The Mask

“Take off your mask. You say you’re not wearing one? But you are. The muscles of your face are so accustomed to displaying your familiar emotions they’ve gotten stuck. Raw new emotions are aching to show themselves, but can’t dislodge the incumbents.”

The quote is from Rob Brezsny’s “Pronoia Is the Antidote to Paranoia,” a book I’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks. It’s a big, loopy trade paperback with quirky graphics and lots of space for doodling and rumination. It’s a manifesto inviting readers to throw off the chains of what Brezsny calls “the culture of the living dead,” a/k/a the world as we know it.

There’s a library branch at the end of my street, so I don’t buy many books. I bought Brezsny’s because he’s a man after my own heart. Which is to say, he doesn’t buy into conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom pisses him off in a rowdy, good-natured way, and he’s made it his life’s work to undermine it and expose it for the fraud that it is.

Brezsny is also the author of “Free Will Astrology,” which is syndicated in publications around the country, and I’ll confess I don’t get much out of it. But what he’s trying to do with “Pronoia” is get people to turn off the auto-pilot and wake up to the truth. If you’re really paying attention, he says, you’ll see that, “All of creation is conspiring to shower us with blessings.”

Stranger in the Mirror

Take that paragraph about the mask. It sounds like a theoretical statement, an abstract way of characterizing human behavior. But it is literally and factually true.

Several years ago, I went to a Mexican restaurant in midtown Atlanta with a woman I didn’t know well who was — in my mind, at least — auditioning as a possible romantic partner.

After ordering drinks, I went to the men’s room, and as I entered I caught a glimpse of my face in a mirror that was hanging not over the sink, but on a column inside the door. It was an odd place for a mirror, and the face reflected back to me was even more surprising. In fact, it was  startling.

Rather than the mild, somewhat quizzical look I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror, I saw a set jaw, watchful eyes and a look that might best be called guarded. It was the face of someone who didn’t trust the world and who was poised to jump when the other shoe was in mid-air.

Wary and Distrustful

I had never seen that face before, and I was furious. Fifty plus years on the planet had not prepared me for a surprise of that magnitude. Who the hell was that jerk?

Obviously I hadn’t long to ponder it, and by the time I got back to the table the mask was back in place. For that’s what it was, muscle memory composed in the form of a mask that I wore in public. It got me through the day, but it wasn’t the real me, and neither was the one I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror at home.

I’d had been through some hard patches in life that made me wary and distrustful, and the mask reflected that. And it was several more years before I found a way to begin the process of removing it. It involved a searching self-examination, which wasn’t always pleasant. But I hated what I’d seen in that restaurant mirror, and self-loathing is no place to live.

A Magical World

Life is about choices. I can’t change the past, but I can make new choices and create a different present, and that’s Brezsney’s point. You can buy into the “life’s a bitch and then you die,” or you can opt for a quote that Brezsney lifts from Bertrand Russell: “The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Ridding myself of the mask and letting go of resentment and the self-justifying rubbish I’ve been dragging around is opening me up to the truth about myself and the world around me. It also means challenging lies I’ve been telling myself for years and welcoming a life-affirming reality that doesn’t get much notice from mainstream media.

This re-tooling is a process. It takes time and patience. There are no overnight changes, no “road to Damascus” transformations. Even insights — and there are many — must be re-visited often untiul lthey become part of a new reality. Because when it comes to kicking the ass of that guy in the mask, the only person who can do it is me.

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