The English word “person” comes from the Latin “persona.”
“Persona” means “mask,” so the implication is that human beings are creatures that wear masks.
When I first learned this in a high-school English class, it was a huge shock.
The reason was that I was very troubled about how to know which kind of “face” I should wear when dealing with my parents, teachers, classmates, or older kids in school.
We have various selves, which we show to various types of people.
For example, we want to be well-behaved in front of our parents.
We want to be noticed and thought interesting by our friends.
We want to make a good impression on our teachers.
We want to maintain our boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s interest in us.
We want to be regarded as able and talented by our colleagues and bosses at work.
We want our subordinates or juniors to respect us, not see our shortcomings.
We want to be seen as good fathers or mothers by our children and our neighbors.
These wishes represent a kind of vanity on our part: the desire to look good.
In order to satisfy this vanity of ours, we wear various different masks depending on the context and the person we are dealing with.
When we become able to use the different masks skillfully, we are said to have become “adults.”
But if we are too concerned about looking good and wear too many masks for too long, we lose sight of our true face.
When we do that, we no longer know just who or what we are, and sometimes lose sight of what we are really seeking and what we really want to do with our lives, and thus ultimately lose the power to live.
I received the following letter asking for help from a woman in her thirties who was a reader of my email newsletter:
“Ever since childhood I’ve spent my life suppressing my true feelings.
I considered things not from the standpoint of what I wanted to do but from the standpoint of what those around me wanted me to do.
When someone asked me, ‘What has really aroused your enthusiasm in your life so far?’ I had no answer.
I realized then for the first time that in my life I was only concerned with how I was regarded by those around me.
I was always anxious, fearful, and lacking in self-confidence, so I would pretend to be confident, moving further and further away from my true feelings.”
This woman had lived forcing herself to wear a mask in order to please those around her.
Still, she was always afraid of the eyes of others, and her feelings of unease never left her.
Then one day she came to realize that she no longer knew which was the mask and which was her true face.
And it’s not her problem alone.
We too can feel stifled when we force ourselves to wear a mask too long.
If the mask is too heavy, our neck starts to hurt, our shoulders grow stiff, and we seem about to collapse.
It can happen that we lose sight of what we really want and what we really wish to do as a result of conforming too much to others’ wishes.
It’s this kind of vanity that makes life hard for us.
Because of it, people find it very hard to take off their masks.
But in order to live happily, being true to yourself, it’s important to try taking off the mask that has become stuck to your face.
Not trying to always “look good” is an important step in planting the seeds of living happily while being true to yourself.