In Africa, we lived in a studio with a plaited Acajou door and a little plastic lawn table out front.
We'd hop a cinder wall to get there, and walk a drop-off path past lines of low-hanging banana trees and into a community-styled courtyard. Families there shared huts and flats, and used the open space outside to cook and clean together. We had lots of interesting conversations living in that community style.
One time, I was cooking with a friend, and she told me that a house nearby had been robbed. What really got me was that the robber had taken everything valuable, except these three ebony masks on the wall. From what I could get, taking another man’s masks was really asking for it, even if you took everything else the guy owned.
“He was too afraid to take them”, the woman explained to me. “The masks keep even the dead safe”.
Did you know there's actual science out there that says we're all copycats?
I read about this project from a lab at the University of Wisconsin. The lab brought in all these volunteers to see if they could pick out different human emotions in some photographs. Here's the catch though– they put half the subjects in gel masks that froze their facial movement.
According to the project, subjects without masks on could read human emotions better than the ones that wore a mask.* The reason they gave for that was that people who can copy an emotion that they're seeing can recognize it faster. The ones with a mask on couldn't identify what they were seeing, because they couldn't copy it.
THE MASK WE LEARNED TO WEAR
Here's something I know for sure. We don’t start out with any kind of mask. If you want proof, look at babies, They’re some of my favorite people to look at. Watch them at Walmart and Burger King. Babies don't try to cover anything up. They don't care what people think of them, most of the time they don't even care about wearing pants.
Here's my point. Somewhere between being a baby and dying, something changes. Something teaches us to wear a mask. Something teaches us to never take it off.
And what I really mean by that is that we get smarter about covering stuff up. Not that we learn to be more dignified or aware or tactful. Some people do. Some people don't though. What I mean is that we learn to be afraid.
It really got me, what that friend who cooked with me in Africa said about masks keeping dead people safe. In French, the word you use for “keep” is the same word you use to say “guard”. I think that's so interesting, that we would be worried about guarding dead things.
THE CRIPPLING FACTOR
We weren't born into fear. God didn’t write it on our consciences. We learned it. We wore it. Some of us carry the heaviness of it every day. Some of us prefer it.
There's this verse in 1 John that says, "Perfect love casts out fear", and I always really liked the sound of that. I liked to think that Jesus was trying to tell us something, that if we'd put aside the mask and the perfectionism, we'd understand His perfect love better. I have a best friend named Abe Miller who’s taught me a lot about this verse. I wish he’d write a book about all he knows, he’s a lot smarter than me.
See, I was born with a crippling fear of what people think of me. As I got older, I let that fear bind me, put walls around me. It escalated through the years and made me too scared to say the things I knew were true, and to do the things I knew were right. It stole years of my life, shattered relationships, and buried opportunities God had laid out in my path. At its best, it was a worship of what people thought of me. That’s what sin does when we let it take hold of our heart more than we take hold of God. And fear is sin, the Bible talks about it in Isaiah 43 and a lot of other places. I used to really sit in my fear without being ashamed of it, because I thought it was a safe flaw to have. Now I call it what it is, which is deeply-rooted selfishness. I admit what it does, which is replace the desire I was born with to love God and love people. Fear is Self, ad Self is all I could think of when I was afraid. No one wants to say that, it sounds so rude. I wish more people had been rude about it to me when I was a kid.
TAKING OFF THE MASK
Fear is only a problem if we care about understanding perfect love. Otherwise, everyone should keep their masks on. Masks are so comfortable.
But perfect love plants an itch in our soul to know God deeply and understand people with honesty. You can't understand people when you aren't being honest with yourself, sort of like those people with frozen faces at a lab in Wisconsin.
I remember a really big push in motivational posters when I was about 5. I’d see unicorns and cat posters that told me to live my dreams and believe in myself. I started thinking that if people didn’t like me, maybe they didn’t really know me. I thought if I wasn’t happy, there must be something in my way like parents or school.
This is a bad thing we do to ourselves, and I started as early as age 5. We adopt a mentality, and that mentality is that the real us is perfect and the things around us are the problem. It creates a toxic cycle of blame shifting. In other words, when we aren’t happy–and we aren’t always sure what we mean by happy–it’s somebody or something or somewhere’s fault.
The first step to putting away our mask is admitting that we have a problem. We live in fear, because we chose to. We aren't honest, because we want people to see us as whole. We live in a broken world, so we point a finger at its brokenness. But we are broken. Something else didn’t break us by making us less happy. We broke ourselves. The world is sick, and we subscribed to the disease.
Here's the really terrible thing though. This diagnosis isn't enough.
Maybe it wakes us up a little. It shines some dim light on what we're covering up when we go out into the world and care more about what people think of us than about the freedom that comes from living in God's perfect love.
But without putting the mask aside, we're just smarter people wearing masks.
I feel really bad for that guy that got robbed in West Africa. Not because a lot of his stuff went missing. Because the only thing that was left was a mask, and that's the heaviest thing he could have been left with. Besides, even dead people there have masks. When my friend was finished talking about the robbery, I still sat there stirring a big metal pot of stew for a while and thinking about fear. It was the first time in a while that I really realized fear.
But I knew then that it wasn't something that just happened in West Africa, or to people who'd never heard about Jesus.
We do it in America, in churches and in our homes. We call it safe names like perfectionism, and organization and "making sense". We call it whatever we need to so that we don't have to call it fear and put it aside and adopt Christ's mentality of perfect love and the messiness that comes with it.
But when we do lose our mask, we feel the freedom of living without it. When we take in the message of God's perfect love, fear is no longer the safest thing we know to wear.
That is so hopeful! Maybe one of the most hopeful things for us mask-wearers to hear.