It was the class nobody wanted to teach. Even the “good” kids chose to go to some other grade level instead of being with “them”. I volunteered. When I heard that there was a group of kids that no one wanted to teach, my head heard “Here is a group of kids with a lot of interesting characteristics that aren’t being tapped.” It sounded like a place where I just might feel at home myself. I volunteered and found a group of kids I deeply cared about.
Lessons would not be able to match the “normative” fashion. These kids were jaded with church and all things Christians. Their lives were music, secretive drugs and drinking parties with friends that were as far away from religious as they could find.
One activity I took them through was the creation of masks. Given a coloured poster board mask and markers, they were asked to decorate the front of the mask to look the way they felt it expressed how they tried to appear to others. Words, pictures, cut outs from magaizines began flying onto the masks. The energy was high, discussion was ongoing and sharing at the end went without a hitch.
The last half of this activity had a different emphasis. Now they were to turn the mask over and decorate it or write words for how they saw themselves inside. This part of the activity took longer than the first and was done with far less banter and smiling. Only in assuring them they wouldn’t have to share them would any of the kids risk doing the project.
For these young people, there was the need for an opportunity to learn safety in beginning to open up in growing relationship with the God who knew them intimately. Realizing that they were not alone, that we all had faces on the inside that we were afraid to reveal opened the safe space within the room for sharing.
Have you ever struggled with holding up a public image while you carry something different inside? If so, this mask exercise is a good one for help you open up to what is within.
Then, since the God of love already knows what it there, perhaps we can risk letting down our masks as we move to grow from the inside out until what is outside and what is inside can be closer to the image God had for our life before we were born.
If you have lived within norms that have caused you to shame the truths in your life, the journey may not be easy. In the end though, it will be worth it. It isn’t the same for everyone, but the ones you find will be the right ones for you.
This is the poem I have used each time I do this activity with a group. It is a good reminder to look at others with new ideas. It encourages us to look beyond the surface to get to know individuals for who they really are.
Please hear what i’m not saying
Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear
for I wear a mask,
a thousand masks,
masks that I’m afraid to take off,
and none of them is me.
Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me,
but don’t be fooled,
for God’s sake don’t be fooled.
I give you the impression that I’m secure,
that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well
that confidence is my name and coolness my game,
that the water’s calm and I’m in command
and that I need no one,
but don’t believe me.
My surface may seem smooth but my surface is my mask,
ever-varying and ever-concealing.
Beneath lies no complacence.
Beneath lies confusion, and fear, and aloneness.
But I hide this. I don’t want anybody to know it.
I panic at the thought of my weakness exposed.
That’s why I frantically create a mask to hide behind,
a nonchalant sophisticated facade,
to help me pretend,
to shield me from the glance that knows.
But such a glance is precisely my salvation, my only hope,
and I know it.
That is, if it’s followed by acceptance,
if it’s followed by love.
It’s the only thing that can liberate me from myself,
from my own self-built prison walls,
from the barriers I so painstakingly erect.
It’s the only thing that will assure me
of what I can’t assure myself,
that I’m really worth something.
But I don’t tell you this. I don’t dare to, I’m afraid to.
I’m afraid your glance will not be followed by acceptance,
will not be followed by love.
I’m afraid you’ll think less of me,
that you’ll laugh, and your laugh would kill me.
I’m afraid that deep-down I’m nothing
and that you will see this and reject me.
So I play my game, my desperate pretending game,
with a facade of assurance without
and a trembling child within.
So begins the glittering but empty parade of masks,
and my life becomes a front.
I tell you everything that’s really nothing,
and nothing of what’s everything,
of what’s crying within me.
So when I’m going through my routine
do not be fooled by what I’m saying.
Please listen carefully and try to hear what I’m not saying,
what I’d like to be able to say,
what for survival I need to say,
but what I can’t say.
I don’t like hiding.
I don’t like playing superficial phony games.
I want to stop playing them.
I want to be genuine and spontaneous and me
but you’ve got to help me.
You’ve got to hold out your hand
even when that’s the last thing I seem to want.
Only you can wipe away from my eyes
the blank stare of the breathing dead.
Only you can call me into aliveness.
Each time you’re kind, and gentle, and encouraging,
each time you try to understand because you really care,
my heart begins to grow wings-
very small wings,
very feeble wings,
With your power to touch me into feeling
you can breathe life into me.
I want you to know that.
I want you to know how important you are to me,
how you can be a creator-an honest-to-God creator-
of the person that is me
if you choose to.
You alone can break down the wall behind which I tremble,
you alone can remove my mask,
you alone can release me from my shadow-world of panic,
from my lonely prison,
if you choose to.
Please choose to.
Do not pass me by.
It will not be easy for you.
A long conviction of worthlessness builds strong walls.
The nearer you approach to me
the blinder I may strike back.
It’s irrational, but despite what the books say about man
often I am irrational.
I fight against the very thing I cry out for.
But I am told that love is stronger than strong walls
and in this lies my hope.
Please try to beat down those walls
with firm hands but with gentle hands
for a child is very sensitive.
Who am I, you may wonder?
I am someone you know very well.
For I am every man you meet
and I am every woman you meet.
Charles C. Finn