Milky Way

Dropping the Mask

November 2014

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We live in a culture where communication is generally not seen as a pathway to deeper relationship, but is rather more commonly understood as a skill set providing strategic advantage. Genuine dialogue is rare; aggressive debate is rampant. Few people communicate with the intent of learning something new, or working through their biases, or feeling their way into the deeper truth of something. Most people have some point they want to make, and aspire to eloquently wield the power of persuasion in order to make it. Some people eschew eloquence for the sheer force of intimidation. There is no room for being honest or authentic in such communication, much less showing one’s vulnerability. Instead, in a world where communication is just a euphemism for verbal battle, we learn early in life to hide behind a mask and a sturdy suit of armor.

Meanwhile, it is safe to say that genuine communication of the kind we have been talking about in this blog series does not begin until both parties are mature, self-aware, and confident enough to drop the mask. In the end, the power of our communication to change our lives and the world in which we live does not depend on our professional credentials, social status, wealth, religious or political affiliations, or any other external source of identity. It depends on who we are inside – as human beings.

What do you really care about? How able are you to care about something other than yourself? When push comes to shove, which of your values are non negotiable? What is the most difficult thing you have ever had to deal with in your life, and what did you learn from dealing with it? When and how did you learn what you were made of? How do you respond when life as you know it falls apart? How do you live when no one else is looking?

The answers to these questions are what make you who you are, and if we are to truly communicate with each other, then this is what I want to know about you. This is also what I must be brave enough to tell you about me. Not all at once. But as we gradually enter into a relationship where genuine communication is possible.

This is not to say, of course, that there are not situations in life – perhaps many situations – where having a mask cannot be helpful. If I am stopped by a cop for speeding, I am not about to tell him about my troubled childhood. If I am applying for a job, I am not going to tell my prospective employer that I worry about my ability to do a job I have never done. If I am in a room full of strangers, I do not usually introduce myself by sharing my secret sexual desires. In every situation, there is an appropriate place in which we can meet each other, and developing a sense of where that is, is important. Those who do not think so can easily wind socially ostracized, unable to function in society, in jail, dead at an early age, or worse.

There is a difference, however, between responding appropriately to the situation at hand, and being stuck behind an appropriate mask that – after a time – we can no longer remove. If all I ever do is hide behind what is appropriate, it is not likely that I will be able to enter a genuine conversation with you. True communication requires us to take a risk, to lean into the ever-present possibility of expanding common ground, of caring more deeply about the other person, of being more honest or authentic, of being vulnerable, of dropping the mask and letting the other person see what is there behind any possible veil of pretense.

I have, by the way, dared to honestly share my feelings about the frustrating predicament that caused me to speed, with a cop who I sensed might listen, and got a reduced fine. Without necessarily intending to, I found common ground with a stranger with a mask in full body armor, who despite his authority, was able to empathize with my plight. This is not always possible, obviously, but where we carry the intent to be able to have a more genuine conversation with another human being of radically different persuasions, beliefs, and background, it is possible to drop the mask, disarm, and be rewarded in unexpected ways.

To read the next post in this series, go here.

To read more blog posts, go here.