The Mask

By Michael Temple

Photo by Dreamstime

Her delivery of the poem slammed my thoughts into an emotive wall. My daughter was preparing to participate in a Poetry Out Loud ™ event at her high school, and as she read The Mask, by Paul Laurance Dunbar, it resonated with me as powerfully as it had during my senior year.
 
    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! 
 
--Paul Laurance Dunbar (1872 - !906)
 
More than 100 years have passed since the ink flowed to write this amazing poem, and yet it’s meaning for humanity is as fresh and real for us as the day it was written.
 
Perhaps none wear “the mask” as well (or as poorly) as people who call themselves Christians, and yet have no relationship with the One they claim to love. They smile, they laugh, they say all the “correct” things, and yet inside they feel spiritually hollow. They live day to day, wondering how (and if) they will ever be able to truly be the person on the inside that matches the one that they attempt on the outside. It’s a lonely and desperate struggle.
 
I wore “the mask” for years, and admittedly (from time to time), I attempt to see if it still fits. I find myself trying it back on when life gets too busy, when I don’t spend quality time with my God, or I attempt to make my relationship with my Creator more complicated than it needs to be. Loving relationships take investment, and when my priorities get tangled, the mask comes back out of the closet, and I begin making excuses to myself as to why I should start wearing it again.
 
Living “mask free” is sometimes a frightening proposition, but wearing it spiritually suffocates and stifles me. The only real freedom that I have found, happens when I stay connected to the One who wants me to be who I was designed to become…and who I was designed to be, doesn’t require a mask at all.