The Masks We Wear
Sunday October 31, 2021 – 10 am – Cindy Wright
We will explore how masks relate to the personas we present to the world. Masks are used in ritual and practical life for transformation, protection, and disguise. How do our personas serve as an interface between ourselves and the rest of the world? Please bring your favorite masks, whether decorative, scary, or practical, to show off after the service!
Welcome to All Manner of Creatures By Christian Schmidt
Today’s chalice lighting is a quote from Brene Brown: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”
#318 We Would Be One https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paFqrTZad7k
If you take a look at a mask (hold up a mask), you see that there is a front and a back. One side rests against your skin and might attach somehow, perhaps by the ears. The inside is for you to experience and the outside is for all the other people to experience. A computer’s user interface has a similar characteristic. Users experience one side of the interface, whereas on the other side is where the data and programming are. Similarly to mask, we often wear personas. One persona might be for work, another for the grocery store, and yet another for interfacing with children. Our personas are the personality traits we show to other people and the set of traits can change from situation to situation. For example, my work persona in the past has been so formal that nobody at work could get to know the real me.
Masks are used in several very different ways. They are often used to disguise, to protect,or even to transform. The transformation aspect can be observed on a holiday like today, Halloween, where playing pretend is tantamount to the experience. For just one evening, we can freely express our creativity. We can test out being scary, powerful, fancy, beautiful, or play out a personality characteristic. The revelry of the Carnival holiday is permeated by the donning of masks. This has a long history back to Victorian times where masking enabled the upper class to mix with the lower class in a night of revelry and few witnesses. The participants could shed the constraints of the society class they were normally confined to and just have fun with everybody.
In religious rituals, a special persona is donned for the occasion by the leaders and performers of the ritual. So, in this case, the persona might be used as a conduit to spirit or an altered state. It could be a persona that epitomizes a permanent change we wish to make to ourselves. It could be a temporary transformation meant to tell a story or channel gods or ancestors like some Alaskan natives practice. It could even be the special manner of speech or behavior used by religious leaders. An example is the cadence and speaking style of southern Baptist preachers, such as Dr. Martin Luther King.
A persona for a given situation could merely be made of good manners and I would argue that teaching children manners has the purpose of helping them build a persona that interfaces well with others in the culture. As a friend of mine used to say, “manners are the grease of society.”
We’ve probably all heard the adage, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” There are a variety of ways people practice this advice. Sometimes people lie about their skills, which can cause problems down the line. However, this also often applies for a role we are qualified for, such as a new job. Many new college graduates suffer from “imposter syndrome,” which is the unshakable feeling of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persists despite your education, experience, and accomplishments. Perhaps imposter syndrome is merely the experience of donning a new persona with a new role. How many people are born a diva, a movement leader, an executive, or a revolutionary? I imagine that for many, these personas could be a challenge to get accustomed to wearing.
Masks can serve as a protective barrier or device. As everyone in the sanctuary is exhibiting today, the facial masks are intended to prevent the spread of communicable disease. Some of our most vulnerable body parts are on or accessible by our faces. Sun glasses, balaclavas, and gas masks are other examples of protective facial wear.
Similarly, sometimes our personas have characteristics intended to protect us. My own work persona has, in the past, been such a fortress that I didn’t make friends at work. We could be amicable, but I would neer reveal anything unique or vulnerable about myself in the workplace. I was very professional. For me, this was safe because if I avoided connection at work I could also often avoid conflict. I was worried about imagined scenarios such as someone deciding I didn’t fit in, or conversely, getting too close to someone and having a falling out. That isn’t to say I never had friends at work, but it was rare until more recently, when I consciously decided this wasn’t healthy anymore. It’s difficult to meet new friends as a parent in her 30’s. If that work persona had been a physical mask she would have had minimal features, just enough to appear human. Another example of a protective persona is when a person goes out of their way to appear threatening. A persona like that not only can create space from perceived enemies but can also yield an intoxicating sense of power for someone who is used to feeling powerless. A mask fashioned after this persona might fit well into a horror film. Too much protection can be harmful in its own right, unfortunately. Imagine the ills that could come from wearing a gas mask for months on end or the sadness of social isolation after chasing everyone away for too long.
A mask can be very uncomfortable. Imagine if you had to wear a disguise everywhere you went, day after day? Similarly, having to pretend you are something you are not, day after day, can be very uncomfortable. In the earlier reading, Marisol Caballero described her experiences of blending into white spaces, as a person of color. Marisol says, “How much of me do I allow this person or group to see? How much of that decision is about risking vulnerability, and how much is about self-preservation? Does withholding my full self alleviate the discomfort of another, or does it bring me closer to true freedom? Who benefits from this risk more?”
