Behind the Mask

It looks as if mask-wearing, whether enforced or merely encouraged, will become part of life. It makes medical sense, but it does bring complications. A friend (who is a designer) has made me one so I feel I have a unique ‘designer mask’.

There is a whole new etiquette to be learned for seeing the dentist, going to restaurants, visiting the hairdresser and even having coffee with friends. Recognising people becomes a problem: it’s possible both to mistake strangers as old friends and to ignore those we’ve known for years. And it’s not just a problem of human recognition: phones are refusing to unlock and dogs are being disobedient to their owners. Mask-wearing also makes communication difficult: we forget how facial expressions communicate a lot of information. And for those like my friend Emily who need to lip-read, life becomes extremely difficult.

However, it’s not all bad news and some people seem to welcome facial masks. Those who find they often wear the wrong expression or have faces that reveal too much of their thinking can now relax. Those aware that their teeth aren’t the perfectly symmetrical, gleaming marble slabs beloved of television presenters are also glad of masks, as are men trying to grow a moustache without teasing. Women are finding they are using much less lipstick and make-up and celebrities have discovered that the perfect disguise is a combination of a hat, sunglasses and a mask. 

In fact, we are already seeing masks as fashion statements, decorated in a personalised, patriotic or even political manner. Some people are no doubt working out how to use those few square inches as advertising space.

More seriously, one of the interesting reflections this provokes is how we already wear psychological masks that, to a greater or lesser extent, hide who we really are. Indeed, some of us – perhaps many of us – have a wardrobe of masks that we wear on different occasions: for work, home, church and so on.

There are ‘masks of deceit’: false expressions put on in order that harm might be done to others and they must be condemned. Far more common, however, are ‘masks of convenience’: expressions adopted when we feel that it is better, safer and sometimes more loving, not to reveal what we are thinking and feeling.

There is the false look of interest we wear as our friend tells us more than we want to know about her cat’s digestive system; the sharp look of total comprehension we adopt when shown the third page of bewildering spreadsheet figures. We all like being greeted by smiling, welcoming people in shops and offices: they may wear masks, but we all prefer fake politeness to authentic rudeness.

Yet there are perils to even masks of convenience. If we must wear such masks, we should ensure that they are loose fitting and worn for only a limited period. There is a danger that we can become what we pretend to be. Sometimes we wear our masks for so long we forget who we are underneath. And then some of us cannot remove our masks without removing our skin.

At some point all of us need to stand in front of the psychological equivalent of a mirror, strip away our mask and see ourselves for who we really are. If we want to be loved for who we are, let’s take our mask off. Indeed one benefit of the very best friendships – something I believe we should all aspire to have – is the ability to sit down with them and take off all our masks. 

Perhaps the biggest risk in mask-wearing lies not in misleading others but ourselves. Sadly, we can sometimes come to believe that we are not who we really are but who the mask declares us to be. This is hazardous. For a sick person to hide behind a mask of health can cover their need of healing. We find in the first of Jesus’ beatitude statements ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3) the sense of ‘blessed are those who come to God without their masks on’. And if we don’t remove it ourselves, God has a way of removing the mask we all insist on wearing.

The ultimate check on psychological masks comes from remembering that we are not judged by our fellow men and women, who are easily deceived, but by the living God who isn’t. Before him, we must stop pretending. One thing about heaven is that it is somewhere where there will be no masks because there will be no need of them. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12–13 (NLT), ‘Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity . . . then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.’ That’s definitely something to look forward to!

Revd Canon J.John


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