

"Masks" | Art by noizkrew. Used with permission.
Glasses on, he’s a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet. Glasses off, he’s a Son of Krypton, ready to save the universe. Glasses on, she’s Diana Prince—a sweet, unassuming officer in the US military. Glasses off, she’s Wonder Woman, Princess of the Amazonians. Their glasses serve as masks to hide their secret identities. I love that, for at least these two, the disguises they wear are in their “regular” lives—they take off their “masks” to be the hero that is natural to them, instead of putting one on to become something “other.”

Many superheroes wear masks that are important to their survival. Masks allow them to function in regular society so that they can have something of a normal life, gather intel, and protect their loved ones from villains who might seek to hurt or control them. Masks offer protection, boundaries, and retreat.

In The Princess Bride, when asked by Fezzik why he wore a mask, Wesley replied, “It’s just that masks are terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.” His answer is a flippant comment to dodge the question, but it is also a truth. Masks are terribly comfortable.

Let’s face it (see what I did there?)—we all portray to the world the image that we want seen, the person that we want to be perceived as. Social media makes it so much easier than it used to be… I can create the mask of whatever reality I want to all of my “friends” through pictures, memes, and text, and I never have to step outside or run into another human being to do it.

If I wear masks too much, I run the risk of forgetting who I am.

Technology has created a myriad of ways for me to mask myself.  I can post things that make me look good, but leave off the things that pain or embarrass me. With online gaming, I can engage people around the world, creating a sense of camaraderie without the necessity of intimacy. With online shopping, I can order everything I need to survive and have it delivered without speaking to a single person. All of these things are amazing and awesome, and to an introvert like myself, really a dream come true!  I can live in almost complete anonymity if I want to.

The art of social interaction is dying in many places. People’s feelings are neglected; the consequences of words and actions are  forgotten. People have a tendency to be less concerned about hurting other’s feelings when not communicating face to face.

But even after stepping outside to deal with other human beings face-to-face—which I actually do for a living—I continue to wear masks. Sometimes it’s necessary; in dealing with other people’s feelings and grief, I often have to mask mine so I can focus on their pain. When I’m talking with a family who has lost a loved one, or a person suffering with addiction, homelessness, or abuse, I have to keep a strong face on so that I don’t turn into an empathetic puddle next to them. If my child is sick or hurt and I’m worried, I need to hide my fear so that theirs isn’t magnified. There are times when wearing a mask is for the good of others.

But, there are also times that I wear one to protect myself. When I choose not to make myself vulnerable, when I don’t like who I am and wish I was someone different, when I don’t feel like I’m good enough, or if I’m afraid of not being accepted in a particular circumstance, I put on that comfortable thing, the face that I am willing to present. Sometimes that mask is self-deprecation—I’m going to make myself a joke before you do. It might look like apathy or laughing off a hurtful comment. I might wear the mask of self-righteousness or defense if someone challenges me—or worse—the mask of pretending that I don’t respect or care about someone who has been hurtful toward me. Often, particularly in my writing, I unload my shortcomings, fears, insecurities for anyone to read as if I accept all of those things in myself without embarrassment. That can be a mask, too.

People have a tendency to be less concerned about hurting other’s feelings when not communicating face to face.

But even heroes take off their masks when they’re not fighting crime. If I wear masks too much, I run the risk of forgetting who I am. I don’t enjoy being with people who don’t know themselves or don’t have the conviction or confidence to be themselves. It’s one thing to retreat periodically in a moment of insecurity, but to live there is sad—it’s a denial of uniqueness. As I grow older and know myself better, I think (I hope) that I’ve been shedding my masks as I no longer have need of them.

Letting go of what I want people to see and being who I am can be difficult, but I believe it’s worth it. While there is a certain freedom in choosing what people see about me, I have found even more freedom, and even some sassy confidence, in not worrying about what other people think. Being okay with who I am and letting others decide for themselves if they are has its benefits. If I take masks off, I become more authentically me. And I usually find out that if someone doesn’t care for the authentic me, they aren’t really worth spending my energy on. Everyone doesn’t have to know everything about me, and I’ll still choose what I will reveal to whom, but, for example, letting my geek flag fly has actually opened up opportunities to meet kindred spirits. Sharing certain feelings and fears has provided opportunity for growth. And the less I hide from myself and others, the more I find myself more comfortable with my own face.

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Jen is a pastoral minister, wife, mother, ninja and writer. She loves sci-fi, superheroes, and classic literature, and prefers to share her Catholic faith through such lenses. Her book, "Comic Con Christianity" will be available from Paulist Press in Spring of 2018.
Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

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