What Happens When We Wear a Mask?

Carnevale, ItalyWise

Would you laugh with this jester?

My mind and my imagination are still reeling from the bountiful display of pageantry and costumes that I saw during the official kick-off of Carnevale in Venice, just over a week ago. I marveled at the sea of exquisitely designed masks. More than once I had a sense that some of the masks were revealing sides of people normally hidden in the shadows. As I continue to edit the ocean of images, I find myself dancing between artistic admiration and asking “Just what happens when we wear masks?”

Do events like Carnevale and Halloween coax hidden parts of ourselves to the surface?

When I moved to Italy and discovered that Halloween “dress-up” practically was non-existent, I was a sad little puppy. Back in the States I loved Halloween, and those of you who know me, know I adore dipping into my creative reserves to design and embody vastly different characters at Halloween. Usually my characters have a bizarre twist. I love playing freely behind the costumes and masks I create. I often wonder what a psychologist would say about the collective assembly of characters and masks I’ve worn. Hmmm…

I guess you could say I’d been going through costume and mask withdrawal, until I hit the jackpot of all costume jackpots– Carnevale in Venice. Those of you who’ve experienced Mardi Gras in New Orleans might be crying foul, but I’ve experienced both, and Venice wins hands down in my opinion (and the debauchery seems to be a couple of notches lower in Venice).

In answer to the question posed above, I’d say yes. I think it’s an opportunity to explore and play with the many parts of ourselves lurking in the basements of our psyches. I’m continually amazed at how people can transform once they wear a mask. Shy people often become more playful. Sweet, nice people reveal darker sides of themselves. Ironically, even though they wear a mask, they may be coming out of hiding. Consider the words of Oscar Wilde:

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

So what about the masks we wear in our daily lives?

Once Carnevale and Halloween are over and we pack away our costumes, do we still wear a mask – albeit invisible? Perhaps my major life and cultural shift has given me time and provocation to explore this more fully. I was raised to be a polite southern boy. The message I received growing up, loud and clear, from school, from church, and the adults around me was to behave, be agreeable, and to put others’ needs ahead of my own. While much is admirable about those qualities, somewhere along the way I became wired to be a person overly focused on pleasing other people. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I often was left with a residual sense of being unsettled and unsatisfied, because I wasn’t adept at checking in with what I really wanted.

What started innocently enough – a desire for society to mold me into a good little boy – turned into my putting on the mask of agreeability and compromise. I’m sure there are far worse things, but it begs one to question if such a mask compromises one’s balance and authenticity.

When we wear a mask for so long do we forget who we really are?

Consider our conditioning being like a computer program that’s been running unchecked since childhood. We have masks handed to us, with a command “Wear this to fit in and be accepted.” Subsequently we often lose sight of who we are behind the masks. Still, all is not lost. I’m a big believer in the power of awareness – the power of seeing something for what it is. I believe, when we finally see the masks we wear, and see how they affect our behavior, such awareness can’t help but start changing and re-wiring who we are. I believe trying to wrestle with one’s masks or to try to rip them off will only keep them stubbornly adhered.

I will always love donning masks and costumes, and being playful during events like Halloween and Carnevale. I will welcome what such play can teach me about myself. As for the rest of my life, I hope to not put a mask between myself and the outside world. I will lean on the loving light of awareness to help me present my fullest self to the world.

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” – James Baldwin