In defence of masks

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February 22, 2017 | Viewpoints | Volume 21 Issue 5
Melissa Miller, Columnist

The subject of masks came up in the adult Sunday school class. Not literal ones, but the invisible ones we wear in an attempt to hide that which we don’t want to be seen. I ventured that such masks are unhelpful barriers, interfering with connectedness and intimacy.

Quickly a woman responded, “We wear masks because other people don’t want to hear our troubles; they don’t want us burdening them with our whining.”

Given the swiftness and direction of her tack, I later wondered if I had touched something sensitive within her. Perhaps her attempts to remove a mask had not been met with kindness and acceptance.

In the moment, I inwardly protested, “No! That’s not what I meant at all.” By negating neediness and hinting of shame, she stopped me in my tracks. In effect, whatever her intention, she defended the need for such masks exactly as I was tugging at their edges. If I had felt more secure, I might have quoted Scripture and challenged her: “What was Paul talking about when he told the Galatians (6:2) to ‘bear one another’s burdens’? Doesn’t the wearing of masks get in the way of bearing each other’s burdens?” For whatever reason, I stifled my objection and simply allowed space after her comment. Soon the discussion shifted to other subjects.

Now I return to the subject, inviting your consideration as to the value or harm in wearing masks. It’s related to a previous column (“Healthy truth,” Oct. 24, 2016) on secrets and the truth. A mask is a kind of secret. A secret masks a truth.

Masks do have value. Consider these examples from my personal life, family or work.

As a parent of a young child, I often masked my true feelings in an attempt to guide the child towards emotional maturity. Although the prospect might have appeal, there would be little value in parent and child having tantrums simultaneously. I do confess that I was not always successful. I recall a particular day when I shouted at top volume, “Would everybody please shut up?” Maybe I omitted the “please,” I’m not sure. The details are a little fuzzy but the irony remains.

Another example. I am not the best at managing my spouse’s irritation. Rather than brushing it off or smoothing it over, I’m more likely to enflame it by oversensitivity and defensiveness. Such situations could benefit from a little mask softening my response; some days I actually get there.

In my work settings, I am aware that people often unmask vulnerable information about themselves to pastors or counsellors. Within that protected space, I agree to listen open-heartedly to the other. This means I set aside—or mask—my personal feelings, to allow the other the means to explore the matters that are troubling him or her.

While I draw on my experiences and judgments at such times, I am careful to include them based on what I think will be most helpful to the counsellee or congregant.

In conclusion, there are compelling reasons to wear metaphorical masks. These include assisting another to grow towards maturity, self-knowledge or health. Yet too much covering up of our truths—our thoughts and feelings, our experiences and histories—impedes connectedness and intimacy. In the next column, I’ll argue for the thoughtful removal of such masks.

Melissa Miller (familyties@mymts.net) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.

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