We all wear masks of one kind or another throughout our lives. There’s always those aspects of life we want to hide from the world for whatever reason. As a child and youth growing up in Christian Science, I meticulously hid my religious affiliation such that even my closest friends did not know about it. Why I did it is complex, and honestly some of the reasons have become lost in the mists of my memory, or the real memory has been re-interpreted through my now adult eyes. I think it was partly because Christian Science is a very unusual, obscure, and extremely abstract religion and I had no ability to fully explain it, so I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. The bigger reason I think, was probably because I did not want to be ‘different’. My point is, we all go through life with masks on at one point or another.
I know for me, and probably with most people, adolescence is a time when we wear a lot of masks. Despite the rebellious nature of teenagers and youth; deep down, most want to simply fit in. That was true of me. I did not want to stand out in the crowd. Some did want to stand out, but I remember the vast majority of us did not. We just wanted to survive high school as unscathed as possible, and figure out what we wanted to be.
My teen years were a roller-coaster ride to say the least. Our family endured challenges that would have torn most families apart. At one point, deep financial loss nearly rendered us homeless, if not for the assistance of other family members. We also saw the death of my younger brother when I was 18 years old. Masterfully, I hid all of it behind the best façade of normalcy I could muster. Most of my friends didn’t realize that I often wore the same shirts several days in a row, or that my uncle was a co-owner of our house, and for a period of time made some of the mortgage payments on it.
I know that many grow up in much more dire circumstances than I did, and as I look back on my life, I realize that I had it pretty damn good compared to some. But, the challenges I did face gave me an empathy for those that slog through deeper challenges than I did. While I can never truly feel the pain another person feels, I do have an understanding. I can see behind the mask.
But, I also acknowledge the pain that creates the mask. That, to me, is empathy, and it is something Christian Scientists sorely lack. After all, if sin, sickness, and death are mere mortal illusions, as Christian Science teaches, there is nothing that can hurt someone, and that hurt your fellow human being is experiencing is all completely unreal–just like the shimmering lake off in the distance in the desert.
In my work with people who live on the margins of society, I have to be empathetic. If I were to approach them with an attitude that their pain, loss, or lack, was unreal, I could do nothing to help them. I have to meet them where they are. Sometimes, my help is as simple as helping a man with one arm get his belt on in the morning. I realize it’s not easy for him to ask someone he barely knows to do that, so I do it willingly and compassionately, as if it’s really no big deal to me.
We put on masks to hide our pain, to hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want others to see. Christian Scientists mask themselves from all that their theology deems to be ‘unreal’, ie. anything ‘bad’ (disease, death, pain, suffering). They deny it’s reality, it’s existence. They hide behind the mask of “everything’s normal, everything’s good, nothing to see here.” they construct an almost Stepfordesque masquerade of perfection and saccharine normalcy. But, it’s all a façade; a mask. Even after leaving Christian Science, it’s hard to break that habit. You don’t want to admit that your life is anything short of perfection.
Masks can hide reality; they can hide who we really are. Is that good, or is that bad? My answer to that question would be ‘yes’. We need masks sometimes to defend and protect ourselves, but we also need to look past them if we want to be genuinely empathetic. As with most anything in this world, it’s both good and bad; yin and yang.