What we find in many self-help articles, is that wearing a false or concealing persona too often can be painful or even unhealthy. I’d even go farther by pointing out that narcissism is largely an illness of the persona and identity where the narcissist solely identifies with the persona and their inner self is largely repressed. A codependent person lacks a strong sense of inner identity, lacks an inner locus of control, and often does not have a fully formed persona. they identify strongly with people outside of themselves, like a partner or a parent. A particularly insidious work-based persona can be the one that is part of a rigid institutional accountability structure where the worker is “just following orders” and has no connection to their inner locus of control or their own conscience.They are not allowed to take ownership of accountability for their actions – it is the sole property of their commanders. This is what happened with the Nazis.
In our own soldiers in the U.S., a strong and loyal persona is built around the military experience, command structures, and brotherhood. Once a soldier goes back into civilian life, that persona remains but no longer adequately couples with the society around the veteran. This can lead to isolation, depression, and even vulnerability to recruitment by extremist groups that know how to meet the veteran’s social needs. And perhaps it’s the veteran’s deeper self that also does not couple well with the civilian persona they try to construct.
I wonder if the prevailing advice to throw off all pretenses and to throw off all personas or masks in favor of only presenting what we perceive as our entirely true and unfettered inner self is really the best advice, or even achievable. I propose that personas have their purpose, can be necessary, and might even be healthy for us if done well. What are good manners, or etiquette, if not a carefully crafted persona scaffold intended to help us interact well with other people in our society? Should we decide not to act out all rituals of etiquette merely because they are part of persona?
Earlier I likened the persona to a computer program interface. If our own interface with the outside world prevents us from interacting with other people or keeps a whole part of our personality suppressed, this is unhealthy. Perhaps what would be more healthy is to check that our persona allows connection and allows our expression of self to occur, even if it is limited to certain times and places. Similar to our need to get exercise, the wilder and less civilized portions of our personalities need expression. I described my own experience of persona restricting my social capabilities. A friend of mine has described her professional and prevailing social persona as very different. For her, she makes a lot of connections and spends a lot of time helping people, but what her mask, her persona, hides is her own struggle. She does not reveal her own needs or offer any opportunities for other people to help her. So, when people start asking for her time and she declines, they do not know it is because she is taking care of her own life. This backfires when others make assumptions and take her decline to help personally. So, upon examination, she has the opportunity to change that habit of concealment and to allow a little more vulnerability and transparency. Something that was interesting that I discovered in my research for this topic was that computer user interface designers use a process where they build a selection of profiles or mini biographies of some possible types of users. Each one has a specific description, preferences, and behaviors meant to simulate possible users, the funny thing is that they call these profiles personas. So, perhaps we can take inspiration from that. Perhaps we can design our own personal interfaces, called personas by considering the possible people, or types of people we will interact with. Then, unlike a computer program, we need to look inside at our own needs. How can we interface with these people, the ones we choose to let into our lives, and also have our needs met? How can we shape our interfaces – the way we interact with others and the habitual little rituals we form – in order to invite situations where our needs are met? Which types of people do we want involved in our lives? Is there something that we’ve been doing or allowing that saps our energy or suffocates our souls? What is a small habit or ritual that could change our lives? For me, that could be as simple as routinely asking a coworker to join me for lunch. What does it look like for you?
In the story of Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom hides away in the dark and only comes out in front of people with a mask on. This covers his facial deformities, which he is deeply ashamed of. When Christine, the woman he adores and has been singing to through the walls of the theater, removes his mask he lashes out at her and violently throws her to the ground (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgEVVCBu6EU ). Because he keeps his deformities hidden and has such a strong sense of shame, he is not used to being seen and hurts even the one he loves when that part of himself is exposed. Sometimes our personas are crafted around shame and hiding what we are ashamed of. I wonder how many of us here would react poorly if our shame is exposed. How many things are we ashamed about that we are in control of no more than the Phantom was in control of his birth defects? What can we do in our lives in order to lessen the pain when the public persona is lifted and one of our stories of shame is revealed? Perhaps that means sharing it with a trusted person or seeing a therapist ahead of time. Perhaps it means journaling or creating a work of art that either reveals it purposefully or expresses the deep pain involved. Conversely, oversharing an onslaught of painful history with a new friend can be overwhelming and damaging to a new friendship. Possibly, oversharing comes with an underdeveloped persona and lack of healthy boundaries. Maybe measured and purposeful vulnerability could inoculate us against the effects of shame.
