The Masks We Wear

Illustration by Gracia Lam. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Wendy McDowell

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before—”
—May Sarton1

Years ago, I attended a farewell party for a work colleague, a Disciples of Christ minister and expert on Indonesia who was serving as the Southern Asia director at a humanitarian agency.2 At the age of sixty-four, this man planned to retire within the year and had already moved to be closer to his family, when he received a devastating diagnosis of advanced cancer. At the party, we were disheartened to see that he was an emaciated, almost spectral version of his former self, though he was still the same spirited advocate for others we knew him to be.3 Instead of delivering a typical farewell speech, he told us a story about a difficult goodbye from his own past (I believe it was when leaving one of his missionary stints in North Sumatra). He recounted his sadness as he brought around farewell gifts and wishes to people he had grown to cherish. But as he was saying one particularly emotional goodbye to an aged friend (well aware that they might never see each other again), his Indonesian friend told him to take heart, explaining, “When we say goodbye to a friend, we get to take off our masks!”

Of course, in some Indonesian cultures—as in many cultures throughout the world—there is a rich tradition of masks used in rituals, dances, or theatrical performances. The mask has multiple designs, meanings, and purposes that are specific to the cultures, times, and contexts in which it is used. Ritual masks are often worn for shamanistic purposes—to mark rites of transition, to heal, and to communicate with ancestors. These deliberate masks function to bind the wearers (and the watchers, too) to the social, biological, and cosmic order.

In contrast, the mask we get to take off when we say a final goodbye is “the mask that grins and lies,”4 the often unconscious “false face” we wear for social acceptance or survival. Concealing ourselves is a normal part of our social life—sometimes only in concealing ourselves do we feel free to reveal ourselves. But the masks we wear to express role, social class, race, or sexuality (especially when they are infixed with an aspect of superiority) can obscure our authentic humanity, or make us blind to the “torn and bleeding hearts” in our midst.5

Perhaps it seems strange to introduce an issue on vocation with talk of goodbyes, dying, and masks. But May Sarton’s stark language suggests that any journey to “become myself” includes trying on different faces, saying goodbye to loved ones (and to past selves), and stripping away false fantasies and illusions to replace them with ones that feel more “true” to us. Yet we tend to resist being “dissolved,” because such experiences come with an acute awareness of our own mortality, fallibility, and unknowability.

On the jagged path to fulfillment are terror and wonder, as Michael Jackson reveals. Jackson quotes a Gola mask carver who describes “intense and mysterious fulfillment” but also comments, “It is a fearful thing that I do.” Jackson explores the mysterious, “regenerative process of coming out and going in,” compared with giving birth. Thus, when Jackson discusses “the work of art,” he is not only referring to a painting or poem; he means the process we all engage in (no matter what our “profession”/work) “to bring some semblance of continuity, comprehension, and control to [our] relationship with unknown forces, both within and without.”

In this issue, there is not a sense of “landing” on certainties, but more a feeling of “dreaming” (in all its connotations).

In this issue, there is not a sense of “landing” on certainties (it is no coincidence that three different authors quote from The Cloud of Unknowing), but more a feeling of “dreaming” (in all its connotations).6 The authors bring us insights like: “Living and working in community is a kind of martyrdom” (Amelia Perkins); “We are the problem to ourselves” (James Carroll); and “We are the lovers . . . whose work it is to explore the mysteries of our shared humanity” (Stephanie Paulsell).

Thus, what you will not find in this issue is self-help advice about how to “discover your vocation.” Nor will you find clear divisions between “religious” vocations and “nonreligious” ones (though there are priests and nuns and pastors in these pages). What you will find are reflections on the conundrums our vocational lives can bring. Nate Klug sometimes feels “at the mercy of competing powers” in his roles as pastor and poet; Marion Torchia explores the “three intertwined roles” that drove Julia Budenz to produce an epic work of poetry; and Nancy J. Nordenson rebels against the idea of wholeheartedness in one pursuit being the key to vocation: “To operate on one level here and another level there, is this not the same as a woman nursing one child while reading to another?” After all, most of us juggle multiple callings simultaneously. These “nestled” vocations may inform each other, but, like siblings, they may sometimes squabble or jockey for position.

Also here are learnings across vocations: the lessons psychiatrist Dan G. Blazer has gleaned from faith communities on treating depressive patients, or in the long and fruitful dialogue between the doctor Paul Farmer and the priest Gustavo Gutiérrez about their “preferential option for the poor” (discussed by Harvey Cox).

Throughout the issue, there is a shared sense of “bearing witness to the world,” whether in art (a Virginia Woolf novel or a Bill Cain play), or in lived experience (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis, or Melissa Bartholomew’s current work building racial reconciliation). When there is true “accompaniment” (Farmer’s term), our masks can be peeled off, and humble but hopeful encounters can occur. In her poem aptly titled “Witness,” Budenz writes:

There are some cracks in the world.
There are some windows in the sky.


  1. “Now I Become Myself,” in Collected Poems, 1930–1993 (W.W. Norton, 1993).
  2. In this role, he was known for his tireless efforts to alleviate the suffering wrought by natural and manmade disasters alike, especially in Indonesia, India, and East Timor.
  3. This man continued to write letters and make calls about the East Timorese struggle for self-determination until his final days.
  4. From Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem on the double nature of the black experience, “We Wear the Mask.” The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, ed. Joanne M. Braxton (University of Virginia Press, 1993).
  5. Dunbar’s words again.
  6. Nocturnal dreams are mysterious creations with multivocal interpretations, but dreams are also imagined vocations that sustain us (as in “follow your dreams”).

Wendy McDowell is senior editor of the Bulletin.

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