Friday, May 15, 2015

Who is really behind the mask?

It is fun to put on a mask and show yourself to the world with a different face.  When I was a kid, Halloween was special because I got to invent a new self for the day (In the 3rd grade I won first prize because I went wearing a barrel and a dime store mask.  My 'costume' was a nail keg from the hardware store  and I dressed like a hobo with a corncob pipe.)

Did you ever make your own mask when you were a kid?
This last summer in Peru we saw entire parade units of riders, musicians, or dancers all with identical masks. This was a week long festival that celebrated the history of the region, their Catholic religion, ties with the Inca past - including mythological figures... it was grand!
Peruvian dancers with identical masks
Peruvian dancers portraying the greedy rich Spanish land owners
Almost all groups of people since the dawn of time have used masks - often  in  healing rituals or for ceremonies to connect with the forces and elements of the natural world.  Masks have often been an important part of drama - a signal to the audience what part was being playing.  Sometimes they were used to identify with or to mock those public figures loved or reviled.  Often they were worn  in social gatherings to hide the identity of the person ( just for fun).

Healing mask worn by African tribal healer
But here in this blog  I am writing about the 'virtual' internal masks we ‘put on’ when we go out to meet the world.  
In opera the tragic clown, Pagliacci, had to bury his feelings when his heart was breaking, so that he might appear happy and funny to please the crowd. 

Our lives, hopefully,  may not be as extreme as that.  I don’t know about you but I have my repertoire of masks that I have put on when the situation calls for it. 

1.     Many the morning I woke up low energy and sleepy – but when I stepped before my first class I projected enthusiasm and interest in the topic of the day.  Sometimes I surprised myself by growing into my mask.
2.    I wear a different mask if I am reading a children's book to a group of kids and if I am drinking  beer with friends.
3.  I remember being in social situations as a teen.  I felt like I had to be a quick change artist – one mask for my teachers, another mask for my friends, and a third mask with my family…  I felt that I had to meet the differing expectations of each – it became very awkward when I was in conversation with people all from different groups and had to quickly figure out what mask to put on for that occasion.

R. Reagen mask

Over my life, I have become more aware when I slip on a mask, and why.  I suppose that there are times that it is practical or necessary to wear masks.   I actually feels good to wear certain masks.  I tell my new student teachers that when they first think about setting foot  in front of a group of students that it is quite common to think of yourself as an 'imposter' - to think - "What am I doing here - the kids will see that I am not a real teacher!"  I tell them to imagine it like a drama and they should hold in their mind what an 'effective' teacher would sound like and do - then play that role... in a few days time - the role will become natural - and eventually they will find their own true 'voice'... this is called the 'imposters complex'... this is about acquiring masks...

Obama mask
I suppose we all have a social persona – the image of self that we want others to think us to be…
*I have known hyper macho guys that talk and dress to fit their mask image – after a while they begin to believe that they are this guy.  How you talk, your word choice, how you carry your body, how you walk... all part of your mask.
*Being a teen today involves making tough identity choices – There are many identities to choose between; but often the goal is to avoid isolation– Should he or she become a Jock, a nerd, a “don't care less” group , a cheer leader, an intellectual, or artist, or Youth for Christ, or identification with an ethnic group or gang, future farmers, future homemakers …Once a student is drawn into a group it can be difficult to change – the mask may stay for life.
*I have known people who more than anything love good gossip - they may wear one mask when they collect the juicy tidbits and wear a very different mark when they are blasting something by telling stories about their secret lives.
"Ganesh" mask from India
Some identity masks are imposed upon us…We don't choose them, but society may ‘brand’ us because of our race, medical condition, height, weight, sexual preference, profession (Army, Police, teacher, farmer, housewife), athletic skill… to project expectations on to us… Oh he is Mexican, or a basketball player, deaf, or fat... so... he or she must … (you fill in the blank of what society expects).  Ask a member of one of these groups and they will tell you how difficult it is to be seen as an independent person when the masks of society are imposed on you…

Masquerade mask
The curious thing to me that none of these behaviors or expectations  are genetic – not inherited at birth – it is all learned – or chosen during life.  Parents, peers, community culture can all have powerful effects…  Many strong people insist on living outside of the limits that they perceive when young.

Judy and I were just watching a video drama made in Australia – this upper class old woman said – “All my life I have done and acted in the ways that were expected of me – I don't really know who I am”!  Yes I know people like that…

Chinese Classical Opera mask
Now of course if we all went around totally being ‘ourselves– saying what ever our impulse of the moment told us to say and do – it would be chaos… Social filters are necessary for orderly society to exist… This creates a kind of dilemma.  Which of these is true “You can think what you want – just don't say it”  “ Be honest – let people know what you really feel’ “You want people to think highly of you so its best to tell them what you think they want to hear.” “A wise person learns when to stay quiet.”...Are there absolute answers or is it relative?
Alaska native dance mask

This all started with masks –and sometimes we come to confuse who we are with the masks we habitually wear.  What masks have you worn today?  Are they masks that you chose or ones that your society imposed on you? Who are you?

Sports figure mask