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Unmasked



We discover that we do not know our role; we look for a mirror; we want to
remove our make-up and take off what is false and be real. But somewhere
a piece of disguise that we forgot still strikes us. A trace of exaggeration
remains in our eyebrows; we do not notice that the corners of our mouth
are bent. And so we walk around, a mockery and a mere half:
neither having achieved being nor actors.

Rilke




The person, by definition, is that which plays a role or a persona, derived from the Greek word which literally meant wearing a mask in a Greek tragedy as an actor who is part of the dramatis personnae or cast of characters. One plays a role which is assigned to him with or without his consent; and in a real sense, no one asks us most of the time whether or not we want to play a role. We assume some roles solely by virtue of birth, and being the social being that man is, we cannot but play such roles. This is what it means to have relationships: I am related to another and the relationship's survival and well being depends as much on the ability of those who are related to support and continue to assume their roles. I am then responsible for all the roles that I play. I am then the son, the brother, the friend, the citizen, the Christian, etc., all at the same time. And as I continue to mature and relate to others more and more, I find myself acquiring new roles or having to develop old ones better. I may then become the worker, the leader, the lover or the father aside from my present roles.

It can then be seen that my role in the play of life becomes more challenging and most of the time more difficult. At times we juggle between roles or find ourselves failing in one particular role because we concentrated on a relationship which seemed more important. Some roles may ask more from us at different times. And while we are always reminded to be well rounded by playing all our roles well, this balancing act may leave one exhausted, or worse, confused. The danger of playing too many roles is the danger of spreading ourselves too thinly; likewise, the danger of focusing on just one role is the danger being too one-sided and even predictable. A life time may then be seen as a balanced attempt to be so many thing to so many people. In that multiplicity, I show different aspects of myself in order to fulfill the different responsibilities I assume. In a certain sense, I am as rich as the number of fulfilled roles that I play. Thus the inexhaustibility of the person.

But behind all the roles that we play in our lives lies someone which is neither this nor that. I may have many masks, this is true; yet I who wear such masks, by myself, am left unmasked. Like a secret identity, this is the self which lies hidden from view to others--and even from one's self. The Johari window teaches us that there is a public side of us which we and others know, a private side which only we know, a side which only others know, and finally a side which nobody knows. The totally unknown self: this is the abyss in us which escapes every attempt of being defined or circumscribed.

Even if it may be called the soul, spirit, cogito, subject, ego, consciousness, being, etc., these names never touch this unknown region of the self. To even call it the 'self' would even miss its unknowability. But being unknown does not mean that it is never experienced. I experience it whenever I look into myself and see nothing there. I sometimes fleetingly grasp it when I stare into the void and forget my self and all my roles. I glimpse at it most often in the morning as I wake up half-conscious where I still am yet to assume or am reminded of who I am as I walk out of my dreams. Anxiety reveals us naked in front of this absurd world, stripped as it were of all our masks and forced to face an unforgiving sun that leaves us exposed. There are many more examples of such moods and experiences but they all point to the possibility of tapping into what would otherwise be unmarked territory. These are ways rather than proofs of this unknown and unmasked 'self.' They signal rather than show.

All these leave me confused. Am I to be pinned down to one role or am I the collection of these roles? Am I something in between them or are these roles simply aspects or flashes of this true self? Or am I finally nothing--without having any relation to my roles, staying in the unfathomable depths of that hidden self? Everyday experience shows me to be a collection of roles which hides and covers over the role-less self. Who am I among these? Or is still there an I which can be talked about?

I pretend to know myself with the masks that I put on for others, showing myself to be this or that, projecting a person who is such and such a being. I am confident that there is some form of continuity between these masks I wear lest I find myself too dispersed and making up lies. I imagine that I become a better person as I improve on my relationships. But all these do not mean anything when I find myself asking who I really am. All the answers I can come up with pale in comparison to the question which my heart asks. I was searching for clarity but my reality can only afford laughable answers. Anyone, I realize, can be a son, a brother, a student, a teacher, a dreamer or a lover; what makes me so different from the other? Reason says that I can only be this such son, or this such brother, etc., but my aseity does not offer an answer to who this such is. I then realize that I can never be sure even if it came to myself. The warmth of the sun on my face and the cool hand of the evening offer more truth to what I call this self. Now I can never know.

The good thing is we are all asked to play in this game. There is no time to dwell on this self as we are always asked to display a facade, to maintain a face and to play a role so that others can join as well. We always put on a mask to hide our invisible selves from others who are invisible as well. We always have to be seen and we would always have to see. The necessity and arrogance of this visual game ensures that we all become aware of ourselves; it proves we exist. Yet what is lost in this play is the reality of the irreducible self as it gives way to being allowed to be understood, seen and therefore comprehended. I, too, somehow see myself as well in bits and pieces, by aspects and characteristics which I only am able to understand via comparison with others. I then form an image of myself which was gathered from all my different selves. Then I proclaim in jubilation that I know myself. This is why people become all of a sudden pompously confident. They are able to hide behind a role which they play perfectly so much that the actor becomes the role and the person becomes nothing more than that.

Some would call that identity between the person and the role success. But it is also called the death of the invisible self.





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