Well, there’s more than one kind of mask
During the recent uprising against Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, following rigged elections, the police and other military and KGB officers attacked protesters with extreme violence, hiding their identities behind masks or balaclavas. But protesters discovered whenever they swarmed around an officer and pulled off his mask, he raised his hands to hide his face and backed off or ran away, suddenly vulnerable. A surprisingly successful strategy.
One of the advantages of a mask is definitely anonymity. But I’m not talking here about balaclavas, nor the variety of mask that hooks easily around the ears and which continues to be such a divisive subject in the current pandemic. I mean the kind of mask that people wear when they try to convince people that they’re something they’re not. It protects their vulnerability and hides their villainy just as surely as a balaclava – which reminds me that the most scary moment of any children’s film for me is the moment in Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” when the Grand High Witch takes her hands to her face and peels off her actual beautiful lady face to reveal a dreadful witch underneath. Horror! And what an useful early lesson – people aren’t always what they seem … The jolly japer maybe isn’t joking inside …
The masks we wear
We all wear a mask sometimes, it’s almost part of the social contract. Your bright good morning as you appear in the conference call in the morning masking that groggy feeling after a bad night … Your happy phone chat with a friend, skating along the surface of your lives, carefully avoiding any mention of either Covit or Brexid – subjects (or is it now a single subject?) of deep disagreement… Only a dreary flatness after the call reminds you that you were indeed wearing a mask.
I’d like to unmask people sometimes, and I’m sure you would too. You know – the colleague being so especially friendly, keeping you engaged long enough for you to feel relief that she has no ulterior agenda, until suddenly she has, asking a favour of you that she knows you won’t wish to grant – which you do then grant, how could you not, she was being so nice? But now you feel used and want to peel off her pleasant mask to reveal the calculating face underneath.
Or, the Zoom call: you look around the grid at those faces. The speaker drones pitilessly and pointlessly on, and you’re all in a goldfish bowl, frontal-view-visible, so no one looks bored exactly; most mouths are stretched slightly outwards to give a bland pleasant stare like so many Barbie dolls – and Kens. See there that slight mew of a mouth masking a yawn. Rip the masks off and you’d discover boredom and irritation.
Don’t mention TV, radio, media news! Masks, everywhere masks, sometimes impressively so. How does that politician make that statement with a straight face when we have only to tap the internet for 20 seconds to have visible auditory proof that he (yes, ok, she too) said precisely the opposite last week with equal emphasis? Wow, that’s quite something! How does he prevent himself breaking out into a guffaw – “Ha! Only kidding!”?
We all hate to be unmasked. But, equally, we all hide bits of ourselves – in particular situations or even all the time. If we inhabit our mask more and more, it gradually becomes who we are. Many people in public life have worn a particular mask for most of their lives. No wonder it’s so easy to create “spitting images” of such people – they are already caricatures of themselves in daylight hours. But beware; in the dark of the night, waking at 3 AM, they, like us, are unmasked and naked for a while, and look life in the face. Oh, those uncomfortable scary hours of darkness!
Evolving as a human being is always about unmasking, about getting to know the truth of yourself, so that you cease to be divided against the self (no more 3 AM terrors) and become an integrated being, at ease in your own skin. It would be good if it were a case of peeling off the mask and voilà, there’s the beautiful you. It’s usually a little more involved than that. You often have to peel off several layers, before you find the beauty that lies underneath. That person who has the simpering smile and sugary voice of someone eager to please – the layer below shows itself to be jealousy and resentment. (Oh, tempting to ask for the sugary personality back!) But you peel again and find huge sadness. The sadness, once acknowledged, reveals calm, and within the calm rests the seed of possibility, which now with light shed upon it begins joyfully to grow and brighten …
Once you reveal that seed, the world can’t scare you in the same way as before. The truth of every human is this centre, this pearl of great price within.
Look around you, and you’ll begin to wonder what’s behind the masks. But you’re probably not going to go around trying to unpeel layers off your boss, clients, children and public monsters at every turn. However, that instinct to look behind and beneath is a good one. It’s certainly a good remedy for anger in these angry times. For example, once you see through the nauseating swagger of a person who wields power unscrupulously to the small child within seeking attention, your anger becomes redundant, and so no longer gets in the way of your taking whatever effective action you can to counter the harm they are causing. Anger is great at throwing up a problem, but not wanted in your move to action.
Seeing beyond the masks you begin to see more in people’s eyes, to hear more in their voice, and to intuit beyond what they present. Yes, people reveal inadequacies to you; but more often they offer you a mask to convince you that they’re more amazing than they actually believe they are, and you have to peer through their obfuscation and the “I’m amazing” image to glimpse the seed of possibility beneath– which is definitely, not merely possibly, there.
Important? Yes, hugely. There was never a time with more manipulation and dishonesty than ours; we owe it to ourselves and to the planet not to believe the stories a mask tells. Idealistic? I don’t think so. Treat people as if they are more than their presenting mask, and they begin to show us more. That’s a plain truth. And (speaking to myself for one), much more interesting and effective than getting angry.
My TEDx Talk has a complementary theme
A book for our times
Have a look for John McConnell’s new book, Breaking Through The Darkness: How to defeat depression, anxiety or stress – a spiritual perspective. Perfectly timed for this period when so many people are feeling darkness. It’s clear, helpful and hope shines out of it – a lifeline for our times.
Coaching is like going for anything you want to be good at – golf, painting, playing the piano, creative writing, football, getting fit, dressing well – leadership, parenting, relationships. There are ways to make your progress faster and more rewarding, there are ways to overcome whatever blocks you, whatever that is. In the relationship of coaching, you discover what those are for you. It’s an accessible flexible process, by telephone or video call in your own home, and if you’re not familiar with it, you will be amazed the possibilities that open up even in a single hour. If you’ve ever considered coaching, but haven’t yet dipped your toe in the water, go for it! Now is the time.
THe Art of Communication
The Art of Communication is for anyone who senses that they could be communicating on a deeper level. Perhaps you are a confident communicator but suspect there may be more to the art of conversation that you have not yet been able to access. Or perhaps you feel that your conversations lack depth and meaning and that you’d like to enrich your relationships with others, if only you knew how. This book will address your concerns and show you how to engage wholeheartedly with others.
The Art of Conversation
Conversational skill isn’t really about being articulate and having a fund of things to talk about – though that’s what most books on the subject would suggest. It’s more about being at ease with who you are and knowing how to connect with others. Only then do you have authentic and satisfying conversations.
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms
This is a book about performance anxiety – it offers 25 different strategies to perform with confidence. But it’s not just about presenting and performing – you’ll find its ideas useful for eliminating anxiety throughout your life.
Voice and Speaking Skills for Dummies
The perfect resource to discover the power of your voice, understand how it works and use it like a professional, whether in meetings, addressing an audience, or standing in front of a classroom.
Voice of Influence
“The body language of sound”. Like body language, your voice gives you away. Find your authentic voice, speak powerfully and influentially, and reach people on a deeper level.
A poem for nights when you are awake at 3 AM
and other dark times
When Despair for the World Grows in Me
by Wendell Berry, living American writer
Sending you all love and hope.