Strange Masks

I chose to be strange by accident. As a kid, my mother asked me if I had any interest in getting braces. But I liked cutting arrows into slices of neon orange American cheese. I remember thinking the diagonal angles of my front teeth were a mark similar to a fingerprint. It was a purely physical attribute that I attached to my identity. But to be uninterested in fixing something fixable is perceived as unusual behavior.

Hearing the news that David Bowie died, I thought about how he intentionally warped the elusive creature of identity. To willingly identify as alien is to align oneself with those who feel alien. A great deal of the things that we stake our character on are elusive and occasionally outright deceitful. To change costumes and to to do something entirely different takes either a misunderstanding of oneself or the faith that self understanding is an ongoing process tied into honest participation with others.

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In fourth grade I continued to seal my own fate by developing an early appreciation for Calvin and Hobbes which became my chosen Halloween costume that year. To my fellow students, it was a non-costume. I just looked like the weird kid wearing a striped red shirt carrying a stuffed tiger. I learned early that a mask can either be both acceptable and even encouraged or it can be misunderstood and labeled unusual. I was always unclear on which mask I was supposed to be wearing. In the performances that we put on there are acceptable predetermined roles according to the culture and faith of the surrounding people group. The quickest way to reveal that role is to step just a bit out of the line or say something off of the recognized script and watch what people around you do.

We offer ourselves but we can never guarantee the reception. This is the premise on which any kind of self-giving functions. It is a willing resignation to the unpredictability of another regardless of the outcome. And this is love. It is foolish to love because love or a good act does not necessitate a positive outcome. You can love and loose repeatedly through no fault of your own. It’s a shitty reality, but sometimes reality is shitty. A good act does not directly correlate to good feelings or a visibly improved life. Unfortunately we suck at loving because of the suspicious narrative that giving also means getting. We constantly view love as a primarily transactional event where our receiving is assumed.

In the gift of visual art nothing literal appears to be given. You cannot hold the painting that you saw in the museum and you may never see or meet the artist, but it might change how you get to see your own life. The work then becomes a gift with less tangible rewards to the giver. The artist could conceivably have been working through a tragedy or difficulty while in the act of creating.

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Francesca Woodman

I say all of this as a Christian who acknowledges playing hard and fast with the naked perceptions of tangible reality. I am a victim of my own perception. Just because I try to put words to a particular game does not mean that I am not in the process of playing the game.

In church for instance, most people mistake being nice as sincere compassion. The most terrifying aspect of niceness is that it can obscure some of the more subtle acts of cruelty from the perpetrator. To be nice can be a method of obscuring true intention. I don’t believe that people should openly announce negative opinions of others but I do think that they should be aware of the discrepancies between thought and action. It is one thing to be polite for a short amount of time and quite another to love your neighbor as yourself. When a person mistakes niceness for love then all bets are off for the horrors that they might be willing to participate in.

I would walk away from my faith if a single detail didn’t bother me so much, love tends to get the loving killed in both tangible and less tangible ways. To act out of love is risky. A real act of love always has the possibility of resulting in a crucifixion. I suppose that it could be a purely coincidental alignment. We look for connections where we want to see them. The tendency of love is to reveal identity and most people get very angry at a mirror that reflects something unflattering. A mask is to protect the wearer from discomfort as much as it is a shield from others.

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Francis Bacon

I require perfections in others that I lack myself. I write off large swathes of humanity based on perceived intelligence. I am untrustworthy when it comes to seeing myself clearly so I need the very people who I have written off. Those same people might also need to borrow my vision. All are worthy of some blame, but nobody is worthy of all of the blame.To insist on carrying all of the blame is the more subtle twin of narcissism. The extremes are built on half-truths, both are too simple and neither is messy enough to portray reality. All that I can do is wear the mask that I have until I realize it is a lie, then I need the grace to put the Godforsaken mask down.

The word that Paul used to define grace translates a bit more towards “gift” or “favor”. There is no clear or obvious path to being receptive beyond recognizing that state when and where it occurs. It helps to have another pair of eyes to see what you do not and it helps to be willing to listen to outside voices with compassion. A revelation is a “lifting of the veil” Something partially obscured becomes fully revealed for what it is, not for what it pretends to be.

Apparently when asked to participate in drawing as a Sunday school activity one morning I quickly drew a sun and some tall grass and lost interest. When the Sunday school teacher asked if I wanted to include a sheep in my admittedly minimal drawing I informed her that the sheep was hiding in the grass. The sheep is still to some extent hiding behind the waxy scrawled stalks and sticky fingerprints.

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