The Masks We Wear


I was watching some old episodes of Grimm, and if you have seen the TV show you will know that they show a quote at the beginning of each episode. One that I watched last night was “Give a man a mask and he will show you his true face.”

I thought this was a very interesting quote because we always talk about people wearing masks, and in fact we very seldom show other’s our true face. I think this goes to the extent of a lot of people not really knowing their own true self.

The quote itself is often credited to Oscar Wilde, however it is a variant of his quote which was, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Masks in History

The original use of masks was for ritual and ceremony. Every culture would use masks to perform different spiritually oriented tasks such as communicating with ancestors or animal spirits. Some would use them in ritual to “shapeshift” which doesn’t mean the person would physically change into an animal, but would take on the nature of the animal. In the aspect of shapeshifting, it also meant that the ritual mask wearer would go on journeys or vision quests as the beast that their mask and themselves would come to represent.

As cultures progressed and theatre was introduced in Ancient Greece, masks started to be used for performance art. Then of course it progressed into social gatherings with the masked ball.

In all cases, the use of masks was primarily to transform the person into something or someone else. Either to communicate with spirits or transform into something other than oneself. Even within a theatrical or social setting, the purpose of the mask was to hide, transform and protect.

Masks in Modern Times

So how do we use masks nowadays? Primarily this would fall into the arena of the internet. If you consider the fact that a mask is used to hide oneself, and we would think to hide our true self, then sitting behind a computer screen or mobile phone gives us that same protection and distance from the people we are talking to.

I think there is a misconception that a mask hides the true nature of a person, which is why the quote is so powerful and appropriate. The only mask that hides the true self is the one we wear in public every day. The one that is invisible, because when we show people our actual face, we feel that we need to become someone else. However it is more than that, which I will speak about in a moment, because it’s not necessarily needing to become someone else, but more in the aspect of being someone that is expected.

But to quickly get back to the internet. Have you ever been in a situation where you have been attacked by someone on a message board, and you retaliated? When you think back to it, you realise that you wouldn’t have had the same confidence in a face to face confrontation. Maybe some of us would, but in a lot of cases, we wouldn’t be able to do or say what we did if we didn’t have the protection of the mask that is called the computer screen.

This is where the internet can become powerful, both in a good way and in an extremely bad way. It allows us to explore the natures within ourselves, to really bring out the beast, and removes inhibitions. Of course having the distance and bandwidth between us can also mean that some people with a more questionable nature can take advantage of others, especially people who portray themselves as someone so completely diverse to who they are that they literally become monsters. However, exploring the natures that we normally hide within ourselves, letting out the beast, or even the playful child, can be extremely liberating, just like wearing an animal mask in ritual or a fairy mask at a masked social event.

Revealing Your True Nature

In one of Carlos Castaneda’s books, don Juan instructs him on how to discover his true face and nature. It basically involves lying to everyone around you.

The reason behind it is that as we move through life, we meet people who view us in a certain fashion. They create a perception of us the second they meet us, and we tend to take on that perception and our nature becomes moulded into what other people think we are. By lying to people about who we are, we then have a chance to create false perceptions and therefore not become what other’s perceive us to be, which then leads to allowing our true nature to come through to the surface.

A very interesting concept, but one that is extremely difficult to do when we still need to move within our various circles and continue with our day to day lives. However, it can be done subtly.

If you were to take each person in your life and examine their perception of you, then you can start to alter that perception little by little.

Let’s say you are young and have started working at a job where the boss asked you to work late to get something finished. Being young, in your first job, you want to impress and so you do it. However, because you have a good nature, don’t like confrontation and you did it once, the boss asks you again and again and again. This is happening, maybe not necessarily because the boss is taking advantage of your good nature, however in most cases, that is the reason, but because they have created a perception of who you are. You are the person they can ask to work late to get things finished when nobody else will. That perception is usually one of someone they can take advantage of.

So, start to change that perception, and if necessary, lie. I know, I know, lying is such a bad thing, back step, back step, not always. If someone is taking advantage of you, then lying to better your situation and stop that behaviour can be a good thing. Tell your boss the next time he or she asks you to work late, that you can’t because ……. fill in the blank. You have a date, or your sister needs your help and you can’t back out of your prior commitment.

Alternatively (and the better way to do it), you can just dig in your heels and say no, enough, and stop the behaviour altogether. That is definitely the best approach, but in most cases, we will need to put on a mask to allow that kind of nature to come out of us, when we are so used to being the person that someone else has perceived us to be.

So, what is the moral of the story? Create a cache of masks that you can wear in different situations so that you can allow your true nature to come through behind the masks. Get to know who you really are while you use the protection of the mask to face the world. Then, when you can wear your true face, you won’t need a mask, unless of course you want to wear a different face for a day, just for the fun of it.

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