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On Masks, Masking, Control, and Lack Thereof

Posted on March 7, 2012 by Ela Merom

In Hebrew, the words for face, “panim,” and internal, “pnim,” comes from the same root and has the same exact letters פנים.
This is precious poetry in one word, singing in our ear the ideal, aligned state of being the world: Our innermost state shining through our face, the extension of Truth itself. In that state when we are where and what we are, unmasked, raw and real, sometimes broken, our being can touch another being. We all know this place and have experienced this place of alignment and connection; we have at least had a glimpse.
Though this state holds the deepest strength it is translated in our minds to vulnerability. And we are right. The truth is we are all fragile, and because this is true for all that exists in this world, when we open up, admit, and surrender to it we come out of our loneliness and really embrace the world and its creatures.
Instead, shaken by forces of the unknown, we seek to gain more control; in order to do that we mask our true faces with what we think of as a survival mechanism–putting in constant effort to remain “under-cover” and deny the actual state of lack of control and vulnerability in face of the world’s forces.
There is no real division between compulsive behavior and habit; there is a range. These are the survival mechanisms we have acquired desperately to gain control, but instead they control us. We are all slaves, meaning, we all, to varying degrees, act in the world not from a place of choice or freedom. Ironically, we mask the fear of our lack of control with a stronger hold and more dedication to our habits and patterns which are the cause of our lack of control. We falsely identify these with who we are becoming a permanent mask we start to think of as our face, as we become more and more attached to it. These masks are what most intimately control our lives and create barriers to a compassionate, open, and joyful interaction with the world, yet they are mostly invisible to us.
Often times our own lack of freedom and and fear of our vulnerability can be an impetus for the ridiculous, totally illusionary and extremely harmful desire to control others, especially those with whom we are in intimate relationships. The most harmful–yet subtle–form of this occurs when we try to control others to validate our mask that has become our face. This is the survival mechanism of the mask: we come to think of it as ourselves and then we wish for others to validate it. This is the social pact. This is the definition of “keeping face” which should be called “keeping mask:” do not challenge my mask and I will not challenge yours; or, not challenging my own mask I do not challenge yours. Instead of meeting in our vulnerability we just hear the clanking of our synthetic masks.
In this harmful, reciprocal, symbiotic codependence we reify each others’ masks for fear of being exposed, while exposing ourselves is actually our path to freedom. The mask, a product of our lack of freedom, becomes a false sense of control that we hold on to for dear life when, in fact, it is holding us hostage. Instead of effortlessly looking into the eyes of each other, and out into the world, we exhaust ourselves. We keep our fists tight around the butterfly of our soul, keeping up a falsehood for ourselves and others. We are all suffering, but at least we are “in control.” Breaking this agreement could lead to one of two scenarios: averting the challenge in any possible way by becoming defensive or even abusive, or rising to the occasion by challenging ourselves to grow.
In the book of Esther, which holds the Purim story, what sparks Haman’s anger that propels the plot, is the fact that Mordechai does not agree to bow down to him. Everyone else, out of fear or just habit, bows down to Haman, over and over, affirming his mask made of a brutal power position. Mordechai, just one person who does not bow, is the force that eventually brings the mask tumbling down.
We can regard these characters as forces in our life. On Purim we put on costumes and masks, we think we are hiding behind them but actually they allow us to reveal to the world something that we do not allow ourselves to show every day. We joke around and turn things on their heads נהפוכו . This is an opportunity to loosen our grip from what we have come to identify as our personality, and for a day or two to not bow down to it. Like a drop of the wine that we are commanded to drink, the taste of this irreverence to our “selves” should remain on our lips.
There is nothing more holy than the endeavor to constantly increase our inner degree of freedom and to release our loved ones to do so. This journey is one and the same, for one feeds the other. The more we act out of freedom, the less we need others to validate and cater to the needs of our patterns that we have falsely identified with ourselves. When we notice the gross and subtle ways in which we have the impulse to control others; when we point it out and name it as control, really a type of violence; when we have the courage not to justify it, but to own it; we begin to unmask ourselves, creating more intimacy with reality that we have until now seen through the narrow cracks of a tainted view from the mask covering our eyes.
And in turn, there is another form of release: we must stop collaborating with our loved ones’ compulsive need for us to validate their masks, which we do through pleasing, appeasing, and allowing ourselves be controlled. By acting as accomplices in this way, we further the harmful patterns and thicken the masks on their faces and ours.
No one is completely free of the mask; the only thing that varies is the degree to which we are able to recognize its patterns and name those. Then it can slowly melts away and we see beyond it, our faces beaming, we are courageously connected in our vulnurablity, leaving us with sweet, true strength and intimacy. This is the fulfillment of the commandment לא תעשו לכם פסל וכל מסכה “You shall not make an idol or a mask for yourselves.”

On Masks, Masking, Control, and Lack Thereof: Text
On Masks, Masking, Control, and Lack Thereof: Image
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