Itching Beneath the Mask

(This is an abridged excerpt from my latest book. Enjoy. . . .)

maskIt is precisely here, when we try to be real, that the true difficulty becomes increasingly overt. If “our Great War is a spiritual war” as Tyler Durden says, then we should expect to be resisted when we begin to question the mold into which the culture desires to squeeze us.  

Thomas Merton suggests that all people possess a true self (which is a mystery largely hidden) and a false self (the identity we try to cultivate in order to function in society). The root of all our frustration is in our assuming that the false self is the true one. Since we are prone to believe the lie that the metanarrative of the Market and the Matrix is all there is, we do everything we can to prop up the façade and seek fuel for the illusion. Merton says that our problems begin with

 . . . the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experience, for power, honor, knowledge and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could become visible only when something visible covered its surface.[1]

Until a person can see past the illusion, he thinks of himself as The Invisible Man who, in order to be seen by himself and others, must desperately hunt for whatever shallow experiences and pleasures he can find in order to wrap them around himself so that others don’t bump into him on the sidewalk. Perhaps even more vivid is the picture Merton paints of man according to which, by his “spiritual double-vision” that deludes him into thinking like the world wants him to, man actually loses the integrity of his own soul, thus splitting himself in two. And to make matters worse, we soon become like two shadows rather than one person, eventually forgetting which one of us is real. Thus the greater the degree to which man avoids grappling with his own transcendence, the more hopeless will become his thoughts, and the more frenetic will become his activity as he seeks to distract himself from his own spiritual schizophrenia — he is Sméagol one moment, and Gollum the next. “He becomes his own slave driver,” Merton says. “A shadow whipping a shadow to death.”[2]

After a lifetime of such self-delusion and mask-wearing, we begin to think that the mask is our true face. Merton insists that the real aim of society is seen in this very pursuit. He writes:

This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities—“selves,” that is to say, regarded as objects. Selves that can stand back and see themselves  having fun (an illusion which reassures them that they are real).[3]

The culture (which Merton refers to as “the collectivity”) will indeed promise to satisfy our needs, as long as we behave and obey its rules. The more we submit to it, the more power it usurps over our lives, increasing our needs and tightening its demand for conformity on our part (a kind of thank-offering to society for its meeting the so-called needs it created in the first place).

Thus you can become all the more committed to the collective illusion in proportion to becoming more hopelessly mortgaged to collective power. How does this work? The collectivity informs and shapes your will to happiness (“have fun”) by presenting you with irresistible images of yourself as you would like to be: having fun that is so perfectly credible that it allows no interference of conscious doubt. In theory such a good time can be so convincing that you are no longer aware of even a remote possibility that it might change into something less satisfying. In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.[4]

The irony in all of this is that in such a vicious cycle, the only thing that can substitute for happiness is the pursuit of happiness, and Desire becomes an end in itself:

She’s the dollars, she’s my protection;

She’s the promise in the year of election;

Oh, sister, I can’t let you go,

You’re like a preacher stealing hearts

At a travelling show.[5]

Here’s the thing about masks, though: you can only wear them for so long before they start to itch. Just ask any parent who has taken her children trick-or-treating: before you have successfully rung three doorbells the mask will be torn from the child’s face and you will end up carrying it for the duration of the night. Now when it comes to the sophisticated, adult kind of mask-wearing, either we become accustomed to our mask, or we do not. If we do not, then either we seek its removal altogether (which may be the first step towards freedom), or more commonly, we attempt to trade it in for the one that someone else has on.

Alienation begins when culture divides me against myself, puts a mask on me, gives me a role I may or may not want to play. Alienation is complete when I become completely identified with my mask, totally satisfied with my role, and convince myself that any other identity or role is inconceivable. The man who sweats under his mask, whose role makes him itch with discomfort, who hates the division in himself, is already beginning to be free. But God help him if all he wants is the mask the other man is wearing, just because the other one does not seem to be sweating or itching. Maybe he is no longer human enough to itch (or else he pays a psychiatrist to scratch him).[6]

Needless to say, although a mask may be a convenient shield to hide behind as we seek to portray a false view of ourselves to the world, the fact is that it either suffocates those who are aware of it, or lulls to sleep those who aren’t (and either way, the road is vain and its end is death).