Here is an excerpt from a sermon titled “Performing God” by Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson, available on the UUA WorshipWeb (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/sermon/183483.shtml ):
The dramatics of poetry and theater are vitally intertwined with the work of religion and of spiritual seeking. Done well, drama and spiritual expression are frequently one and the same. There is a stirring power in the finest examples of both that can move people to startling generosity and sickening brutality. Both religion and theater have a proud history of challenging governments for their crimes and wrongdoings, and likewise a sorrowful legacy of collusion with the powers that be. Socrates, the ancient Greek thinker, so feared the influence that the poets had over the citizens of Athens that he counted them as the enemies of philosophy and banished them from the ideal society he imagined. He equated the work of the theater with deception, pointing out that the actors took on names and spoke words that were not theirs, wearing costumes and masks to give them false identities. 
Today, modern psychology and philosophy still find costumes, and especially masks, distasteful. As metaphors, masks are considered deceitful, presenting a falsehood which obscures the truth of a person or idea. At best, masks are imagined as necessary defenses, protecting the virginal nudity of the true and vulnerable self. The mask hides the truth because truth here is imagined as a naked human face, unadorned and “pure”. It is rare for me, as for many of us, to show my bare face in public, because I wear glasses. Those of you who are familiar with the story of Superman already know that glasses can be a type of mask. Superman was born Kal-el, a refugee from a distant planet, and wears glasses only when attempting to pass for an earth-born human under the name Clark Kent. To be received as he wishes to be, as a rightful resident of his adoptive home planet Earth, to prevent his citizenship from being called into question and hide his otherness from friends and co-workers, Superman wears a pair of glasses that do nothing to help him see. Even though their only visible differences are in costume and eyewear, Clark Kent lives beyond suspicion of being that strange visitor from another world—after all, Superman could never be a clumsy reporter with weak eyesight.
But in a multitude of religious traditions, masks have the precedent of illustrating, rather than obscuring, spiritual truth and meaning. Here, the mask is worn to evoke and invoke what the naked face cannot. By donning the appropriate mask, celebrants give body to gods, monsters or figures of mythic importance. The mask unbinds and unravels the set potential and preconceived limitations of the individual. To take another example from the mythic world, I’ll ask your patience in considering the character of Batman. Batman’s birth name is Bruce Wayne, but that name is not truly his. As the comic book character repeats again and again, Wayne is a persona, a part of him perhaps, but not his deepest, truest self. The time when he is most himself, when he feels most in line with his own ideals and his sense of purpose in life, is when he dons the mask. Batman and Bruce Wayne are both costumes worn by the same person, but it is the one with a literal mask that feels the most real to the person wearing it.
Performance makes meaning, for the performer and for the audience. The philosopher Judith Butler argues that our identities, our ideas about who and what we are, come from our performance of these identities in the world.  What we act out becomes our personal reality. With this idea, our flexibility in living and imagining becomes very important; in order to change ourselves and reshape our self images, we have to practice stepping outside of familiar behaviors, performing new roles as we live our lives. Changing requires crafting new masks for us to wear, and the changes these masks permit are a vital part, the vital part, of living. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker put it this way: “each creature is self-creating in relationship with all other creatures,” including, Dr. Parker adds, “God.” 
And that ends the excerpt.
How does Batman know that he is more himself with the mask on than as Bruce Wayne? Is it because he feels stifled and constrained living as a civilized man in high society? Does he prefer to get dirty and jump off buildings? Where does he feel most at home? Where do you feel most at home? What mask are you wearing in that place?
So what about the back-side of the mask? I can tell, from experience, that Halloween mask designers think a lot about the front-side of their mask but often not very much about the back-side of the mask. How many children wander around half blind Halloween night because the eye holes are badly placed or too small? I find it particularly shocking when I try on a rubber mask and it is rancid smelling inside. Often, after a little while a costume mask starts making one feel hot, confined, or even chafed. Imagine a mask with a soft backing that conforms to your face and is even lined in silk. Imagine being able to breathe freely. What a difference that would make. If our persona masks are designed with just as much disregard for the person wearing it, what could happen to us? Could we feel stifled, trapped, and even have a hard time seeing things clearly? As we finish up the service, I hope you all will consider how the personas you don are treating you.
And like Marisol Caballero said, “Courage is being firm in saying, “I know exactly where home is and what it looks like. I will figure out any way to get there, with the help of good friends. We will dance the whole way there, through the terrifying unknown. I will brave the rough waters knowing that my boat may be smalI but it is strong. I will leave a trail of beauty in my wake, so that other courageous seekers who follow will not be lonely on their journeys.””
Now please rise in body or spirit and sing together our closing hymn, #346 Come, Sing a Song with Me
Sing the Living Tradition #346 Come, Sing a Song with Me https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0b3U9ZvrFo
Closing Words In Between By Kate R. Walker https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/between