January 20, 2011

Taking Off Our Masks

"Who am I?" Zoolander asks, staring into a puddle.  His reflection looks back at him, "I don't know," it murmurs.

When I first meet people, it's interesting the information that I initially share in order to inform them about who I am.  Because it is in people's habits to ask about a person's particular profession, I usually share that I am a lawyer.  When they ask where I work, I tell them, and then usually state my future goals.  Then they usually ask where I went to law school, and when I respond Pepperdine, I offer a brief caveat that I am neither particularly religiously dogmatic nor conservative, and then I partly justify my decision to go there based on the fact that I grew up in Buffalo and needed some sun.  I then note that it was great going to school in California considering my two siblings lived there.  Then I tell people that it's ironic that three kids from Buffalo ended up in Southern California.  I always tell people that I'm from Buffalo, because once I do so they instantly feel bad for me.  And when you feel bad for someone, you can't help but like them more.  (People never feel threatened by people in Buffalo, so it's a good way to let people take their guards down.)

In sum, within five minutes of meeting me, you will know where I went to school, what I do, what I want to do in the future, how many siblings I have, where I live, and where I grew up.  Because I often choose to define myself through the parameters of family dynamics (one of my first blogs was on this topic), it makes sense that I  offer up information about my siblings and where I was raised.

None of this information about me is particularly interesting.  What is interesting is that I have a spiel upon introducing myself that reflects how I choose to present myself.  In other words, I have carefully selected my masks that I put on for the world.

And this is what intrigues me--the process of self-identification.  What do I choose to share about myself? How do I define myself? Or, even more interestingly, how do I want others to define me?

Social media is another psychological experiment in self-identification because through Facebook, we are able to create a honed and comprehensive image of Self.   We can create an image so that when people go to our page,  they can learn about who we want them to believe we are.  Facebook encourages us to categorize our life into easily accessible tidbits, such that people, just by looking at our page, can get a good idea of "who we are."

So, by looking at any given page, we believe we "see" people by what they haven chosen to post. Does someone see their partnership as the most defining part of who they are and create a page dedicated to that idea? Does someone define themselves by religion and thereby proffer religious quotes? Does someone see themselves as an advocate for a cause and thereby provide relevant information on it?  Does someone see themselves as an artist and thereby share their work? Does someone see themselves as anti-mainstream and thereby share information challenging mainstream perceptions?  Does someone see themselves as a person of service and therefore post information on serving? Does someone see themselves as as an upcoming politician and thereby share commentary on politics? Does someone define themselves as an emotional beings and thereby share reflections on current states of feeling? Does someone see themselves as a spiritual seeker and thereby share a quest for meaning through a blog posting?

The identities we choose are neither good or bad.  But, they are just that--identities that we have chosen.  Masks that we choose to wear such that we feel safe when we present ourselves to the world.  That's ultimately why we wear masks--they make us safe and easily definable and recognizable to the people we encounter.  And often we wear these masks, so that we can fulfill our innermost desire to be heard.  Social networking, for example, allows us to share who we are so that we can feel validated when someone reaffirms who we want to be; we have an outlet in the world to let our voice, or more expansively, our identity to be recognized.

The masks we choose, whether we view them as positive or negative,  are still masks, and only encourage us to cling to the Ego, which thrives on the belief of a permanent and confined Self.  These attachments, however, are not who we are in our most simple and pure state.  And I know this because if I took away all of my attachments and identities and associations, I would still be...well, me.  If I was not a lawyer, and no longer in a relationship with Alex, and no longer had my siblings or my parents, and no longer lived in New York City, and changed my career goals, and changed my spiritual belief, and was a thousand miles away on an island completely isolated from everything and everyone. . . .I would still be Me.

So then who is Me? Am I just a combination of attachments whose sum is "Kerry?"  I don't think so, for the same reasons described in the paragraph above.  I think it's too reductionist to think that what we choose to attach to or the masks we choose to put on ends up being the Self.  That's the "default" answer. And I certainly can't ask others who I am considering they too reinforce notions of Identity.

Murathan Mungan, a contemporary Turkish poet, writes, "Identity is a concept of our age that should be used very carefully. All types of identities, ethnic, national, religious, sexual or whatever else, can become your prison after a while. The identity that you stand up for can enslave you and close you to the rest of the world."

Most religions warn against clinging to worldly attachments and identity-defining behavior as well.

In the Bible for example, Matthew, discourages us from wearing these masks as well, demanding that we not present our faith (mask) and actions (mask) for all to see, and telling us that we are neither the clothes we wear (mask) or the food we eat (mask).  Jesus' Self transcended all masks--who he was, was ambiguous.  He was both man and God, Jew and Christian, mortal and immortal.  He was both a part of the world, but not of the world.   Similarly ambiguous, when Buddha was asked whether he was man or god, he merely responded, "I am awake."  A Zen proverb, notes "no self, no problem."

So if we were to unpeel all of our layers--such that we took off the clothing of labels and beliefs and actions and self-validated categories of being?  Who would we be? What would we be?

Would we find that we are essentially nothing? Would we find that there is no "me?" Would we find, as Krishna Das found, that "there is no me, only we."   Would we find something temporary, fluid, vast, and undefineable?  And what would that mean to us?  How would that change our lives to be nothing but naked, vulnerable, and free? 

At this point, I can only ask questions, because I am still very far away from having the answers.  But if our identity is actually the disassembly of all of our accumulated parts, then I guess my identity is really the process of the deconstruction of the Self itself.  (Whatever that means).  


  1. My introductory speil is much the same, except that I add that Pepperdine was Awesome (capitalized for dramatic appeal.) Don't forget that.

    If all else fails, show 'em a picture of the view from the front porch. Not only is a view like that worth a little religion, it might actually give you some.

  2. I haven't forgotten. Nor will I ever! It's just not in my spiel :) Maybe I should add it!