Understanding a Mask as a Mask

From Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls by Norman Fischer:

Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls It may seem surprising, or quite counterintuitive, that finally arriving home would require us, first of all, to take great care to conceal ourselves. Doesn’t coming home mean coming home to our true selves, finally dropping all the masks and standing revealed as we are? Why then is such caution, such deception, necessary?

Perhaps dropping the masks requires that we put them on. This is paradoxical, yet true to life. It’s naïve to think that there’s a real self behind all the masks, and that when we take off the masks we will find that self. In fact, there’s no way not to wear a mask. Our masks are our deceptive, partial, social identities that enable us to operate in the world, to reach out to one another, so that we can be revealed. Wherever we are we’ve got to be somebody. We always have a role to play. At work we are workers, professionals, managers; in our personal lives we are friends, acquaintances, relatives; at home we are fathers, mothers, spouses, siblings. In the course of any day we put on and take off masks many times. These masks can sometimes make us weary, especially if we feel we have become only a mask. We can long for a freedom beyond our roles, a place of quiet and truth. This is what our hearts have yearned for; this is why we’ve been journeying all this time toward home.

But once again we’ve mixed things up, we haven’t looked closely enough, we’ve failed to reckon on the complexity and paradoxical nature of the situation. Just as we have seen that true awareness includes unconsciousness, sleep, and dreams, now we see that fully revealing ourselves requires masks. To think we can throw off the masks and emerge pristinely as “I” is to be like the father who thinks he can be a pal, rather than a dad, to his son. He can be a pal, but only by wearing the dad mask. Understanding a mask as a mask, we can wear it properly. Wearing it properly, we can find out what’s behind it. A close friend of mine, a Zen priest and business coach, states this succinctly in one of his “business paradoxes.” “At work we should be completely ourselves,” he writes. “And we must play a role.” This wise saying applies to all spheres of life.