Masking and Unmasking: Finding Ourselves
לֵ֗ב י֭וֹדֵעַ מָרַּ֣ת נַפְשׁ֑וֹ וּ֝בְשִׂמְחָת֗וֹ לֹא־יִתְעָ֥רַב זָֽר
The heart alone knows its bitterness,
And no outsider can share in its joy.(Proverbs 12:10)
I have been thinking about masks lately. Here we are in the Jewish world, half-way between Purim and its companion/opposite, Yom HaKippurim (as it is called in the liturgy. Purim is a day to dress up, to put on costumes, to become someone else, whether serious or silly, good guy or bad guy – a time to laugh and sing and make noise. Yom HaKippurim, however, is a time to become ourselves, to look deeply inside at that which is hidden, and then bring those parts of ourselves into the light.
So, what is the connection? The rabbis note that Yom HaKippurim could be read as “Yom/Day” “k/like” “Purim”—Yom Kippur is a day like Purim. How can this be? They seem like total opposites. Perhaps the similarity lies in exactly those hidden depths. Perhaps it is about masking.
Purim is a time to consciously mask, to be someone we ordinarily are not. Yom Kippur is a time to notice who we are, both ordinarily and deep within our souls. On Purim, we put on masks; on Yom Kippur we try to take them off.
None of this is new. But a recent webinar stirred this up for me. The teacher, a modern-day sage, quoted from Proverbs 12:10:
The heart alone knows its bitterness,
And no outsider can share in its joy.
In other words, we are all masked at some level. There are always things hidden in ourselves that others cannot see. Sometimes this is a conscious attempt to hide things that feel too intimate, too uncertain, to be shared. At other times, our inner selves feel aligned with our other selves, laugh a deep belly laugh, or weeping together with another person over our losses, different that those may be.
And there are times for deliberate masking. When I am feeling not just low, but terribly depressed, I am sometimes astonished by how effect my public mask is. People might notice (and give thanks!!) that I am quieter, less a part of the conversation. But I have stood on the bima and lead services with a smile and enthusiasm, while I feel empty inside. I have shared meals with others and seemed engaged in the moment while my soul is contemplating death.
It is not just me, of course. We all have things with which we struggle, and we mostly make conscious decisions about what to share, with whom to share, how much to share, and when. When you run into an acquaintance in the grocery store and they ask, “How are you?” it is unlikely that they have either the time or desire to really stand together with the melons and talk about your midlife crisis or the illness of a family member. (When I see you out shopping and ask how you are – I mean it! I will stand with you for 20, 30 minutes while you tell me and I listen, holding that space of love and comfort for you.)
The experience of telling someone more than they wanted to hear is a difficult one, and probably why we mask so instinctively. We may have learned early on that not everyone wants to listen. We might be envious at some level at the weeping baby on our plane: we all feel wretched, lost, uncomfortably, but it is only small children (if at all!!) whom we allow to express fully the distress we all share. For an infant, there is no filter between their experience, their feeling, and the response, be it laughter or tears or bewilderment. It is only as we grow that we create masks to protect ourselves. In a healthy home, parents and other loving adults help children learn what they are feeling (“Oh, you are cranky because you are tired.” “Wow. When I said “no,” it made you really angry). And then, after naming the emotion, we teach the child coping skills (“can you use y our words?” “are you overwhelmed and need some down time?”).
Without that help, it is very hard to know what you are feeling, and what you should do about it. Natural emotions, like sadness, anger, fear, might seem unsafe to have and to tell others. So, our anger, for example, goes underground and we can no longer access it, even to tell a friend about it for validation. Shame causes us to create masks, unwilling ones, masks that shelter dangerous emotions and desires from public view.
The is what Proverbs is telling us: “The heart alone knows its bitterness, and no outsider can share in its joy.”
At some level, we are fundamentally alone. We have, Gd willing, loved ones with whom to share our lives, and yet. . . our inner grief is hard to articulate, and even our joy may feel inappropriate to share. No one else, of course, knows our whole life’s story; no one else can fully understand how we are experiencing life. There is hurt; there is blessing. And while we can share those events with friends, no one completely knows how we feel.
But we do. Masks can be good in public, but masks do not serve our private life. When making a decision, we need access to the fullness of our selves. No one else knows what is right for us. Should I move cross country to be the person I love? Should I apply to medical school, with the commitment that entails? Do I want another child? These questions reach deep into our soul. And if our feelings, our beliefs, our desires and fears, are inaccessible, our choices may be based more around another’s need, and not our own.
The rabbis mentioned this, citing Proverbs 12, in the discussion of fasting on Yom Kippur, If the outside expert says one shouldn’t fast, then that’s the end of the story – even if that person wants to fast, she is forbidden to do so. And it works on the flip side: if the experts say one is fine, but he says he cannot fast, he should not fast – because the heart knows, and we trust that.
Imagine that. Imagine the Rabbis, the amazing Sages of the Talmud, telling us to trust our inner selves. What a validation.
In the morning blessings, preparing for the morning prayer, we say:
אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּ֒רָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִטְּ֒לָהּ מִמֶּֽנִּי וּלְהַחֲזִירָהּ בִּי לֶעָתִיד לָבֹא, כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּ֒שָׁמָה בְקִרְבִּי מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּ֒שָׁמוֹת: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה הַמַּחֲזִיר נְשָׁמוֹת לִפְגָרִים מֵתִים:
My Gd, the soul which You bestowed in me is pure; You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me and You preserve it within me. You will eventually take it from me, and restore it in me in the time to come. So long as the soul is within me I give thanks to You, HaShem my God, and Gd of my fathers, Lord of all creatures, Master of all souls. Blessed are You, HaShem, Who restores souls to dead bodies.
Our inner heart can guide us, because our inner self is good. It is pure, it is from Gd, and we need to take it seriously. The thoughts we think but dare not express, the emotion that makes us feel shame: none of that is necessary. Sure, we all have /יצר הרעyeter ha’ra/evil inclination, but we also have so much good inside, if we would but trust it.
And while listening to our hearts may cause us to weep, the second half of the verse of Proverbs 12 reminds us that within us also lies great joy.
Oh, if we could but share these feelings. To tell others of our heart’s bitterness, and be accepted, understood. To share our inner joy, without fear of being laughed at – imagine the happiness we could create together.
We are, at some level, ultimately alone. But we can build bridges to one another. We can create communities in which we share our private joys and sorrows. We can become a blessing to others, and to ourselves.
Taking off the masks is scary, but powerful. By coming out as ourselves, we can change the world.