We All Wear Our Masks

digital illustration (B&W)It’s so much easier to hide behind convention and other convenient facades than to let our true selves be seen and known. Don’t we almost always prefer that sense of safe anonymity or at least ‘appropriateness’—however tenuous or specious it may be—to taking the chance that in our own skins we might not measure up to the occasion or to the  expectations of others?

It is, of course, a foolish conceit. One can rarely cozen anyone else, let alone oneself, by such a means. No matter how hard I may try to appear in the guise of what I think will qualify me for the In Group or make me richer-thinner-prettier or smarter than I really am, if it’s all show, the mask will like any faulty exterior prove too thin to cover my realities. It has always been so, and yet I am far from alone in continuing these futile attempts. I do believe that constant practice can transform us into a nearer semblance to the disguise, but that can work for ill as well as good.

Probably wiser is to recognize that the urge is age-old; that insecurity and an assumption that others will find me inadequate in my natural state are neither new problems nor absolutely decisive. The masks of the past remain, both in those symbolic and ceremonial concrete forms and in the records of our history books and art, to amuse, bemuse or warn us, if we will pay attention. And a close enough, thoughtful enough reading will remind any of us that no mask covers the truth forever—and yet, all the same, that we as a species continue (however astoundingly) to survive. Perhaps unmasking isn’t entirely as dangerous as any of us have feared.

I spent enough years acting the part of a brave, socially mature person, one who was more comfortable hosting a gathering, letting others see my art and writing, lecturing, teaching and doing so many other things that in truth absolutely terrified me to tearful agony behind the scenes that it turns out I am capable of doing all of those things after all. I still fuss and worry, yes, but nothing like the self-flaying horrors that I used to suffer just to get through what were apparently no-big-deal occurrences for most other people, and now I can experience them with fair equanimity. Funny how, when you’ve spent your whole remembered life in the grip of a belief that every second was one degree away from total disaster and death, any tiny bit less becomes magically huge.

And each of those instances becomes a step toward understanding that I have perhaps begun to grow into my mask of wishful improvement and become more like it underneath. Or better yet, that it never did matter as much as I feared, this different reality behind the convention. Best of all, I find that the more I let people see me as I really am, the more kindly they seem to look on me, and in turn, I begin to think the real me is perhaps pretty likable, respectable. Even lovable. Who knew.

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Unique doesn’t inherently mean Alone.

Twists of Fate

It shouldn’t surprise me, as little sense of direction as I have and as seldom as I have an inkling where my path is leading, that I end up in some weird and completely unpredictable spots at times. Take the time I was at a luncheon with the queen and king of Norway. It’s entirely safe to say that they forgot the occasion right about the minute their motorcade zipped off with its Secret Service escort to ship them back to the White House for their next performance. Having lunch with a bunch of foreign academics, even if it’s coupled with getting a doctoral degree (Queen Sonja was receiving an honorary doctorate for her humanitarian work) and having a permanent outdoor sculpture dedicated in your honor is so yesterday. Like that kind of stuff doesn’t happen to royals every day of the week. I, on the other hand, don’t have that sort of thing occur very regularly in my life and found the events of the day pretty memorable.

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(Left to Right: King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway; Pacific Lutheran University President Loren Anderson; Gene and Esther Grant, donors; the Rev. David Wold, Bishop and university board Chairman; li’l ol’ me, sculpture designer; David Keyes, professor and chief fabricator of the sculpture; Frank Jennings and other assorted faculty and board representatives. That’s the sculpture, Generations of Oak, behind me.)

It was amusing to take part in the bizarre hoopla that takes place when an assembled group of citizens in a country that takes itself far too seriously as being above such things as royal-worship (erm, Have you not looked into the mirror, O nation of celebrity-slavish fools?) gets a chance to suck up to the high and mighty of another nation. To experience the hilariously artificial and probably pointless stiltedness of security instruction from our friends the Feds; to shake hands with other humans who have been designated super-important and wonder why they would bother to shake hands with me–or, admittedly, I with them–and to hear all of the earnest speech-making and watch the well-meaning maneuvers; all of this was really educational indeed. That it was so for me in the context of the university where I taught was certainly not lost on me. I almost felt like I should get some undergraduate credit in sociology or anthropology for being involved in my little way.

But I’ll admit that most of all, it was entertaining to realize that through no particular virtue of my own I had once again stood in a spot that others might envy and reaped unearned rewards that would remain in my memory-book for a long time to come. Just call me Lucky.