Let’s just make a few adjustments, shall we? We need to cover the dark circles under those eyes and add some colour to those cheeks. There, that’s a little bit better. Now the hair, the clothes, and…No, no slouching. Stand up straight. You look like a question mark! Who’s going to believe anything you say, looking like that? Now, stand up straight. Put a smile on your face. A little wider, a little brighter, almost there.
Mm, no, no this isn’t working. It’s all wrong. So very wrong.
A box is pulled from a shelf. It’s a very old box. The edges are torn and stained. There’s a thick layer of dust on top. A deep breath and a mighty exhale. The dust is caught in a gust of air and it flies up, up, up before floating gently to the ground. The box is dropped onto the counter with a dull thud, and the lid is slowly lifted.
Lean in a little closer, furrow those eyebrows, and bite the bottom lip. Its features are delicate and the design is elegant. It looks so real! They’ll never know the truth. It’ll have them fooled for sure. Lift the mask out of the box and secure it in place. It blends in so nicely. No one will ever know that the real me is hiding underneath. They’ll never know the difference. They’ll think that this is me, all dolled up and ready for their approval.
We all do it. I know we do. We have different faces for different events. Like a theatrical mask, we give the audience what they came to see and hope they don’t see through our play-acting. The curtain rises and falls. We’ve played our part. The applause reaches the stars and a hum of gratitude soon follows. We’ve done it. They’ve bought it and without question. Take a bow. It’s well earned.
Different faces for different places. A necessary part of our social graces. There it is, written in bold letters. Be who you need to be, who you’re expected to be, to pass as one of them. Pass inspection, and you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
We do it for them because its what’s expected but we also do it for ourselves. A protective mechanism. A way to cover up the parts of our identity that’s sensitive to light. Exposure is painful and we burn easily. Who we are, the real version, can’t handle the spotlight. We’re not ready to step out onto that stage. We’re not ready to stand in front of everyone completely exposed. Naked. Our imperfections on display. There to be judged, ridiculed, and humiliated.
It’s all too much so we cover up our inadequacies. We take that dusty box off the back shelf and put on our masks. Stand up tall. Don’t slouch. Smile, whether that can see it or not. Walk with confidence and elegance. Make them believe you are who they need you to be, and everything will be okay.
Calling me socially awkward is very polite, and I appreciate the overestimation of my ability to interact with other people. Socially inept is probably more of an accurate description. Then again, it could just be a matter of semantics. Either way, I put a mask on that closely resembles a smokescreen. The outline is there but you can’t really see anything. If you can’t really see me than I can blend in and disappear because that’s where I feel more comfortable.
That space, behind the smoke, is more familiar which is why it’s more comfortable. Growing up, I was always the sick kid and no one knew what to do with me. What do you do with someone who’s sick all the time? It becomes trickier if that person looks sick, fragile, weak. That’s so uncomfortable. What do you say? What do you do? No one seemed to know, so they sidestepped me and went to my brother or parents. It didn’t take long for the mask to become muted because I became the smoke.
Going to a Christian school, as the token sick kid, made it a little stranger. Not worse but, well, let’s call it an interesting experience. I’ll preface this by saying that nothing was done to be hurtful in any way. It was never intentional. In fact, I believe that it was all done with a genuine, perhaps misguided, desire to be helpful in a helpless situation.
In school, for reasons I struggled to understand, I often found myself pulled upfront as a target of prayer. Again, it came from a good place. They wanted to help and prayer, in a religious setting, is the preprogrammed response. It was meant as an act of kindness but, for me, it often felt like I was being placed on some kind of an altar. I was never quite sure if I was there as a sacrifice or a show of good faith. I just knew it was my duty to let it play out.
During school assemblies, I’d be called upfront, and I would stand there, awkwardly picking at my fingernails, waiting for the performance to start. I knew the role I was expected to play and playing that role never felt optional. Maybe it was. Maybe I could’ve politely declined but I had the mask all ready to go. It was polished, and the craftsmanship was impressive. It would be a shame to put it back into its box and shove it back up onto the shelf.
