(194): Who Am I This Time?

Image (cropped) by Peter Shanks via Flickr. License.

This post riffs off the short piece by Jonas Ellison in Higher Thoughts.

Who am I vs. who do I think I am? If I have a certain thought about my own character, thinking that I embody that particular trait, do I change myself just that little bit? Am I really who I think I am when I do this? I maintain that all these thoughts we have about our “self” are but masks we put on to interact with others or to build up our “face” for our own and others’ benefit.

When I was younger, I had a brief flirtation with being a theater major in college. I wasn’t very good at it most of the time, but every now and then, I was able to embody a character to the level where I “became” that person. I considered what I thought that person should be and then put on the mask that I thought went with that image. During the time that I was rehearsing the play I would change ever so slightly, internalizing little pieces of the mask I wore onstage, even after I was no longer rehearsing.

So, during this time, was I that person? Was the mask necessary to become that person? In theory, it was only necessary to project that idea that I believed myself to be the person who would wear such a mask every day. Like a double projection. But even for such a short wearing, the mask tried to stick to me in certain regards. Are these masks that we take on as aspects of self merely habits that we thoughtlessly allow to stick to us?

During my college “party phase,” I believed that I was able to shed my civilized mask during a Friday night drinking bout and that the alcohol made it easier to loosen that “outer skin” I wore on other days at other times. So, was I truly my “self” when I was drunk? Or was that yet another mask — the “fun loving” mask that was allowed to be outrageous perhaps.

It took me a long while to shed the desire to put on that “drunken partier” mask. I am lucky I did not internalize it and become an alcoholic. That is one of the more dangerous masks to put on, because it has a physical adjunct; the alcohol infiltrates the body and the mask becomes more than an outer skin.

Even now, I have phases of being in which I am more or less likely to express myself in a certain way. Sometimes I lurk on Medium, reading widely and sometimes clicking the green heart. I’ll think of replies, but then I won’t make them because I believe the thoughts are not fully formed or original/interesting enough to add to the comments on a particular article. So I think of myself as withdrawn, a watcher instead of a doer.

At other times, I’ll respond to articles in a thoughtful fashion, as if I’m wearing the “witty/erudite” mask. I don’t have this one on as often, because it requires more work to wear it properly. I’m trying to put it on daily; sometimes it fits, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m hoping that somehow practicing wearing this mask will allow me to think in a certain way, so that I am no longer aware of wearing a mask. It is a landscape marked by fine lines — thinking, becoming, being, unbecoming, unbeing.

But my overarching thought is this: are we really reducible to the characteristics we embody or express outwardly?

That political troll who says hateful things to a person just because that person is sympathetic to the other political party — is that person only that troll mask? Or are there other aspects to his or her character? Unless that reply is being written by a bot, there is some complexity behind the words that we see.

I suppose this personal complexity of character, the ability to wear many masks and to internalize some of them, makes it more essential that I understand that what a person is projecting is not the whole of who that person is. Any reply, to be both honest and thoughtful, should take into account that a person is more that the words you see, more than just the mask.

Many times, online trolls extrapolate their hateful comments to draw a character sketch of someone who, being nothing more than the sum of a few sentences or emotional posts, is spiraling down into the depression of inadequacy, making it more plausible that the troll should simply nudge the person to “kill yourself.” In some cases, the hateful sketch influences someone who is unstable and insecure with self; this can push a person over the edge. This is the opportunistic replacement of a delicate and unstable mask with a hard, unprincipled, thoughtless mask, a weaponized string of words that can being a fleeting sense of power to an otherwise faceless and characterless internet troll. And power is intoxicating. It can be a hard mask to take off.

Masks are not us. We are not our masks, and once we realize this, trolls will have a harder time cajoling us into wearing their “induced outrage” masks. We will become less influenced by outer forces. But is it ever possible to completely drop all our masks, to become as a baby? Could we lose all awareness of the thoughts that become the fiber of the masks we wear and see things afresh, without prejudice?

I don’t think this is possible. But it is possible to be aware of how our thoughts affect us and what masks we wear in civilized society and why we put them on.

End Note: The title of this post is from the Kurt Vonnegut short story of the same name, about a shy, undemonstrative man who can only express himself through acting in community theater and lives his life explicitly in character. I read it years and year ago in his compilation Welcome to the Monkey House. Insightful stuff.

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