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We All Wear Masks — On False Friendships and Counterfeit Happiness

Charles Chu
Jun 25, 2017 · 5 min read

I never knew my best friend.

For all of high school, we ate lunch together, looked at girls together (but never talked to them), played games on our calculators together. That, I thought, was what friendship was about.

The truth about my “best friend” came years later.

After school, he would come home to shouts in the kitchen. Careful not to make a sound, he would tip-toe to his room, shut the door and, with a heaviness in his throat, kneel down in the darkness. Into the silence, he whispered. God, dear Father in Heaven, please do not let dad hit her anymore. Please, please save my family.

At school, he was always smiling, dancing, making terrible puns. I wanted to be carefree and positive like he was. I never suspected that he might be wearing a mask.

Another classmate came to school each morning with a fresh set of purple bruises — just far enough up her arms so that the teachers could pretend they did not see them. It was her father. I knew that. I also knew that I should talk to her. But, for four long years, I never had the courage to go up to her and say, “Hey, are you okay?” I was too busy faking.

No, not too busy. I was too scared.

Scared of what? Leeroy, perhaps. Leeroy, who sat on the concrete floor of the cafeteria, always overweight, always in ugly white tennis shoes, always holding a baloney sandwich, and always, always alone. We made fun of his mother, shot rubber bands at him (fifty points for his nose!), stole bites of his sandwich — but, secretly, we feared him.

Leeroy was a warning. He was what we might become if we dared to take off our masks, to just be ourselves to our friends, our teachers. We wanted that more than anything.

We wanted anything but that.


Children, the lucky ones at least, can be themselves at home with their families.

But what about the adults? Where do we go to be ourselves? In front of our children, we wear a mask of confidence. In front of our coworkers, we wear a mask of professionalism. And in front of our friends, we wear a mask of happiness.

Counterfeit Happiness

Humanity is more prosperous than ever before. Yet, it is more difficult than ever to be happy.

A Japanese rice farmer in the 16th century could look to his neighbors, who owned similar amounts of land, lived in similar straw-thatched huts and he could, perhaps, be content. But today, a Balinese rice farmer wakes up to the roar of an airplane carrying fat, sweaty humans from the richest corners of the world. On the screen of his smart device, he learns each day that, in farway lands, there exist persons that earn in a single day what he struggles to produce in an entire year. How can he possibly be content?

Humans compare; we cannot help it.

Things are bad enough when we must compare ourselves to the few people who are truly happy. Things get much worse, though, when the unhappy start wearing masks.

With the rise of the Internet and social media, it is easier than ever for us to lie about who we are.

You get up in the morning, head pounding. Your wife left you last night for the mailman; your rent is three months overdue; your orange juice is expired; it’s hailing outside; your boss wants to “let you go”; but, at the end of the day, you can take a photograph of yourself — teeth bleached white, smiling in front of the Eiffel Tower (or some other tourist trap) — , beautify it on your smart device, and broadcast it to your ‘friends’ around the world to reassure them that you are happy, happier than they are.

“The world, in its best state, is nothing more than a larger assembly of beings, combining to counterfeit happiness which they do not feel, employing every art and contrivance to embellish life, and to hide their real condition from the eyes of one another.” (Samuel Johnson, The Adventurer, №120, December 1753)

A Friend Indeed

Although I could not be a true friend to anyone in high school, that does not mean that now, as an adult, I cannot do better.

I no longer see friends as “buddies” to play video games with. Now, I see them as something much deeper. When a friend of mine finds himself in a dark place, I want him to be able call me anytime and say, “Hey man, I’m feeling down. Let’s talk.” And I want to be able to do the same.

If there is a reason for someone to be your friend, they are not your friend.

“Beginnings and endings must agree. He who begins being a friend for the sake of expediency will also stop for the sake of expediency. Some amount of money will be chosen over the friendship if that friendship is valued for anything besides itself. “Why make a friend?” To have someone I can die for, someone I can accompany into exile, someone whose life I can save, even by laying down my own. What you describe is a business deal, not a friendship, for it looks to its own advantage; it thinks in terms of results.” (Seneca, Letters on Ethics)

If beginnings and endings must agree, then perhaps the first step is to take off our masks and speak to someone — someone “useless” who offers us no benefit — and show them who we really are.

The start of a true friendship may simply be about being yourself.

But when we spend our whole lives lying, always wearing masks, always with walls up, afraid to be seen for what we are, it is not so easy to make the first move.

Will you be the one to put down your mask?

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand

Charles Chu

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Rethinking the obvious @

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand