If you had looked at the brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking in the last years of his life, you’d have seen only a small, shrunken man in a state of utter debilitation. Yet, due to technology that could turn the squeeze of a cheek muscle or an eye blink into language, Hawking continued to lecture, research, write, and “speak” as one of the greatest minds in physics and cosmology–right up to the time when he lost his battle with ALS. For him, the weak, crippled body was merely a mask. It hid a genius immense enough to span the universe and insights that will be studied for generations.
As we approach the holiday of Purim (also known as “The Festival of Masks”), I’ve been thinking about the metaphorical “masks” we all wear. Do our masks conceal our truest selves? Or can they sometimes help reveal us as well?
The answer is yes, and yes.
For many of us, the most persistent mask we battle with is that of the Ego. Take, for instance, the old adage of “keeping up with the Joneses.” The concept has been around as long as we have. Sure, times have changed, but the idea remains, “My kingdom is better (bigger, more bountiful or beautiful or advanced) than yours.” Masks come in many forms, and a career, a family, or even a house can become a mask that we hide behind. Hello, Ego. It’s not that those nice things or well-earned accomplishments are bad or wrong… as long as we remember that neither having them nor lacking in them provides a full measure of who and what we are.
I remember when, during a family gathering a few years back, one of our friends asked Josh (our younger son who was born with Down Syndrome) if he had a “message” to convey. Like us, this friend knows that Josh’s pure, uncomplicated heart and spirit make him able to see and feel beyond all the masks–one of Josh’s many beautiful attributes.
Josh looked at this friend and simply said, “You need to make yourself smaller so people can hug you.”
While it’s true that this friend happens to be tall, Josh wasn’t speaking to his physical stature. He was speaking to his Ego. (This friend has a healthy Ego, along with a heart of gold.) We all need to be reminded of this wisdom at times! As the Zohar says, “He who is small is great.” This doesn’t mean we need to literally shrink ourselves (though a few films have made that prospect quite entertaining!). It means that we should transcend our Ego, be humble, kind, and remember our humanness–or, in this case, our “hugginess.”
How do we know when it’s our soul calling us to do something, and not our Ego? Kabbalah teaches that if it’s our soul’s desire, there’s some aspect in it of wanting good for other people. If something is only good for “me,” then the desire for it comes from the Ego.
We wear many other masks, too. We reply, “I’m fine,” when we’re angry. We stay silent instead of speaking our truth. We hide our emotions behind humor or indifference. Sometimes we use social media as a public mask, curating our lives to showcase all the sparkles and none of the dirt. Even our facial expressions are masks of sorts, whether we realize it or not.
According to Jonathan Freeman, Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia University and director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences Lab, “People form personality impressions from others’ facial appearance within only a few hundred milliseconds.” While studies show that such first impressions are quite consistent across observers, they are often inaccurate. In other words, the “masks” we wear every day do not tell the full story of who we are, despite society’s tendency to think otherwise. That’s why it is up to us to do the revealing!
Some masks may actually help us both connect to and reveal our light. For instance, that expensive, expansive house may become a gathering place full of love and laughter, bringing joy to all who enter it. The family photo shared on social media might help us stay connected to dear friends we can’t see in person.
And so we find yet another duality in this month of the mirrored fish (Pisces). We hide; we reveal. We seek protection; we seek connection. By virtue of recognizing the masks we wear (knowingly or not) and choosing our masks wisely, we show up authentically for ourselves and in our relationships. That authenticity is the foundation for the honesty and depth we crave in our connections with other people.
Eventually, all our worldly masks will fall away, and all will be revealed. But until then, we can benefit from noticing the masks we and others are wearing. We can decide which are serving our highest good, and which are blocking us from shining our brightest for the world.
We may never be able to reveal ourselves fully while in this human form. However, with every mask we consciously remove (or choose), we take one more step towards the mirror where, if we’re very lucky, we’ll eventually meet ourselves in wholeness.