If I had to chose the most important lesson I learned in group therapy, it would be the day of the masks. There was a small group of us that morning – only 5 compared to the typical 8-10+. The therapist gave us a choice. We could do a more personal activity because of the small group or we could talk about XYZ (I can’t remember the other option). There was dead silence for empty seconds. Nobody wanted to choose.
“Let’s do the personal thing,” I heard myself say to the room. A few heads nodded in agreement and the therapist left the room to gather the supplies. He came back with a stack of blank paper and a kit of colorful pencils.
“Your assignment,” he explained, “is to draw, write, or use any kind of creative means to document on this piece of paper what other people think about you. In other words, what is the outside of your mask?”
My what? I thought to myself. I don’t wear a mask.
“And then on the other side of the paper,” he continued, “draw, write or otherwise indicate what you think about yourself inside. You, know, what you’re like when you take off your mask.”
Now, I am a rule follower. Teacher’s pet, remember? So, I wanted to ace this task, but I was just beginning to learn that my inside didn’t match my outside. And the idea of a mask I didn’t know I had was rather disconcerting. I started at the easiest place. I am a writer, not an artist, so I described the outside of my mask with the following words (this is a scan of the actual paper I wrote on that day). If you know me in real life, this is most likely what you see.
Well that was easy! But now I had to consider this whole idea of a mask. If you had asked me 5 months earlier to describe myself, I would have used the words above. That’s mostly who I thought Laura was for the first 37 years of my life. But, these last few months had proven that something was off. My body knew it well before my mind knew it, which means my soul knew it from the very beginning. I was wearing a mask. It was a lovely, beautiful mask, but it was a mask none-the-less.
As I stared at the blank, reverse side of the paper, I sensed this was another pivot point in my journey. If I was going to take the steps toward being whole, I needed to do the hard work of seeing who I really was. I looked within, took off my mask and wrote what I saw on the inside.
It was disturbing to realize I had been living a lie. I honestly thought my lovely mask was the real me, and I bet you did, too. But on the inside, I had this overwhelming list of feelings and doubts and shame to which I had never given a voice. When I shared the outside and inside of my mask with the group, I sobbed and they stared. The therapist asked the other students to share what they thought about my mask. “I never would have guessed you felt that way on the inside,” they said. “I feel that way, too,” they shared.
And as we all shared the outside and inside of our masks, the point of the activity became quite clear – EVERYONE WEARS A MASK. It’s true! We put our best and loveliest out there for the world to see, and we hide behind these beautiful, plastic, uncomfortable masks. And it works for a time, but eventually the masks crack or begin to slip. We become desperate to keep them on and we deny the doubts, feelings, sin and fears within. If the mask falls off when we’re not looking or not expecting it , it’s painful. But when we gently remove them in love to peer at the inside for the first time, it’s beautiful.
Jesus came to remove your mask, love. He sees right through it to the heart of you, and the heart of you is beautiful. He says let me help you through this process of removing your mask. We’ll do it together. You confess to me all the darkness and ugliness that you hide, and I will replace it with light and love and truth. I’ll help you remove your mask each and every day, I promise. Imagine my loving hands cupping your face to say, “You don’t need this mask anymore.” I gently remove it from your face, so you no longer have to hide. It is finished. Let me in. You are mine forever, mask and all.
Paper faces on parade . . .
Hide your face,
so the world will
never find you!
Every face a different shade . . .
Look around –
mask behind you!
–Masquerade from Phantom of the Opera