I remember trips to the New Orleans French Quarter as a teen and then a seminary student. Amidst the street performers, beignets, and the Mississippi steamboats, table after table lined up the Quarter with merchants selling their wares. Each time, I always searched for the same item.
Masks. They were beautiful with intricate colors and detail. Some jeweled and feathered while others less adorned, but still spectacular. I imagined masquerade balls with shimmering gowns and fairy tale dreams.
Today, my little boy zooms around the house wearing his favorite Avenger mask layered with Spiderman and Batman, too. He becomes the superhero, concealing his true identity.
Because that’s what masks do. They conceal the truth. Reality. They hide our scars with fabricated beauty—porcelain personas.
Like the Phantom haunting the opera house, we hide behind our masks. Praying our truths, our disfigurements, stay hidden from the world. We wear the masks.
We Wear the Mask
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
While Dunbar wrote this poem revealing the horrific realities of being an African American at the turn of the twentieth century, his haunting words powerfully give voice to the masks women wear today.
Girl’s Night Out. We sit at tables together. Laughing with smiles painted into our porcelain façades. Revealing nothing, we return home. Only to hear one of our own suffers from words like divorce, infertility, and addiction. Words stuffed down and buried instead of shared. Oh, how we love to hide.
Masked and hidden, we are afraid to reveal our pain to others. Even those closest to us.
Revealing our struggles requires courage. Because who can we trust with our grotesque realities? Will people run and hide? It’s as if we can already hear the judgment shouted over coffee mugs in Starbucks. Or the gossip spread as prayer requests.
We ask ourselves, who would want to see me? The real I’m-a-broken-mess-on-the-inside me?
We hide so much. Broken marriages. Past mistakes. Terrors of Motherhood. Feelings of inadequacy. Struggles with sin. Battles with addiction. Paralyzing fears. Our beautiful masks cover our brokenness. And we are trapped in the masquerade.
Here is what I know. When we hide our sin, when we bury our pain, when we wear our masks—There can be no victory. Because what if the way to free ourselves from the buried black is to rip off the porcelain paint?
But this is why we are losing the battle—We refuse to be the first to shatter the mask. Our sisters wear their beautifully terrifying façades that look so very real to us. We assume our eyes behold the truth instead of masked reality. No one’s heart is ever as black as our own. Right?
So our masks with painted smiles remain firmly set upon our faces. Because who would dare to go first?
Victory, just within reach, gives way to fear. The evil one throws his head back and cackles. How do you keep women from knowing wholeness? From knowing they are beautiful? From lifting them out of bondage into the life of freedom?
You hide them behind their masks.
The Truth is, when our masks are shattered, victory is ours. Healing is promised if we would but lift our masks and reveal our deepest hearts to one another, and then pray for each other. The mending of our wounds can begin when we force ourselves out from behind the pretenses we hold so dear.
No one. No. Not one is perfect. So why do we pretend to be?
If we could begin to lift the corners of our masks in our sister circles, light would hit our faces and travel to the places of our hearts which have been kept in the dark far too long. And we would see the beautiful mess revealed on the faces of our friends—mirrors reflecting our own souls.
And know we’re not alone. And there is the bittersweet joy of facing our pain together. Without our masks. To know we’re not alone.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” James 5:16a