There is a fascinating psychiatric condition called “dissociative fugue.” A person who appears normal even to the trained eye, gets up one day, leaves home, and relocates to assume a new identity and a new life, completely amnesic to the original self. Etiology: extreme emotional exhaustion, nervous breakdown.
Then there is the more mundane anxiety disorder which plagues my practice. I see many crashing moms who seek out my help for chest pains, palpitations, shortness of breath, symptoms that are often associated with a heart attack, except the majority are healthily burning out from the number of hats they wear.
We speak of the hats we wear as the roles we play in life. A woman may at once be a mother, a daughter, a chauffeur, a confidant, a housekeeper, a pharmacist, a role model, a volunteer, and when time allows a wife. Her partner in life may at once be a father, a son, a philanthropist, a lawyer, a mentor, a coach, a plumber and perhaps some nights even a husband. We are all overstretched by the number of hats we wear.
Biblical images are fascinating. The highest energy of life is to recreate itself, but infertility is a recurring theme. This week, Rebekah is barren. Isaac is in despair, not for himself, but for his beloved, as her fulfillment is more important to him that his own. So he prays deeply. Rebekah conceives twins- representing our internal complementary conflicts: Jacob is gentle and clever, Esau strong and impulsive; one of thought, the other of emotion, one of quiet observation, the other of brute action. Her outward angst of an unproductive life, literally turns inward, splitting into our daily struggles to balance work, family, community, self. To give meaning to life, we are taught, we need to balance opposing forces into a melody that is uniquely our own.
Occasionally we put on masks to escape the hats. In these days of masquerades, a temporary escape from our daily hats is welcome and perhaps necessary. But what if for some of us, many of us, these masks become permanent, seeking the state of fugue? What if the joy of the escape is greater than the pain of reality?
Mark Twain once wrote “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” So does it follow that when you take away the mask he is lying? And isn't the mask itself a lie? There are fifty shade of grey between reality and pretense.
Within each of us exists a simultaneous need to be an individual different from the rest and a person with a strong sense of belonging. Paradoxically, masks are not only a means to escape, but also a way for us to be accepted, connected. One mask gets us invited into a high social club where we spend beyond our means to rub shoulders with the more wealthy, while another helps us pretend we are smarter in order to hang with those whom we admire. Some of us spend our lives wearing masks that please everyone else forgoing our true selves. A mask I wear is to keep the germs of my mouth from entering the wound of a patient. This surgical mask metaphorically teaches me to guard my tongue wisely, not to injure the fallen with an unkind word.
What if the face we put on daily turns out to be a mask? What if we lose what is beneath the mask? Celebrity too is a mask that deforms our true face. We forget that masks are immutable and if we wear them long enough, our dynamic personalities become stuck on a single dull channel. To me the mask of the suicidal clown is the saddest.
The more hats we wear the more masks we need. Our children, who wear only one hat, need no masks and are scared by them. They live in the now. They live with a simple truth. They live as did Adam and Eve before they ate of the fruit of The Tree of Knowledge. The Ego, is not who we really are. The ego is the projected self-image, the sum of the roles we play. Our social mask thrives on approval. Our ego wants control, desperate for power, because it lives in fear of rejection.
In the end, the hats we wear are shed; the masks we wear are stripped. What endures is the pure truth of our childhood innocence. From stretch marks, to loss of height, from balding heads to wrinkles, from fat deposits in unwanted places, life removes our masks of youth and the seductive dance in our steps. Through holy, loving long term relationships do lovers see the beloved’s soul naked, free from physical masks and superimposed bars. We, created in the image of God, carry that spark which simply glows inside, flickering to communicate, untapped by those blinded by the surface.
The most profound way to love is to discover that guarded jewel which others cannot see, to unveil the face of God. A mother who loves her son sees a special glow of genius in him. A daughter who loves her father finds within him an irreplaceable source of strength. In an unlikely friend, we find a well of eternal kindness from which others fail to quench their thirst. Moses sees the fire of God in a bush that had been trampled by many passersby before. Ultimately, love removes the masks under which our beloved shines brightest.
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