We all wear masks

by Larry Staples, Psychoanalist, (US)

We all wear masks

The exhibition of masks is quite thought provoking. For the mask, the make-up with which we present ourselves to the world C.G. Jung used the old term “persona”. Each persona, each mask, is unique and is carefully crafted from an inner process for deciding the things we want others to see and to hide the things that we don’t.  

When I was young, some instinctive part of me knew that to be considered successful in life, particularly the first half of life, we have to appear to be successful and to hide many things that might suggest otherwise. But this pretention also bothered me, since I also felt it was shallow. The second half of life seems different. To be successful in the second half of life, I think we need to let our persona weaken so that we can both know more and reveal more of ourselves. 

After all, when you reach my age, I am 88 now, it is easier to say, “what can they do to me?” no matter what I say or write. Now, in talks and essays I reveal much that would have been risky to reveal earlier in life.

Keeping a solid mask and rigid persona for one’s entire life is potentially dangerous. Ernest Hemingway may be a tragic example of what can happen if one maintains a formidable persona throughout both halves of life. He committed suicide after winning the Nobel Prize for literature. 

The tragic of Ernest Hemingway 

The persona, the mask we wear, is a thick barrier, a wall that separate us from ourselves and keep us and others from knowing or becoming who we fully are. Some walls are more impenetrable than others. Hemingway’s was never really penetrable. I think he became a victim of his own myth about himself, his carefully crafted persona that portrayed him as this hero who was tough, courageous, unyielding, unflinching, stoic, adventurous, hard drinking, hard living, womanizing lady killer, bigger than life, uber virile with a love for hunting, big game fishing and other activities thought of as signs of masculinity. 

He told big tales and tall lies to foster this image. When he returned home to Oak Park after World War I, he gave talks that inflated his war experiences. He wore his uniform around town, long after things were returning to post war normality. But most of all, he wanted desperately to be designated and acclaimed as the greatest writer, as indisputably number one. He struggled and fought as if he felt he could control the subjective literary opinions of critics and others who read him.

It’s also easy to be suspicious that he wanted the public to identify him with the heroes of his books and not like other characters in his books that were weak, frail, cowardly, snivelly, self-deprecating, overly sensitive and introspective.  Of course, he himself had all these less “manly “qualities but he hid them behind the uber virile persona to the end. He wrote most of his great books in the third person. That, of course, created distance between him and the characters and qualities he described and possessed. I wonder, if he had written in the first person, if we might have had a better idea of who he actually was in all that. That may be wishful thinking. Knowing who we are and revealing it, is extremely difficult under any circumstances.

He fought all his life to maintain the myth he had carefully crafted about himself. Even after winning the Nobel Prize, he couldn’t bear the least criticism that might raise a question as to who is the greatest writer. Younger writers were pressing the boundaries and critics began to deprecate his work and praise the work of others. Even early advocates became very negative about his book Across the River and into the Trees. When Hemingway was asked to review James Jones’ book, From Here to Eternity, he fell into a rage and savaged the book. He couldn’t bear anyone else’s book being thought of as even close to his in writerly quality. He simply had to be “the one” and would say or do increasingly outrageous things to make him appear to be the Myth he falsely projected. His psychic wall, his thick mask, never came down by his own hands until the final moment. 

In The Old Man and the Sea, the old fisherman had landed a huge fish, an achievement in his milieu equivalent to landing the Nobel Prize. And no sooner had he caught the fish, than the sharks, metaphorically the critics, eviscerated his achievement with their repeated, cold-blooded attacks. Like Hemingway, at the end of a life of hard work capped by a grand achievement, he lay spent and exhausted. He could ask, after all that, what has he got to show for it? Gone is the admiration and respect he had longed for. When nothing is left, what’s the point in sticking around, unless you enjoy humiliation? Death could feel like a relief from that. It may have felt there is much more angst, depression, and pain involved in hanging around than in leaving.

I suspect that his failure to remove his mask, to tear down his psychic wall or make enough cracks in it to at least reveal and own up to the other side contributed to his suicide. The maintenance of the wall became a costly, painful and dangerous burden to him. Suicide, perhaps, was the only way he could imagine to get home again and finally relieve his aching yearning to be there.

We cannot be loved, if we hide behind masks

For me, the most devastating aspect of the persona is that it can cause us to feel we are not truly loved. My wish to remove my mask, was motivated importantly by my need to be loved and the realization that one cannot feel fully loved unless one reveals one’s self fully. How can we believe it when someone says, “I love you,” if we have hidden large areas of ourselves from them? To believe that we are loved under such circumstances is, I think, delusional. If we want to be loved unconditionally, we have to reveal ourselves (ideally) unconditionally. 

The question is, “Can we ever succeed in doing that?” All we can do is try, accepting that we probably won’t get all the way to our goal. At least we have the satisfaction of feeling more loved than we were when we presented a very limited view of ourselves.