Life’s illusions

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Are we really unable to be authentic when others can see who we are?

The word “authentic” is frequently associated with performance. The actress Annette Bening has said that “the actor is a perfect metaphor to get at that theme of ‘how do we find our authentic selves?’” She says that we all “perform ourselves…as a way of searching” for our voice.

What does it mean to be authentic? For a person, it is to be genuine, trustworthy and reliable; in other words, true to one’s self. But we see all the time the difficulty that people have in being true to their own character. From the presidential campaign to the creation of a Facebook page, many of us are constantly striving to create ourselves, or the illusion of our selves. What is real? What is false? If we don’t know ourselves, how can those around us know? How can they trust us?

Everyone is looking for real and “authentic” experiences. We look for them when we travel to a new place; when we buy products (“Coke. It’s the Real Thing”); and when we watch reality television (“Real Housewives”); yet it seems that the more we plug something as real, the less real it becomes.

In existentialism, authenticity is thought to be the extent to which a person is faithful to his or her own spirit or personality. Even in the face of external pressures, an authentic person maintains his own integrity. If a person is not living authentically, life will lose meaning, and there is the possibility of succumbing to boredom, anxiety and hopelessness. It’s the same thing as not living your values – and it often becomes a source of inner conflict and stress.

Children put on masks at Halloween, in part to try out different roles, to become something they dream to be. In adolescence, they try to solidify who they are; in fact, Erik Erikson said that the major task of adolescence is developing self-identity. But just because we supposedly know who we are as adults doesn’t mean that we always feel comfortable showing it to the world. The desire to be accepted, to attain professional success, or to avoid pain often forces us to wear masks.

The problem with wearing a mask is that it is uncomfortable over the long term, even suffocating. I think most of us want very much to be authentic, to be comfortable in our own skin and to be with others who are. We can all think of people in our lives with whom we are most at ease; and sometimes we are lucky enough to meet new people who make us feel that way too. Chances are that those people are living authentically – they are open, interested, and non-judgmental. You meet them at a party or a meeting, and go home with a glow from talking to them.

Can we each let go of our fear a little, and make more of our encounters authentic? Alanis Morissette has said that she felt liberated after she realized “that secrecy is actually to the detriment of my own peace of mind and self, and that I could still sustain my belief in privacy and be authentic and transparent at the same time.”

Masks are fun on Halloween and Mardi Gras, allowing us to be something we’re not. Enjoy the freedom of being just who you are the rest of the year.

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