Back when I was in college and as crazy as a bedbug — a bedbug on a steady diet of caffeine, nicotine, and Nietzsche — I decided I was the phoniest bastard in the history of the universe and I wasn’t going to stand it anymore.

I lie constantly, I told myself, and not only in words: I lie with my face, my tone of voice, my gestures, and even the way I walk. That raised eyebrow? It was calculated to make you think I’m sophisticated. The way I laughed? Designed to make you think I’m boisterous and cynical.

So to remedy the situation I wrote down on my fingers — one per finger — all the ways I could think of that I lied. That way, every time I saw my hands, I would be reminded to CUT IT OUT.

Please, you don’t need to tell me how insane this is. You have to understand, I was doing the best I could, 19 years old and so full of neurosis you could probably see it swirling around when you looked in my eyes.

My friend M. saw my fingers all marked after dinner and asked what that was all about. “It’s to remind me of all the ways I lie,” I said, solemnly, careful to hold my eyebrows still, keep my voice flat, and not move my mouth in an insincere way. “Oh my God,” she muttered, amazed and disgusted. I brushed her off (she didn’t understand) and went off to wander back to the dorm, practicing authenticity with every step.

It is not hard to understand why, during this time, I found social contact even more difficult than usual. It was a beautiful double bind I had put myself in: I was desperate to fit in, but fitting in seemed to require consciously adapting things that were foreign to me — or that most foreign, artificial thing of all, the thing all the Normals recommended, called Being Yourself.

Looking back, I get to laugh, maybe shudder a little at how close I might have come to actual psychosis, and thank God I’m not there anymore. I don’t remember how long it took me to give up the project. I do remember the feeling of my own limbs and facial muscles settling around me like lead, the strange mummy-like feeling of trying to control every inch of my body every minute.

I thought that if I just cut off all the artificial parts, the Real Me (which must be buried underneath) would emerge. I was trying to cast off every mask, but the more I held still to let my own face surface, the less it felt like I had a face at all.

There was no eureka moment when I realized what I had got wrong, but I was thinking about all this yesterday on the way home from work, probably because I’m hosting a poker game tonight. I know how I’ll be at the game: probably drink and swear a little more than usual, probably act a little more arrogant than I feel, probably use some turns of phrase that aren’t strictly natural to me.

But I won’t feel bad about it. Because I’ve discovered that this is how it is with people, maybe especially men. This is how we work. A stag party has as rigorous a code of etiquette as a black tie dinner. The rules aren’t written down anywhere, but they function the same way etiquette always functions: they provide a field in which to speak, to interact, to dance the intricate dance of human contact.1

A field, actually, in which relationship is possible. If etiquette is a mask, it is a mask that allows us to reveal our truest selves — but prudently, slowly, a little bit at a time, in a human way. How many people do you know who sit around the dinner table and reveal deep truths about their souls? Do you really want to live inside a Russian novel all the time — or is a little small talk okay now and then?

Buckle down, I’d tell my 19-year-old self, and learn the rules. Swallow your pride, forget yourself a little, and play the game. You want radical honesty and authenticity? Then walk around naked. Or you could just choose an outfit that expresses who you want to be, not who you are — we don’t find ourselves, Fr. T once told me, we build ourselves — and wait until the man grows to fit the clothes.

It might happen sooner than you think.

1 Not that I’d say these things to my poker buddies, or anyway not in the middle of a game. F★ck no. Who’s big blind?

15 thoughts on “Masks

  1. Paige

    Women totally do this too…
    I love the line about living in a Russian novel all the time. I think I drive my husband… (a meat & potatoes type guy) almost crazy with my inability to play the game & learn the rules… I tried swearing once. He looked at me and said, “you’re a terrible swearer… Your rhythm is all off… ”
    Have fun with your bravado at poker:)

    Reply
  2. Mark from PA

    This is confusing to me. One expression that stands out is “Being Yourself” but as I read further it sounds that you try to act like someone else and act in ways that aren’t natural to you. What is the point of that? Does drinking too much or swearing make one more of a man? When I was a young person I didn’t understand that and I still don’t. In a way I was lucky when I was a teen because I didn’t really have any peer pressure because I was something of an outsider. So in a way I just acted like myself because I didn’t know any better. I guess I am still trying to figure it all out and it sounds like you are too. Peace and blessings.

