I haven’t gotten used to it. I haven’t met anyone who has. It is somewhat of an obstruction like none other as we now find ourselves masked in public. I have struggled with why it seems so unusual, beyond the obvious reality of it being new for most of us. When I think of masked people, my mind, first and foremost, goes directly to superheroes, Marvel Comics, and even wrestling commercials which flash by while watching television. It is, more often than not, primarily men who are trying to hide something about their identity. The mask is a way of entering into character, releasing their invincibility against their human opponent, making them, in one sense, like “gods”.
There are many reasons why it feels uncomfortable to us but, quite pointedly, it has become a barrier to our own humanity. From the time we are kids we learn to react to the facial and body expression of other people, from parents, siblings, teachers, and the rest. We come to rely on others to express how we should feel or how to react in different situations based on the other person. We know when someone is happy, sad, excited, angry, and downright outraged and we react to their human expression. It becomes so habitual for most people we aren’t even aware it’s happening. When people are happy, we react by being happy for them. When people are angry, especially at us, we do what it takes to eliminate and diffuse the situation. As kids, it tends to be a great way because they haven’t quite fully grasped the wide array of feelings and emotions within us. Most have not been taught how to handle the feelings and emotions or at least their varying nuances.
However, as adults, things change. It wasn’t until I started going out wearing a mask to stores and such which something just didn’t seem right. A friend had pointed out to me, then, how the mask has taken away the facial expression to which we learn to react. Quite frankly, sometimes this is a good thing, especially when you find yourself around grumpy people in stores! However, I couldn’t help but notice the sense of shame and guilt I had been experiencing when I went to stores, as if I had done something wrong, and I had no one to affirm otherwise through smiles or nods. It felt almost criminal. It was like confronting a void, of sorts, something which had been stripped of us for which I, like many, come to rely upon. For some it feels like a stripping of their humanity and freedom, whatever that means. But there’s more to it.
For some this may be the first time in life reckoning with their own life. It may be the first time where we have no one else to tell us how to react, now finding ourselves as masked marvels. We become so reliant on “outside authority” to tell us how to think, feel, react, we become void of our own humanity, literally separating ourselves from our interior life. Not many can argue we lack depth as a culture and society. We can see it just in how our leaders act and react to one another. We’ve become so dependent upon others we’re left not knowing how to feel or think on our own. Is it any wonder why so many would protest placing something over their face? How will they know how to feel and what emotions emerge? How will I know how to react to varying situations? It’s revealing just how bound we are by our own darkness and why we want to fight for “freedom”.
Here’s the gift to the mask. The mask has simply turned the mirror inward. We know longer have the external “mirrors” allowing us to react and so we’re being given a lesson in self-discovery. It’s why I was so conscious of the feeling of guilt and shame when I entered the store. There was no one there wronging me in any way. It was my shame and guilt I was confronting. When I encountered others in the store not wearing masks, it was my anger staring at me. When I had run into a teacher from my childhood it was both my joy to see her but at the same time my own sadness not being able to stand in the store and catch up in any way. The mask, whether we know it or not, is giving us a great gift but like some gifts we don’t always know what to do with them, or for that matter, don’t even want the gift in the first place, feeling no need for it.
Like the masked marvels from comic books and the big screen, they both disclose and conceal something about ourselves. They may, in some ways, conceal our own humanity from others, but they are inviting our own feelings and emotions to disclose themselves to us. All it takes is a little awareness on our part as to what’s arising as we find ourselves wandering and meandering with this new reality of masks. It’s an opportunity to be happy and joyful for ourselves, not just because it’s a reaction to someone else telling us how to feel. Most importantly, it’s a time to confront so many of the negative feeling we tend to push onto other people through blame and victimhood and surrounding ourselves with others in the same way. If you’re angry, mean-spirited, feeling shamed or malice, welcome them home as the poet Rumi writes in the Guest House. They are yours and acceptance moves you to being more fully human.
I’d imagine we’ll spend years if not decades ahead questioning and learning all of which this time is trying to teach us about our humanity, revealing our selfishness, our values, or even lack thereof, but maybe most importantly growing into the person we often seem to know the least, ourselves. It’s too easy to react to the seething anger, the belief of rights being trampled, and the backlash towards leaders, but all of it is revealing something about ourselves and who ever would have thought it would be mirrored through a mask? Rather than digging into being the “gods” we think we are, a simple piece of cloth is inviting us to lean into what has lied dormant and hidden, our own humanity, teaching us to love the other and empathize with all who are truly hurting in this time, including ourselves.