So don’t allow the Media, or the Matrix, or the Market to write your story or tell you who you are (and make no mistake, there is no end to those who would provide you a narrative and force upon you an identity if you let them). Perhaps it has been buried beneath layer after layer of pretense, obscured by the various masks you’ve sampled, or eclipsed by years of pretending to be something you’re not, but deep down, underneath it all, is who you really are.

Be that, is what I’m saying.

[1] Thomas Merton, Seeds  (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4, 5.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 5-6, emphasis original.

[5] This quote is from the song “Desire” from U2’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum.

[6] Merton, Seeds, 9-10.


  1. SarahNovember 22, 2013

    Love this. I wish that it was easy to take the mask off, or even to realize it is on…somedays I’m not completely sure which mask I am wearing. Great reminder and encouragement…will be thinking on this:

    “the fact is that it either suffocates those who are aware of it, or lulls to sleep those who aren’t (and either way, the road is vain and its end is death).”

  2. AmandaNovember 22, 2013

    So many brilliant points. I’m not sure where to start. Firstly, I didn’t know this was the direction (or the title) of your book – very good; it makes me anxious to read the rest. Secondly, the complexity of our masks is daunting. I love the imagery of the Halloween masks, so true, the itchy, sweatiness of it all. Thirdly, taking the mask off (as you can attest to) is heart-wrenching because not even our own hearts know what will be revealed. Finally, when the dust settles and we find our true faces, freedom is more delicious than we imagined.

  3. NoelleNovember 22, 2013

    I’ve been reading this over & over since it was posted. This went straight in. Finding ones true self. I want this more than the comfort of any facade…
    I think.

  4. JasonNovember 22, 2013


    I wish that it was easy to take the mask off, or even to realize it is on…somedays I’m not completely sure which mask I am wearing.

    Heard that. And to be fair, not everyone has equal access to the luxury of simply being who you want, all the time. But in keeping with our previous post on subtle forms of protest, sometimes all we need to do is stop and question whether the basic tenor of our lives is actually satisfying, or instead is something imposed on us from without as some kind of duty or expectation.

    In that case, it may be gut-check time!

  5. JasonNovember 22, 2013

    Thanks, Amanda and Noelle!

  6. AlexNovember 22, 2013

    Well, I’m certainly a “misfit” and “malcontent” so we’ll see if you folks allow me to hang or if you are likely like the rest…not very tolerant if it doesn’t fit in your box and not very agreeable to non-submissive types.

    I think this blog has some promise and I think you are exploring some valuable things.

  7. AlexNovember 22, 2013

    Love Tyler Durden’s character in Fight Club…and there is a author/persona on Zero Hedge that posts as Tyler Durden as well…and he’s spot on much of the time.

  8. Amanda GarciaNovember 22, 2013

    Alex, good point. “Tolerance” while in theory reaches its end at some point, is often never tolerance to begin with, but a soap box to express one’s own belief system without any intention of listening to yours. While I don’t think any of us can make you any promises, the fact that we contributors all come from very different walks of life and show complete support and “tolerance” for one another, should be a good indication of the welcome we hope you continue to feel. Stick with us.

  9. AlexNovember 22, 2013

    I am very much a fan of removing “masks”…I am quite adept at cutting through the b.s. and poking at someone until I get a better glimpse of what’s underneath. I can usually size up a more honest look at a particular person after some time with them and some back-and-forth.

    Personally. I have many masks…and “true self’ itself is a bit of an overly-simplistic theory. Humankind is a mix of good and bad/good and evil and capable of wonderful things and terrible things and often within the same sentient human.

    I think “happiness” is a bit of a mythology as well. The assumption is that humans would be less evil or less bad if they were truly happy…with true happiness framed and defined within some sort of Morality and Moral Code

    …a serial killer is plenty happy when he’s killing and wallowing in his evil…and a pedophile is plenty happy when he is fondling a child…and a drug addict is very happy when they get the fix of heroin they’ve been craving….and the horny male or female is often very happy when they enjoy sexual pleasure with multiple partners etc.

    “Happiness” is misdiagnoses. I think Christopher Loren makes some interesting observations with his “Primates” thesis that delves into the evolution of man and his natural state which includes what is considered both “good” and “evil”.

