Thursday, October 15, 2009

On seeing beyond the mask.

One of my colleagues always has the best days. Every day is a great day for this man. All of my other coworkers can tell you exactly how Mr. Norton's day is and imitate the inflection used to convey how great he is. It's inspiring to have that kind of consistent positive response from an individual you work with, especially when work, co-workers and clientele can be so draining. It makes you smile and sometimes even reassess your own attitude.

Today his mask shattered at my feet. He revealed how tired he was and began to share all of the reasons why.

He reminded me of Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask," which is about the racism black Americans experienced (and their second-class citizenry) at the turn of the century. The lines of the poem can speak to any time period, any oppressed group, any individual. How many of us at one time can relate to,
" With torn and bleeding hearts we smile?" Most people tend to be transparent and very vocal about how they feel. I wonder if the louder the screeching then maybe the torture has been spoken into existence or into hyperbolic proportions.

My colleague didn't tell me his heart was torn and bleeding. Rather he told me about his wife's medical condition, her loss of memory, the issues with doctors, insurance and his day-to-day existence. He then told me about how he usually doesn't share with people like this, "but there is something about you..." he shared. I told him, God had given me this gift... We both shared a smile in this moment. We were able to glue his mask back together before he left the building.

But the moment of his story stays with me and I'm reminded of what we hide and what we choose to reveal. I'm reminded of Dunbar's words.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!


  1. I've been giving this post some thought. I'm wondering if your colleague's mask really shattered? I think masks do shatter--I don't doubt it. It just seems that your colleague decided to remove his mask for you because he knew it was okay to do so. That maybe he sensed the gift that you were given before you even shared it, and knew that you wouldn't insist that he wear a mask in that moment. I think maybe most people would prefer that we keep our masks on--and I think maybe we wear different masks, depending on setting and audience. But it's rare that we get to take them off. I think most people don't like it. It seems that mask removal is tantamount to ripping off clothing--we can only bare (bear) so much before being accused of indecency.

    I guess maybe this has stuck with me so much because it really speaks to the meaning of being human. We wear masks--very human. We sometimes ask/allow others to look at us when our masks are broken or even when our souls are bare. And a gifted few are even willing to stay in a naked moment and look. Thanks for making me think this week.

  2. I think you're right, I don't know that it shattered. But I think it slipped...I don't know that he intended to take it off when he came in to my room. But it just came off when he sat down... I guess subconsciously. But I agree, I think he discerned my spirit subconsciously and it all just happened. Very interesting to think about how and why we do what we do intentionally and unintentionally.

    I like what you're saying and I appreciate you making me think more about this. Humans are interesting to study. How much do we want to bare, how much can others bare of us...