Can you remember when you first wore a mask? You might have been so young, relishing in the joys of childhood. Perhaps it was in school, and the school bully teased you so much that you allowed the tears to flow freely down your smooth innocent cheeks. Remember the subsequent laughter from your classmates, the stern warning from your teacher, ‘boys don’t cry’, and the disapproval of your peers. Over time you internalized that crying signified inherent weakness, and you learnt that sometimes it is inappropriate to feel happy when the occasion demanded that you be sad. That is when you wore your first mask. Unknowingly.
I’ve realized that William Shakespeare was right when he wrote that ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and entrances.’ And if the world’s a stage, it means that life’s a play, and we all are playing our parts, wearing different costumes and masks for different cast roles. It’s an unspoken social contract that we’ve all signed up our authenticity to.
Imagine yourself as a young person, maybe 6 – 7 years old. Growing up has exposed you to this predicament, compelling you to learn to express outwardly something so different from what you feel inside.
Your life becomes a contradiction. Perhaps at home you are the obedient kid while at school you are the bully. I imagine one Monday morning during the tea break – your teacher sits across your folks in the staff room of your school and tells them, ‘I have called you here today because your son’s behavior has become unmanageable. The bullying needs to stop now.’
I picture your mum shaking her head adamantly, ‘it’s a lie, it’s a lie, that’s not my son, you’re mistaken. He would never do such a thing’. In her mind is an image of you, an obedient son who uses the magic words, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ ‘sorry’, and not a monster who feeds off putting his classmates down.
Maybe it is the other way round, you are at the receiving end of this unhealthy dynamic, a canvas for the school bully to draw out his impulse for power and control on. One part of you want to express your sorrow and pain, the other wants to deny those feelings out of existence. You believe that to feel fear means that you’re weak, but fear doesn’t asked to be felt. The more you deny this feeling of fear, the more powerful it becomes over you, the weaker you believe you are. But you can’t let anyone know you’re weak, can you? So you fasten on your mask over your face. Put on a smile to hide the pain. Express anger to hide the fear inside. Then you turn that anger inwards.
Inner conflict becomes the unnatural essence of your existence. It manifests in how you pull up your socks up to your knees to hide physical scars from the violence inflicted by the bully, a n uneasy smile on your face, telling everyone you’re just fine.
When your mom asks ‘How was school today’, you reply, ‘it was good’. The devil is always in the details though, to you, the distinct calmness with which you say, ‘it was fine’ is like a door loosely shut unable to keep away intruders. There’s a day the intruders come; fear and shame. They are pounding on the door, demanding to be let in. With each thud you can feel the hinges getting weaker and weaker. You rush to the door and try to hold it in its place so that they can’t get in. But they’re growing powerful with the moment. There’s furniture in the room, a mahogany coffee table. You push it to the door to keep it shut. Then you pull the couches, the fridge, anything that you think has weight, and you slam all of these against the doors to keep the intruders away. Soon, it seems like you’ve won, because the pounding seems to grow more distant.
In reality, you’ve shut yourself out of your inner world, and the intruders are still lurking in there.
Perhaps if your mom isn’t too busy with the chores, too overwhelmed with the demands of motherhood, she’d become more aware of the turmoil going on inside you. She would have seen the smile on your face for what it really is, a mask perfectly worn, lacking any emotion behind it. She would have heard the cold detachment with which you say, ‘School was fine’.
Years pass by.
Now you’re blossoming into a young man. At least on the outside. Your masks are still intact, you’ve become perfect at switching them depending on the situation.
Sad masks are for sad, somber days. Then there’s one that has a big smile painted on it, from ear to ear, a grin revealing a complete set of teeth. That’s the one you wear for the parties, the get-togethers, the high school reunions.
It reaches a time when the intruders you thought you’d locked out finally get in, unhinging the door from its place, pushing away the coffee table you thought was heavy enough to keep the door shut. They get in and wreck your house, turning it upside down, ransacking safes, drawers, strewing your books on the floor.
While this is happening, you’re still switching your masks, depending on the situation.
One day, you’re at a party, you’re grinning, making jokes, sipping whiskey on the rocks, mingling with the crowd. There’s a chilling ambiance, the crowd seems lively, the party is turnt.
The night whiles away, the party ends, everybody leaves. You’re left alone, buzzed from the whiskey, drained off energy. You stagger to your car, fumbling with the keys. Soon those keys are in the ignition, and you on the seat, your hands on the steering wheel. You get onto the highway, put on the stereo. A song is on, you feel Jay Z’s rap words cutting through the silence of the night;
‘Living in the shadow
Can you imagine what kind of life it is to live?
In the shadows people see you as happy and free
Because that’s what you want them to see…’
You clench your hands tight on the steering wheel. Your right foot presses harder on the accelerator. The engine revs with power, picking up speed. The tires start skidding. The machine veers off the road, hitting a guard rail, rocking you violently in your seat.
The vehicle slops off a cliff, and you can feel yourself on the free fall.
Your mask is still on, the one with a smile on, the one you wear to the parties. Beneath the mask tears are falling down from your eyes, staining the mask, falling onto your shirt. When the car reaches the bottom with you in it, everything goes blank.
The last person who saw you would swear you were happy when you parted ways, that you were smiling.
Picture Credits: https://pixabay.com/photos/man-happy-face-smiley-mask-390342/