5 min read

I was probably about 14 when I first read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.” I’ve never been big on poetry, probably because it threatens my own pride in being able to grasp things quickly and easily. Poetry is hard — repeat attempts to really understand, or at least to form a theory of one of the possible meanings…not really my thing.

Anyway, I do remember this particular poem, though at the time I interpreted it as a poem about slavery and that was it. But I’ve thought about it several times over the past couple years, and even had a conversation about it once with my buddy Kyle over a couple (quite a few) beers about two years ago.

“Jay, I don’t care what you’re doing and I don’t care what you say on social media. I’ll always know you as the kid drunk in his dorm room playing Madden.”

I laughed at this, but it really did make me think. I probed a little further — what brought that on?

Kyle explained that he saw me living a couple different personas. The persona that my closest friends saw (which he called my “true” self), and the persona I was building with people in the community I was trying to gain the respect of and form relationships with.

A little hurt, I asked, “Do you really think I am two different people?”

Kyle thought for a second before he spoke, clearly considering the impact his words had on me and not wanting to cut me any deeper.

“Well, yeah, kinda. But it’s ok. We all wear the mask.”

At this point, if you haven’t already Googled it, I want to leave Dunbar’s poem here.

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!

This comment stuck with me because Kyle wasn’t wrong. I was forming this progressively wider split of my personas, though mostly unconsciously.

I think it’s pretty typical of going through the student → adult progression. The struggle between still being (and wanting to stay) a kid vs. wanting to be taken seriously in the professional arena. Why marry the two when you can try and separate them?

“Be careful about what you do on social media — people see that. Employers see that.” — any adult’s advice regarding social media.

Well, separating the two is 1.) mentally taxing and 2.) unnecessary (even counterproductive). Sure, you can choose a clever spelling of your name, or use your middle instead of last name on Facebook, but what’s the point?

If you are trying to separate your outward personas, that means that you are lying to people in your life as well as yourself, at least in part. It can become conflicting and mentally taxing trying to juggle the personas…when to use which, outside factors can play a part (e.g. alcohol) and if THAT is when you show a different side of yourself, that is even more destructive.

reality check

In my personal manifesto, I pinpointed my core value as authenticity. There is simply nothing more refreshing, admirable, and brave about someone who is their authentic self 100% of the time. I know “predictability” can be boring, but if someone is predictably and dependably authentic, those are the people I want in my life.

At some point over the last year, I started breaking down my personal Berlin Wall. To be honest, I’m not really sure when this decision set in, or how, or why. But when my two “selves” merged and I began letting the people I respected see my quirks, I saw a much different result from what I expected.

I did not lose their respect, I did not earn a worse reputation, and I did not feel embarrassed or afraid to be myself. In fact, the exact opposite was true: my relationships strengthened and multiplied.

There is just something electric about knowing your relationship and interactions with a person are real. No hidden judgment, no facades, no bullshit. This is me, and you can decide to feel about me how you want (though I hope it’s positively!).

A lot of the people I respect have echoed a hard truth — sometimes, you have to fire people from your life. Do you know who are the very first people to be fired? People who are disingenuous.

what’s my point?

My point is this: the whole is greater than the some of its parts. Be one genuine person, allow people in, and watch the results. If you are worried about how someone might perceive something about your life, ask yourself two questions:

  1. ) Is it really that big of a deal? Everyone on this planet is personally consumed with their own life. In reality, virtually no one is talking about you. And society has become (and will continue to become) much more tolerant. Just because your parents don’t have photos online of themselves wearing jorts and holding a beer doesn’t mean they didn’t do it, or that they won’t relate to it. If society doesn’t become more tolerant, we simply won’t be able to find an endorsable Presidential candidate 15 years from now.
  2. ) If the answer to question #1 is “Yes” i.e., what is true about you really isa big deal and people will have a strong reaction — maybe you should evaluate why you’re doing it in the first place. Are you harboring hate or intolerance? Are you objectively being a jerk? Then yeah, you shouldn’t do that.

Be brave my friends, you’re a much cooler person than you give yourself credit for. When you live authentically, you feel the love of others AND yourself.

Further reading: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck