800: We Wear the Mask

800: We Wear the Mask

800: We Wear the Mask


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

We ask it all the time in greeting: How are you? When I was younger, What’s happening? To that casual question, for the first time during the global health crisis, my relatives and close friends did not lie, did not refrain from giving an honest run-down on their lives and states of being. I learned of a cousin living alone who was suffering low-grade depression. I learned of friends who hit their limit of balancing twenty-four-hour parenting and work meetings, stressed from cohabitating in a three-room apartment during shelter in place orders.

I've always been aware that our outward lives are often what one astute writer calls 'our own supreme fictions.' So I appreciated getting the real picture behind curated Instagram feeds of exotic vacations in Burma and Michelin-starred dinners. Either owed to social conventions of propriety or a desire to give the appearance of success and stability, what became clear to me was the extent to which we were deceiving each other. In the “before time,” it seemed we dedicated a great amount of time to staging, if not on social media, then in our everyday interactions. I’m well, we said. All good in the hood, we said. Couldn’t be better. Can’t complain. But in fact, many of us have often been emotionally bursting at the seams, processing stressful situations or past traumas or navigating decisions and circumstances without the aid and friendship from those closest to us.

I was one of those who would come to the aid of a friend at the drop of a text or phone call. But like many, I had difficulty sharing what was really going on inside. One of the ways poetry has impacted my life is that, over many years, the writing of verse allowed me to express and examine the layers of anxiety or discontent that underpinned my day-to-day existence; that is, poetry made legible for me my psychic and emotional challenges, and revealed potential pathways to resolution.

Today’s canonical poem calls out the distinct phenomenon of concealing and hiding our true selves, and that if we are to live an authentic life, we may have to come to value vulnerability and candor, and remove that which disguises our true natures and feelings.

We Wear the Mask
by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
   	We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
   	We wear the mask!