“We Wear the Mask” Red Death & The Unbreakable Vow
– Paul Laurence Dunbar – S. Reynolds
We wear the mask that grins and lies, We don the mask when first we’re told
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— by powerful voices, hard and cold
This debt we pay to human guile; that our real face is frightfully vile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, we blink back tears, paste on a smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties. and form prosthetics dipped in gold.
Why should the world be over-wise, Trapped by the myth we must uphold
In counting all our tears and sighs? bejeweled, duplicitous centerfold
Nay, let them only see us, while Choke down the nausea, swallow the bile
We wear the mask. And put on your mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries We grin, lest heaven’s eye behold
To thee from tortured souls arise. the truth of our degenerate souls
We sing, but oh the clay is vile We dance, for now we’d rather die
Beneath our feet, and long the mile; than risk surrendering the lie
But let the world dream otherwise, It was protection; now it’s old,
We wear the mask! Too late – you are the mask!
So, Safiya – What’s up with all the Masks?
When I first started compiling the things I had written over the years, I knew that the theme had to be masks. I have a lot to say about them – I’ll probably do more than one post about masks. But this time, I was thinking about lies.
There are all kinds of reasons that people lie. And I’m sure there are many religious teachings about the advisability of feigning and duplicity, but that is not what I’m thinking about right now. I’m not thinking about whether or not God likes ugly, or if indeed someone is weaving a tangled web. Right now, I’m thinking about why people start telling them, why people keep telling them, and why some people would rather die than give them up.
Masks are for protection. Many of the people that I know, love, meet, befriend have been hurt in some way in the past. Maybe it was an ongoing childhood trauma (I know a lot of survivors of abuse) or the death of a loved one, or just discovering that one is so very different from everyone around him or her. I bet the first time each of these people put on the mask, it was a tool of survival. That tool stood them in good stead. But now, that same tool is robbing them of life. Because instead of living, they’re playing at life, like they’re unwilling attendees at some ghastly extended masquerade ball. The joke is that everyone at the ball is being robbed the same way. And only the masks are laughing.
That’s the thing about a cover story. You have to invest in it to make it believable, and after a while, all that investing in your cover is energy you’re not investing in real life. Before you know it, you’ve become the thing you hate: insincere. I say this because I have talked to, met with, and taught so many people and that is the number one thing people hate: a faker, a facade, a liar. It’s such a relief to know you can trust a person, even if that means you can always trust them to act a fool. And yet so many people will fight for the lie with their whole lives. Try to take that mask off of them – you just try it…That made me wonder: what are they getting out of this?
If we’re sticking with the metaphor of the masquerade ball, I think people in masks are sacrificing their lives to gain distraction. There’s a lot going on at a well – planned masquerade, and almost all of it is ornate and appealing to the senses. Maybe there’s music, and food, and the mystery of just who is under that mask? Mystery can be fun, fun can be contagious, can be freeing, can be…distracting. After all, this is only a game – a “carnival of counterfeits”(I read that phrase in a book once, I don’t want you to think I came up with it). Soon enough, the clock will chime midnight, whenever midnight is, and all the partiers must go back home. To their real homes, where there real selves are not witty jesters, or possible princesses, or even draped in that much mystery. I wonder if wearing a mask assuages the human need to seem.
We get really distracted by how a thing seems, and have trouble identifying what it actually is. And I wonder if, on a personal level, we’re afraid of what a thing is, especially if that thing is us. A life is a terrible, wonderful thing to own. But how many people can stand for a life to belong to them? If you’re the survivor of abuse, you had many voices telling you exactly what your life is worth. Suppose you survive that and become an adult and are now on your own. Well, you are faced with a terrible dilemma: now that your life belongs to you, what do you do with it? The terrifying answer to that question is “find out what it’s worth.” And that is a scary thing to do, to take off the mask that has ensured your survival and turn around and confront the truth of yourself. I have a little sister who is going through that right now. As a child, she had to learn to read the adults around her in order to stay safe; she had to fend for herself as the only little child of color surrounded by conditioned conservatives in the mountains of some southern state. As a young adult, she has a wildly colorful mask. And she is afraid of herself. She’s afraid that being disliked by all those adults for all those years means she is unlikeable; she is afraid that not being loved is a natural result of being unloveable; she is afraid of finding out what her life is really worth, because for years people kept showing her in every way that they could that it was worth nothing. She is afraid that they are right.
Masks. They are plastic and flimsy and terrifying. They conceal and liberate, entertain and perplex. And, perversely, they are familiar. This mask might mean Michael Myers is coming, or this one that the killer from Scream is on the loose, but at least I know what that means. I know what to do when I see this mask (run, scream, or die). But what do I do with reality? So we keep pretending, keep selling out our lives, because life, Real Life, is for the brave. And everybody is brave in a mask.