I vaguely remember a scene in one of the Rocky movies when, as often was the case, the champ was taking a terrible beating. As the round’s final bell rang, Rocky struggled to his corner and slumped down on the small wooden stool with blood streaming from his nose and one of his eyes quickly swelling shut. His corner man took one look at him and told him he was going to have to throw in the towel, but Rocky would have none of it. “Don’t even think about it,” I recall him saying – “I’ve got him right where I want him!” Sure enough, thanks to Hollywood, it turned out he did, but, to me, the outcome of the fight was secondary to the moment in the corner. I suspect, at one time or another, all of us have had those moments – moments when we feel compelled to do or say whatever it takes to put our best face forward regardless of how we really feel.
Maybe it’s a “brave face” like Rocky’s – the one that pretends “it” really doesn’t hurt as much as it would appear even though the “it” may be the break-up of a relationship, the death of spouse or child, the sting of a daily barrage of hurtful or demeaning words, the loss of a job or our being rejected or forgotten by someone who once professed to care. Maybe it’s an “I’ve got things under control face” – the calm exterior that, like a seasoned thespian on opening night, we present to our daily audience of employers, parents, friends and spouses to hide the chaos going on behind the curtain. Maybe it’s an “I’m fine face” – the one with the plasticized smile designed to distract others from the ever present and sometimes unbearable pain and sadness that lies perilously close to the surface.
I’m sure there’s a psychological explanation (or two) for the “masking” that is so much a part of so many of our daily lives. But my sense is that part of it emanates from our not wanting to burden others (even those we love and who we know love us) with our pain and hardships. That’s particularly true for those who misguidedly believe that their mere existence is a burden to others or that others’ plates already are over-flowing with issues of their own. For some, fear is the glue that keeps their masks in place – fear that others couldn’t possibly understand, let alone empathize with what they’re going through; fear that if they revealed their true self or true feelings they will hurt someone, disappoint them, be judged or be-littled or, worse yet, be abandoned; or fear that their vulnerability will be seen as a sign of weakness or, God forbid, imperfection.
And that’s where the royal “we” come in. You see, the “unmasking” process is not a one way street. Simply put, we can’t reasonably expect others to reveal their humanity when we repeatedly have demonstrated an unwillingness to embrace our own. We can’t expect others to feel safe expressing their true selves and feelings, when, time and time again, we have refused to validate those expressions, taken them personally, or greeted them with anger, defensiveness or demeaning conduct and words. We can’t continue to harshly judge ourselves (and others) and expect those we love to freely and vulnerably share their brokenness. No, the only way masks will come off and hearts will be opened is if we are willing to take off and open our own. I say we give it a try. What have we really got to lose?