Masks

Have you ever made a decision or had something happen to you, where you just knew your life would never be the same again afterwards? Our decisions will always lead to a new phase of our lives, sometimes in very short bursts, sometimes in massive ones. Most of the time, they are unpredictable. Sometimes they’re “good”, other times they’re “bad”. They either allow us to open up to the world around us, or they make us retreat and shut ourselves off. And every now and then, there is such clarity in moments of change in our lives, where we just know, that once we take that step forward, there is no looking back. We have no choice but to step into the unknown in front of us, for better or worse.

I’m currently in such a moment. In fact, I feel like I’ve been in such a moment for some time now. I know that the step forward will lead me to unexpected paths in my life, and yet, I’ve been resisting taking that step. It reminds me of that moment in the 3rd Indiana Jones movie, where he has those 3 final challenges to get to the Holy Grail, and one of them is a leap of faith. In front of him, a precipice and the unknown, and behind him, predictability. It’s also a great example of a difficult spiritual principle to grasp which is: you’ll get, once you believe. The belief, the faith, the certainty must always come first. Unfortunately, most of us live in the opposite state: you’ll believe, once you get.

This past weekend, I went to see a performance by Travis Alabanza, aptly called Burgerz, inspired by an assault where their aggressor used a burger as a weapon of fear and intimidation. It was a wonderfully constructed one-person show, addressing many current issues, such as the intersectionality of race and gender, gender identity, and violence against trans and gender non-conforming people. It was everything I love and care about, including challenges on my own privilege as a white male, and even as a white gay male. I went to see this performance with a good friend of mine, who has been immersed in a process of deep creativity and personal exploration for the past few years, creating and writing his very own webseries, about the lives of several young adults living in London. We are both into our deep, challenging, and moving conversations about everything we care about, and so, after we left the show, we went to mull over our personal lives, whilst having some mulled wine under the stars and some fairy lights.

I told my friend that the show had moved something in me, strongly reminding me about a show I started writing more than a year ago, but which I’ve been resisting finishing due to its very personal content. He told me about his show, the process of writing it, the ups and downs of self-belief and doubt, the stepping into the unknown, the faith in oneself. He spoke about the changes that the project had brought into his life, the awakenings, and the leaving behind of many old things. This inspired and terrified me in equal measure. Ever since I started writing that show, to become the first one-person show I perform since 2008, I know that the sharing and performing of it, will be one of those moments I described above. There is no going back. Whenever I say what I feel I need to say, I can never take it back. From my experiences of coming out, I know that it will be liberating. But it will also mean the end of many things, mainly some level of comfort. My deep need for authentic living is driving me to write and perform this show.

I went back to my notes the very next day and found a post-it which literally just said “My mask!!”, and I had no idea what it meant. I read through the pages of notes I’d written down over a period of 4 months, and then came across a question I posed to myself: “What will this show cost me? What will it demand of me?” To which the answer was… you guessed it, “my mask!” It was one of the last notes I made before I stopped writing and it made sense. Many people think they know a lot about me, because I share a lot, but people seem to forget the notion that maybe I’m only sharing what I want to share. I, like many of us, have constructed a specific image of myself to the outside world, which I then perform on a daily basis. This outer performance has changed significantly over the years, but it’s still a performance nonetheless. I mean, it’s quite hard being authentic 24/7, but I have the fantasy that this will be possible some day. With the ones who are closest to me, I tend to let the mask down in stages, and there are maybe less than a handful of people in the world who know me completely without the mask.

Masks are often created as a product of self-protection, survival, general socialisation, parental conditioning, and cultural conditioning. Removing the mask may entail letting go of all of these. I experience this often in therapy, when my therapist pushes me to feel rather than rationalise, or when my clients go round and round a subject without ever addressing it. Removing the mask is like standing at the edge of a precipice. As long as you’re on safe ground, the mask will do what it needs to do, but if you take that leap of faith into the unknown, then sometimes the mask needs to be left behind. This is the moment when most people experience fear of losing something. It’s mostly an irrational fear, as most of us know that evolving is actually not that bad, but certain aspects of ourselves are harder to let go of. Maybe it’s about letting of that victim narrative, and finally assuming responsibility for one’s life decisions; or about telling that person that you really like them; or just asking a close friend: can you come over and just hold me?

A lot of our life narratives are attached to the mask we present to the world. It’s the mask that tells people we’re doing just fine, that that breakup wasn’t that bad, that moving in with a partner for the first time is not that scary, that assuming a new position at work is everything you want and need, etc. They are narratives of control, of security, of balance, of happiness, of integrity, of groundedness. We sometimes use them to lie to people, but unfortunately, also to lie to ourselves. And that’s the most harmful aspect of our masks. After a while, we grow to believe they are our authentic selves, and that’s why when we stand on the edge of life’s precipices, we tend to feel so utterly petrified because we think we’re about to lose ourselves, when, in fact, we’re really just losing aspects of our mask, or the whole mask altogether.

I’m deciding to take my leap of faith, to step onwards from the precipice, into the unknown, always reminding myself that the fear I’m experiencing is not about losing myself, but about losing my mask. And that, ultimately, the mask doesn’t serve me anymore.

How is your relationship with your mask?

Are you standing on the edge of any precipices?