THE BLOG
05/03/2012 11:51 am ET | Updated Jul 03, 2012

Keep Your Mask On

I recently saw the following sentiment expressed in my Facebook newsfeed:

"Can we all just agree to drop our masks for 60 seconds? For one minute just quit pretending to be a 'sweet girl,' 'holy man' or 'accomplished business guy?' We'll all be better off when you are who you really are."

I beg to differ. While it might seem "authentic" to parade around one's flawed inner world, not only is it not inappropriate to mask these character deficiencies, it is rather part and parcel of the healthy growth process of an actualized person.

Two thousand years ago the Jewish sage Ben Zoma asked the question, "Who is the mighty person?" The answer he gave was, "the one who can subdue his negative inclination." One thousand years before that Solomon wrote, "he who is slow to anger is better than the strong man and the master of his passions is better than the conqueror of a city." True strength is measured by our ability to not do that which we most feel like. While it might be incredibly tempting to back-hand slap a family member who is dredging up some embarrassing episode from 20 years back for the umpteenth time, few would agree that to drop your mask of civility and actually do it would be the proper course of action. And though it might seem satisfying to verbally dismember an ex-friend or spouse who have conducted themselves in the most inexplicably egregious way with you, a person of greatness will not hit back. (This does not mean that we need to become doormats and forgo appropriate, measured responses to those who are truly harming us. It is rather that our reactions should lack the venom and raw emotionality of those who remove their aforementioned masks and conduct themselves according to their baser instincts).

All people possess two contradictory aspects -- one that yearns to do good and be good and one that could care less. These forces are locked in perpetual combat within us and is the reason why we can encounter a homeless person on the street and think, "I would like to solve world hunger," while two minutes later, an innocent pedestrian stopping abruptly in front of us might elicit a "get the hell out of my way, idiot" reaction. Jewish tradition associates the drive for good with the soul and the drive for destructiveness and negativity with the body. The soul wants to connect and empathize with people, to solve their problems and ease their suffering. The body wants a couch, a bag of chips, and the unquestioning obedience of humanity and the forces of nature.

Judaism believes in free will and hence in the ability to choose which version of ourselves we would most like to be. The more we side with the soul and its drives, the more spiritual, patient, calm and actualized we become. The more we choose the body and its insatiable thirst for immediacy, honor and sloth, the more obtuse, uncaring and self-indulgent we will be. The choice is ours. The oft maligned mask is a powerful tool that helps us acclimate to the way we would like to be. It is a statement of intention which alerts ourselves and the world that this is who we are planning on being and that the fact that we are impatient, angry, jealous or depressed now does not mean that we need resign ourselves to permanently remain in this un-ideal state. It certainly does not mean that we should celebrate our deficiencies as the mask-removal advocates would have it.

It is unfortunate that our culture has a strain that glorifies masklessness -- the debauchery of the rock star, the self-righteous arrogance of the celebrity CEO or the nasty, hatchet-job compositions of the attention-seeking journalist. Early in Jewish history, we had to contend with a popular cult who purposely embraced this type of behavior in their form of worship of their god, Baal. Part of the ritual involved nude, wild dancing accompanied by self-inflicted cutting to spurt blood all over themselves and to top it all off, group defecation -- it was one huge, depraved orgy schmear. The purpose of these over the top desert raves was to rip the mask away root and branch -- to allow the bodily force to reign supreme over the practitioner rendering them more akin to beasts than humans. (As I write this I see that the pop singer Kesha has tweeted a picture of herself peeing in the street -- lovely).

The human is the chooser, the one who decides to don the mask of temperance and magnanimity, even when he doesn't really feel like it, and attempts to conduct him or herself in accordance with their aspirational selves despite opposition and difficulty.

The Midrash explains that Pharaoh's necromancers were confused to learn that Moses was an angry and impatient man (traits that by and large seemed wildly inconsistent with his external behavior). In truth, Moses was indeed born with those unfortunate traits and as such spent many years methodically refining them step by step until he had mastered them. It's ironic to note that later in his life Moses was forced to wear an actual mask -- not because he was still engaged in the "fake it till you make it" process, but because the glow of his countenance was too much for people to bear. He had grown so intensely that his inner soul nature overwhelmed his bodily self and broke through his corporeality for all to see. The sight was enough to shock and frighten them -- hence the mask.

Yes, it is very tempting to live according to the dictates of our lower-selves -- to feel free to screech and humiliate, scorn, and party with abandon -- but like drugs, these counterfeit pleasures soon wear off and leave us depleted, empty and alienated from the true source of meaning and happiness in our lives.

It's the harder path, but keep the mask on.