April 28, 2009


Joe started an interesting conversation about walls over at his place. Don’t you love it when someone plants a fertile seed that grows on its own? He has me thinking about personal walls, or masks.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”   — Oscar Wilde

I cannot see through most of the masks that people present. I do not have the kind of perception that apparently most people have to see through a person’s façade to the “real” person inside. It used to bother me, but those masks have a purpose: to protect oneself. I have come to accept people at face value—it is what they want from me anyway—and I find that doing so allows for trust to develop. Sometimes the trust is great enough that the mask slips away. I allow that the mask I see is just that, and in time I will be allowed to see through to the real person. Meanwhile I will accept you as you wish me to see you.

Conversely, I cannot wear much of a mask. I am pretty much unable to present myself as anything but who I am. That leaves me vulnerable, I suppose, to those slings and arrows of personal attack. But it is what it is. The same openness that makes me vulnerable also leaves me able to connect on a deeper level than if I were defensive. I acknowledge the risk inherent in that, but the reward easily outweighs the occasional penalty.

Wilde’s observation about masks evokes a different dynamic, that having the mask gives us the ability to tell the truth. Hiding behind a guise allows us to take risks that we would not if our true selves were transparent. Do you find that to be so? Putting on mask is so difficult for me that I cannot maintain it for more than a few minutes; it provides no respite at all. But it is clear that many rely on that distance that it gives to be able to handle difficult revelations. The mask is more than a sentinel, it is a persona. Having put aside the real self, the new self can take the risk.

We guard our hearts so carefully, no one more than I. When my father died, I put up a wall no one—including my husband—could trespass. No one would ever hurt me like that again. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to allow my patient husband in, to give him the power to burn me to the ground as my father had done. Abe knows the power he has, and he wields it gently. The reward for my trust is the finest love I’ve ever known. Having reached the moment of greatest vulnerability, I found that taking the risk yielded a great treasure.

Interesting armor, walls and masks. It is sad but understandable that we need them. They are taken down only slowly, as trust is earned or strength is gained. If you lack the tools of discernment, as I do, you can still take the chance of being hurt, knowing that it will happen sometimes. But the gift of connection is worth the occasional pain.

Photo courtesy of Serrator.


Dantallion said...

What a beautiful post. I, too, have come to accept the masks that people use to define themselves to the public at large. In doing so, I think I've become pretty adept at figuring out much about the person despite their masks, and then showing them that I see them and accept them for what they are. And then it's up to them to decide whether or not to let me in further, or whether they're more comfortable simply keeping the mask on. Ultimately, I think I accept the masks because they are very much a part of who the person is as well. People are remarkably multi-faceted.

The internet (and blogs in particular) take masks to the next level, because people have such extraordinary control over what they present about themselves, and how. But I like to think that you can still figure out a lot about a person even on line, if you look for patterns that emerge in the way the act and interact with others.

bigislandjeepguy said...

my partner noted one of the things he liked most about me was that "i did not let a lot of people in." and i have realized by his explanation that it *is* true; i can be cordial and friendly, but it takes something more to get past a certain wall. one of the things i liked so *much* in him is how much he lets people in. and that has been a great learning experience and example for me to follow.

thanks for a great post.

THIS IS ME....ONLINE said...

Really interesting thought by Wilde AND Birdie. I will have to think about that for awhile. I "think" I put up a thin mask probably at first, but once betrayed/hurt/lied to, etc., that is when the thick mask comes out. I do know that I tend to let different feelings come out on my blog that I probably don't always have a good place to release. Isn't that what a blog is for?

Java said...

I'm not much of a mask user myself. I have some ability to see through some masks, but not consistently. I am a studious observer of the human condition, and that helps.

In all my impressions of you, I've never felt that you were hiding behind a mask. You're WYSIWYG, much like me.

Laurie said...

I am here on Urspo's recommendation. I will have to thank him for sending me your way.

tornwordo said...

I'm really bad at seeing through the masks and I'm not able to lie. This gets me into trouble sometimes. I'm glad you were able to let the hubby in. It took me a very long time after the broken heart.

jeaux said...

So glad that I was able to stimulate a train of thought for you, Birdie. I think that's one of the best compliments a blogger can receive. You, in turn, have tantalized me, and perhaps I can stimulate you further...

"I cannot see through most of the masks that people present. I do not have the kind of perception that apparently most people have to see through a person’s façade to the “real” person inside." Then how do you know they're wearing a mask?

"Conversely, I cannot wear much of a mask. I am pretty much unable to present myself as anything but who I am." How do you know that that's not your mask? How do we? To what extent do our masks hide us from ourselves?

But to follow up on the dynamic that Wilde talks about, masks have magic properties in folklore and stagecraft, Patrick can talk about that, with the power to evoke personas held at bay by our everyday faces. Which begs the question - which is the mask? As Dantalion points out our masks, in a fundamental way, are us.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the people players.” We begin, very early in life, to pick out our props, make-up, masks, costumes, and scripts. We appropriate this uncle’s inflections, that teacher’s expression, a movie star’s style, a pet’s attitude, often subconsciously. We combine them and make them our own.

Student: Rabbi, why did God make us?
Rabbi: Because God likes stories.

And to come full circle to the walls I talked about at Chez Jeaux, and underline the resonance with the observations here, I’m reminded of an item I read somewhere: the fence at a school playground was temporarily removed. Very quickly the children began to gravitate toward the center of the space, and behave with more guardedness and less exuberance at recess. When the fence was restored, so was their freedom.

Patrick said...

A course I took in college on mask improvisation marks a major crossroads in my life. I could blather ON about what masks have come to mean to me, but I'll try to save most of that for when you and I are next able to chat in person (I hope this summer). I'll try to be brief here: interesting how much masks have come to mean armor/walls/false images in our every day use. Certainly that is one way they can be used. But the sentence that rang clearest for me in the above-mentioned class was when the instructor said 'masks conceal and reveal.' In terms of acting training, it was incredible how a physical, papier mache mask could trigger a side of ourselves we might never have accessed any other way, allowing us to transform into another character who was richly detailed, fully developed and TRUE, in the sense that he/she was a believable character AND an aspect of us.
Okay, I'll stop now. But I do love this post, and this topic, obviously.

Roxrocks said...

In person, I have no ability to hide what I am thinking from even the biggest of dolts. It's all there on my face. Some wear their hearts on their sleeve? Mine is on my face. If I like you, you'll know it. If I don't like you or you make me mad? You'll know that too! LOL!

That being said, I'm always studying people's faces to try to get where they are coming from. Many times I see things that no one else picks up on. I'm probably imagining things but I like to tell myself that I'm just a good reader of faces. :)

Ur-spo said...

in Jung, there is a difference between the Personae, and a mask. The former is necessary and who we present to the world (hopefully with consciousness)
It is not a bad thing really.
Done unconsciously or with malice or out of fear makes it a mask.

And we tend to turn into our masks if they are not conscious.

Steven said...

Thought-provoking post here. My mask has been my blog. But as time has gone on, an assumed trust with fellow bloggers is achieved. And this mask has been slowly shed to show the real me. There has been much information that I have shared that I probably would not have shared openly, face-to-face, with someone else. Yet it also serves as a double-edged sword. One has to be careful with how much one reveals.

May we all take that risk to find the great treasure that you have found. :-)