We Wear the Mask

We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

    WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
            We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    But let the world dream otherwise,
            We wear the mask!

For some odd reason, this poem came to mind the other day. I read it in literature class years ago, and I’ve really identified with it lately. I was at a staff retreat a couple of months ago, and they asked us to go around the table and share what our highlights from our past ministry year were. I had said my highlight is that I actually survived it. It was the hardest year of my life both personally and professionally. One of the leaders of my organization said that she didn’t see the toll that it must have been taking because “you have shown a great level of professionalism through all of this. You’ve really taken it in stride and always seemed upbeat.”

I didn’t feel like that was a compliment necessarily. It’s because I wear the mask that grins and lies and with a bleeding heart I smile. It’s kind of a commentary on our society, really. It’s not proper to really be honest. How many times do we exchange our “How are yous” and reply with our pat “fines” and “goods”? And let’s be real, we often don’t want to hear how people are really doing because we’ve got things to do and places to be, and that would take an investment. We’re just being polite and rote in our asking. Plus, who wants to be known as the “Debbie Downer” of a group, anyway?

I was a theater minor in college, and since August 25, 2007 when we got our first incling that something might be wrong with our son, I started the most intensive acting role of my life. My new costume shrouded a broken heart and woman so scared and confused. Being a full-time working mom and manager of a team of people, I’ve had to keep up and keep smiling when my heart has been so with my son every minute. To come to work and give my all to it has truly been labor.

Instead, I want to throw myself into Josiah’s recovery, into lobbying for change for autism, into finding a group of others that can be a network of support to each other as we march through the autism journey. I want to take time to find an oasis for my soul and draw close to Christ, learning his peace that passes understanding and his joy no matter the circumstance. Instead, in the morning, I put on the mask and head out the door and do what I must to help keep life and work turning.

One thing that I’ve learned through this is a higher call to compassion. I bet that on any given day we encounter masses of people who are walking wounded but wear their smiles. Yet they live with that uneasy, nagging feeling that all is not well with their world right now. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe men can compartmentalize their lives a little bit better than women. For me, I know that this thing that is autism drifts in and out of my consciousness at least every five to ten minutes a day. Maybe it’s because we’re still new to this and still grieving. Maybe it’s life now. I don’t know.

Truly, Josiah’s doing well in so many ways, but so much is unresolved and “carefree” is an emotion that is such a distant memory. I wear the mask. When I encounter another person who’s dealing with autism or with any other real difficulty, for some precious moments, we both are able to lower our masks and identify with each other’s burdens and give encouragement that says, “I know what you’re going through, and I really do care.” Those are the people who will see me, and when a tear falls without my permission, they’re comfortable with that because they know the feeling.

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2


2 Responses

  1. hey girl, so glad we have each other to share the burden. your family is in my prayers!

  2. Thanks, Tahni…I too know that feeling. Not in the same way, but I know…blessings my friend.

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