I bet you can think of masks that give you chills when you picture them in your mind. Maybe a certain character or situation from your childhood pops into your head.
Masks are used for all kinds of reasons. They conceal some truth of what lies beneath. Superheroes and villains are the obvious examples. But we use them for all kinds of things. They can protect us when we wear them in sports or to provide oxygen. They can also heal and help us in different ways.
You Are Not What You Think You Are
In this episode of the podcast we examine some of the masks we wear ourselves. Not in order to eliminate them. I’m not sure that’s possible. But rather so we understand that they’re there. And realise that we are not always who we believe we are.
“As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre makes the point that humans often deceive ourselves into thinking we don’t have the freedom to make choices. That we fear the potential consequences of choosing from the abundance of potential avenues we could select.
Instead, we stick with safe and easy choices, beneath the story we tell ourselves that we can’t choose anything else. We thus allow circumstances to dictate the trajectory of our lives.
The implication of this, is that we tend to believe that we are what we think we are. We resign ourselves to the identity (mask) that we have stumbled into. Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing other. But by subscribing to this idea we can lose perspective of what we really are.
The Good Waiter
Sartre uses the example of a waiter in Paris to demonstrate this idea of mauvaise foi (‘Bad Faith’). He does everything he can possibly do to be the best waiter he can be. He is entertaining, conscientious, and precise.
However, for Sartre, his exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is not a waiter. He is in fact playing the role of a waiter because he is doing everything he can do to BE a waiter. Thus, as Sartre suggests, at some level he knows that he is not a waiter because the only way to be a good waiter it for him to consciously choose to behave in the way a waiter would behave.
This might seem like a funny point to make, but it is very important. It frees us from the labels we use to mask ourselves and box other people in.
I Am Therefore I Do vs I Do Therefore I Am.
Label masks are not who we are. They don’t really communicate anything about who we are because they only point to what we might do or how we might appear.
White, British, heterosexual, male, introvert, songwriter, with the name Andy.
These words tell you nothing about who I am (my character – how I act or why). They are just the symbols which you might attach to me on the surface. And yet so often these masks become tied up with identity. Both how we think of and judge ourselves, and how we view and judge others.
You Are Not Your Masks
When you call a child naughty, you are placing a mask on them (shame). This can be damaging because it doesn’t separate the child from the event (the naughty act). This is the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt is a feeling we get about a thing we have done. Shame is a feeling we have about who we are as a person.
It’s the same with any descriptive word we might use to describe someone. For example, angry, shy, noisy, sensitive, conservative, hard, liberal, promiscuous, arrogant, soft, quiet, or annoying. These labels become masks that we see intwined within our view of the person. And after a while the person may even act through the mask, which they assimilate into their own sense of self-identity.
Guilt can be empowering. It points you towards something specific you can make amends for (the naughty act).
Shame is disempowering. It says that, no matter what you do, you are naughty.
This is the same with the masks we choose to place upon ourselves and others. To say “I am an introvert” is potentially disempowering because it may prompt you to act in accordance with how an introvert is supposed to behave. You might ask Google how to act as an introvert, or what sort of job an introvert should have. This, Sartre would suggest, shows that you are not an introvert. You are so much more.
We are unique people who interact with the world in a certain way. The mask says nothing about who we are, what drives us, or how we choose to act.
Points on the Map
A mask/label is like a point on a map. It tells you where you are right now, not what or who you are. And it’s only worth knowing where you are if you want to interact with your environment in the most effective and impactful ways you can.
Otherwise it’s like finding yourself in a field. And then spending your time shouting “I’m a field!”
It doesn’t make any sense.
There is something remarkably powerful and dehumanising about masks. When villains wear them, they do so to scare people into believing that they are more than human. It is done as a display of power, driven by a desire to instil fear.
Through masks we lose sight of the things that connect us with one another at a deeper level. We do the same when we want to dehumanise people and groups, as less than human too. We group people behind masks, and then use words, ideas, and tell stories to keep those masks attached. These kinds of collective masks become folklore monsters that we pass about, avoiding any possibility that we might see and connect with the human beings
Embrace the freedom. Choose what you want to choose because you’ve chosen to choose it. Not because you need to act like you’re supposed to when wearing the mask that you’re wearing.
Have fun. Surprise people. Be like Batman on a bouncy castle.