I would make sure the mask was straight, square my shoulders, and stand at the ready. Prayers would be offered. Smiles would be shared. Sometimes there would be clapping if people were feeling frisky. Then I was ushered back to my seat, and they’d go on to announcements. Oo, pizza day on Thursday. Yum!
The one thing I noticed, while I was waiting for the floor to swallow me up, was the look in their eyes. No one really saw me. Most wouldn’t make eye contact but when they did, they weren’t looking at me. They were looking through me. No one noticed how uncomfortable I was and no one asked if this is what I wanted. I was the smoke caught in a glass jar.
Then again, let’s be fair, my mask was very good and I became very adept at playing the part they wanted me to play. Stoic. Stiff upper lip. Smiling at the right moments. Looking sober or reflective when the tone shifted. Grateful and appreciative. I could pull one mask off and put another one on without anyone catching a glimpse of the real me underneath. It’s a sleight of hand trick that would be the envy of any master magician.
Did you need me to be brave, strong, indomitable? Got it. See, I’ve got steel in my veins. You won’t see a teardrop roll down my cheek. You won’t hear a sniffle. You won’t see me flinch. I’ll set my jaw, clench my fists, and look death square in the eyes. Is that what you need?
What do you need me to be? I can be anything but if I have to be me then we might have a problem. I’ve gotten too used to being what other people need me to be because, so often, I was expected to be something other than who I was. Who I was, the sick kid, seemed to make a lot of people uncomfortable. If I was, who I was, then they’d walk away so I became what they needed. I became the smoke.
We look over, around, and through the person in front of us but we don’t see them because they don’t fit into our societal norms. They don’t fit our understanding of how things are supposed to be, and that makes our brains itch. It’s an itch we can’t scratch so we shut them down or push them out. We breathe a sigh of relief because out of sight relieves that uncomfortable tickle.
When we’re the evictor, we feel relief. When we’re the evicted we feel isolated, lonely, unworthy and our brains don’t itch; they break. Even socially awkward introverts are social creatures. We just don’t fit into society and who we are, makes people uncomfortable. What do we do then? In my case, I created a new mask for every occasion and built and big old shelf to hold them all. Some of them collect dust while others get used a little too often.
It’s not the healthiest thing in the world but sometimes it’s the safest. When we make someone uncomfortable, they take their discomfort out on us because we’re “making” them feel that way. It rangers from childish name-calling, or what I like to call the Doo Doo Head Offensive, to outright violence. I’ve been called a lot of awful things because of my disability and I’ve faced threats of harm. I’ve been shoved aside, and I’ve had sharp objects stabbed into my back. I’ve been ignored. I’ve been dismissed. I’ve been looked at with disgust. I’ve lost jobs, and I’ve had friendships end. All because my mask slipped and who they saw made them uncomfortable.
I’m lucky! I can wear a mask. I can play pretend. I can become the smoke. I can hide who am if I need too. Not everyone has that luxury. Is that the right word? It might be a luxury but it’s not alright. Wearing a mask for physical and emotional safety shouldn’t be necessary. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to do it but if I need to, I can. I can minimize my limp, cover up my scars, and hide my illness. I can play pretend when someone else’s discomfort becomes toxic. I can make myself disappear into that smoke when pretending doesn’t work.
I can do that. Some of you can’t. Neither one of us should have to turn ourselves into smoke to walk through this world unharmed and loved.
Some of you have managed to keep your form. You haven’t turning into smoke. There’s so few of you but you have the courage to maintain your identity despite the challenges that brings. You are who you were created to be and you’re proud to be who you are. Thank God for you! You precious few. The ones who dare to be different. Who dare to be true. Who dare to show the world the different is beautiful. Bless you for fighting on the side of angels because you will make the world safer for those of us too beaten and bruised.
Keep standing tall and be proud. Be who you are. You wondrous, magnificent, miraculous human being. Bless you!