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The Unmasking of Me

The recent juxtaposition of two moments in time has got me thinking. On Sunday Roberta, my wife, preached an excellent sermon. At one point she spoke about living authentic lives: “Authentic lives. Who we really are? Do you know? When’s the last time you asked?...The way it starts is that you realize that inside you’re not the person the world sees. There is a mask you put on to go to work, to face your family, to face the world.” That was Moment One.

Moment Two came when our new neighbors asked if we wanted to take a walk along a small beach here in the Seattle area. It was nice. The weather continues to be great. We walked and talked and laughed and got to know each other better. Then in the car going home, Roberta said something that eluded to a certain aspect of my past and I immediately said: “Hey, let’s not get too personal. We want these two to be our friends.” We all laughed and the conversation moved on.

Living authentically and not letting a particular mask slip.

It seems obvious to me that it is difficult to know our authentic selves. I suspect a lot of us don’t go looking for it, at least not that often. It’s complicated. If I assume there is an authentic me that I can know, I must also assume that it changes through time. Perhaps there is a core of us that doesn’t change, but I’m not so sure. I’m pretty certain that the authentic self I was at five years old is not the one that I am now at 66, or at least I hope not. And yes, we all wear masks, indeed numerous masks, but this needs a bit of clarification. A mask implies that we are hiding something real and true. Remove the mask and the world sees a different you. I have no difficulty with the idea of masks. I myself have some, all well-worn and familiar – though interestingly, the older I get the more masks I discard. However – and it is a big however – to say that different people in different circumstances see a different Dale does not necessarily mean that I am hiding something. It means that situations are significant and relationships can be profoundly different. It means that sharing intimacy is imparting power to another. The granting of such power is not always appropriate or wise.

However, Roberta knows this, and the reason that what she said touched so many people so deeply was because we all know that wearing a mask is not about wisdom and appropriateness. It’s about hiding who we really are. While not revealing something about yourself given circumstances and relationships can be prudent and practical, wearing a mask is more about insecurity and the fear of exposure, which might lead to unwelcome judgment, rejection, and even attack. There are things about me that remain private because they are no one’s damn business. But there are things about me, things that shape and mold, that carve and chip, my authentic self into being that remain hidden because I assume if they are known people will not like and respect me. What’s more, experiences tells me that I can be judged, rejected, and attacked. An example might help.

When I retired from the ministry I wrote a book called Notes from 39,000 Feet about my international experiences over several years. Primarily it’s a work of nonfiction, but I did include two short stories at the end of the book. The first, The Poetry of Being Human, has explicit sexual scenes. The second, Martha goes to Paris, has a character with a foul mouth. So, sex and profanity. I would never have included those stories if I had still been a minister working for the church. However, the inclusion of the stories was more true to who I was and am. I felt a certain sense of liberation when I did include them.[1] But now that I am going to church again, I am hesitant to share the book in my new church because I assume people will be offended, which means people will be offended by my authentic self. Not surprisingly that concern feels like a step backwards, back into living with less authenticity, to wearing a mask, to being untrue to myself.[2]

As Roberta said on Sunday, there “is no avoiding the messiness of figuring it out”, where the “it” is living authentically. And there’s more. If we hide behind our masks too long, we lose something. Dangerously, we begin living a lie, and if the lie continues, at some magical point in time we become the lie. Roberta was right when she said the “lie becomes unbearable.”

In the car after our walk, my instinct was that if the part of my history Roberta was hinting at was revealed, or perhaps revealed too soon, our potential friendship with our neighbors would be jeopardized. I could be wrong, but why take the chance. As for my authentic self. Well, I’m trusting it’s in here somewhere. In some ways, at certain times, I’m quite clear about who I am, and I’m fairly clear where and with whom I fit comfortably, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say safely. Having felt liberated being my authentic self over these past years, I am loathe to go digging around in my personal garbage can to collect old masks I have thrown away. It’s messy and it’s complicated, but it’s important. So, on I g0 - I assume until the day I die.

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

[1] I suspect lay people in the church may have difficulty understanding this sense of liberation and might even think I’m being rather melodramatic. I also suspect that a number of ordained men and women will understand.

[2] When I think about Notes from 39,000 Feet, I’m sometimes glad I included the two short stories, sometimes I regret including them, but regardless of which I feel at the time I know that I severely limited the use of the book by including them. Interestingly, Bob Sears, Roberta’s father, called me after finishing the book. We talked about numerous chapters and then as the conversation was winding down he said that including the stories put flesh on the theology that ran through the book.

Reader Comments (2)

I enjoyed your commentary about masks we wear throughout our lives. My own experience is that we throw them away each time we learn to love ourselves more. I am convinced that loving one's self is the toughest job we face, but is also the key to joy and contentment in this life, and it takes a lot of us our whole lives to get there. But when we do, that is really find that deep love for ourselves, no matter what we look like, or seem to other people, then we are finally at peace. It has taken me all of the past 65 years, but I am finally tasting that joy.
Wasn't it God that said to Moses, "Tell them I am that I am". Then there was Popeye, who said, " I am what I am, and that's all that I am!" I think this is the message we all need to give ourselves.

June 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJim Fullmer

Thanks Jim. Can't disagree with Popeye! I'm 66 and still working on it.

June 25, 2015 | Registered CommenterDale Rominger

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