    Reply
  3. Victor

    Not sure if this is related… but:

    The often-told story of the so-called “savage tribes” running around all naked is actually a myth. It might be true for children that haven’t hit puberty and for women, but post-puberty males almost always wear at least a loincloth or a penis sheath. This way they hide sexual arousal and thus keep up social stability in their community.

    In other words: bearing masks is part of our human, fallen nature. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor 13,12)

    Reply
  4. Anna

    That writing-on-your-fingers thing. I have made a lot of worryingly similar attempts to control my “insincerity.” In my experience, though, I knew exactly what the consequences would be, both social and personal. I would tell myself (not in words) that I deserved the punishment, and took angry pleasure in making myself “get. it. together.” What the root of all those things were for me–including what I thought was mortification, and which was really masochism–was frustration/dissatisfaction turned inward, but ultimately just simple self-hatred. Does that fit with your experience too, I wonder?

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      It does. But don’t be terribly worried. On the one hand, such attempts are probably pretty wrongheaded. On the other hand, the desire for sincerity is at least partially good and noble, isn’t it? And a sign of caring about things that matter. You will be okay. You don’t even seem crazy to me.

      Reply
  5. David Multiplico

    Great post. It’s amazing how often we handicap ourselves out of the race before it even begins. I remember back in 8th grade, when I wasn’t as good at sports as the other guys in my class, I was trying to tell myself that I was being authentic by not trying very hard, unlike the other saps who were trying to “fit in”. Then I realized what a dummy I was, and switched from cultivating a pseudo-sophisticated distaste for sports to actually learning the rules and putting forth some effort in gym class. It turned out that I was better than I thought I was, and that my isolation was largely self-imposed; the other guys weren’t leaving me out, they were ready to accept me if I’d just try.

    Who IS Big Blind, by the way?

    Reply
  6. Melissa

    just so I’m sure what you’re saying, is your point basically that a little bit of “not being yourself” in the strictest sense is just part and parcel of living in the world and being involved in social things? Cuz I totally get that.

    Reply
  7. Obapplepie

    My dad has always been a quieter more sensitive guy (he is masculine and does all sorts of ‘manly man’ things like working on cars and building stuff) and I remember him trying to swear in a conversation with another man and it was kind of ridiculous, it was obvious that he was out of his element and trying to project a persona. I on the other hand have cussed like a sailor since I was a teenager, and its been hard to change my language! Now I’m down to ‘oh my goodness!’ instead of using the Lords name in vain, I’ll let you know when I’ve made it to Ned Flanders exclamations. (though… I am getting there…)

    Reply
  8. Rabbit

    “I do remember the feeling of my own limbs and facial muscles settling around me like lead, the strange mummy-like feeling of trying to control every inch of my body every minute.”

    I read this right after reading up on locked-in syndrome. Was like a little reminder…

    (I’ve been popping round to your blog now and then for te last few months. You’re a great guy.)

    Reply
  9. John P.

    Thank you for your awesome blog, Steve. It was very interesting that you brought up the issue of self-authenticity, which for me, is difficult to define. We strive to be true to ourselves, but what does that “truth” entail? We certainly can’t be fully transparent to others at all times. Prudence dictates that we know when to speak and when not to speak. In our daily interactions with others around us, we are constantly and naturally projecting ourselves in one way or another, conscious or not. We are human that way, just like how we have heuristics to help our limited minds understand our world at the cost of potential unconscious prejudices. We tell “white lies” (though that is a whole other discussion in of itself). My take on self-authenticity is, ultimately, my inner intentions. I strive to to be kind, in my thoughts, words, and actions, and I wonder if, in the end, that is all that really matters. Because if it is, then what of my Catholic faith? In that regards, I fear that I am losing my religion. I have my secrets that I have not told anyone, and in that regards, we face similar struggles. I believe in the goodness in others, and have never been depressed, but facing my own reality is becoming an increasingly immense struggle. :( I think it is time I find a friend. I wish I knew someone like you in real life. But truth be told, I probably do and just do not realize it yet. Regards.

    Reply

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