    I think “True Self” has largely been framed in two extremes that are sometimes true and more a generality but not necessarily Universal Truths as humans are much more nuanced and there are many more variables in play. The two extremes presented tend to be those who hide their true self by creating a public persona that is fake and polite and politically correct and fits whatever moral box the particular Society or Group requires….and the other extreme, someone who feels like a fraud or empty inwardly so they present a more raw and ‘real” image of themselves that they create to fill the perceived void, etc.

    Far too simplistic. Most humans are a mix of both extremes and many times “real” is real and many times what would be considered a fake moral persona, is actually quite sincere and authentic (though rare).

    Real Self or True Self is really honesty and proper and thoughtful self-evaluation…which is extremely difficult for most humans because of fear and self-delusion in either direction…either too high an opinion of oneself or too negative of an opinion of oneself.

    Rarely is someone able to know “True Self” or “Real Self”…many times it takes the extremes of extreme hardship or overwhelming success to get a truer measure. Most of us live mediocre lives with little reason to search the depths of our soul and discover the Real Self.

    Most who discover the Real Self tend to be more honest, less fearful of what others think or say about them and tend to be quite strong and powerful figures.

    A Mother Teresa and an Alec Baldwin are ironically both examples of folks who have discovered their True Self. It isn’t a “Good” vs. “Bad” proposition, that is the flaw in what is commonly the dichotomy of a True Self/Real Self-based thesis.

    Sometimes masks are good…sometimes they aren’t. Alec Baldwin could use a mask, the True Self is pretty ugly and he is well aware of himself and his problems…a phoney hypocrite preacher could stand to ditch his mask and embrace his flawed-ness and seek to work through the rough human edges to be more Christ-like if that’s his cup of tea.

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  11. JasonNovember 22, 2013


    A Mother Teresa and an Alec Baldwin are ironically both examples of folks who have discovered their True Self.

    Fair point. I certainly agree that discovering one’s true self is not some kind of panacea, since what one finds under there can be really ugly. But I would maintain that someone like Baldwin (an angry and out of control homophobe) can’t even begin to become a better person until he first discovers that the real him is a real dick.

  12. AlexNovember 22, 2013

    Agreed up to a point…I think Baldwin knows himself. I think he knows he’s a real dick and that’s who he is. He’s an alpha male and a narcissist and he is being who he is. It’s what makes him both alluring as an actor (Glengarry Glen Ross was off the charts good) and it’s what makes him a pariah.

    Your thesis (which is common) seems to be that if Baldwin came to some sort of epiphany and some sort of breakthrough and saw his True Self, he would change for the better.

    I don’t think that premise is correct, not in the Universal sense. I think it can happen in some cases and many cases, folks are doing what they want to do, and they know it is their True Self or Real Self and there isn’t some mask that is blurring their vision.

    I love movies like Good Will Hunting that show the talented young man, rough around the edges, on the couch with the Therapists and Experts who are trying to exercise his demons and figure him out…only to have him reel them in for a great punch line.

  13. SarahNovember 22, 2013

    Jason…as a mom to four kiddos, recently immersed in the world of homeschooling, I am aware that my greatest obstacle is finding the time and the space to think and pray these things through. The pace of our culture is not conducive to contemplation.

    Still…at 43 years old now and I am finally at the point where I find myself comfortable in my own skin. I know I still have masks…but, whew, I am far more at ease with the imperfections and blemishes. Maybe some of that is just getting older, but I know that the majority is because of the knowledge that I am in process…and that the process is not simply dependent on my efforts. There is grace there and freedom.

    Boy, we still need to hear this again and again, though.

  14. JasonNovember 23, 2013

    Sarah: Again, heard that. It’s way harder for girls, because you all have so much more hands-on stuff to deal with, kids-wise. That’s why we should all live in communes where 24/7 childcare is provided — we’d have heaps of time for reflection and reinvention, then, no? We’ll put Noelle in charge of building the treehouses.

    Alex: “Do you find it hahd to hide the fact that yowah gay? About two minutes ago you were about to give me a jump.”

  15. AlexNovember 23, 2013

    Jason, LOL! Best scene in the movie of one best scene after another after another.

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