Today is Purim. The Jewish holiday that celebrates our triumph over those who sought to obliterate us. Again.
The story, in short, is that a king came to power, and had an advisor, Haman, who hated the Jews because of a personal slight at the hands of one Jew, once. Haman convinced the king that he should slaughter all of the Jews in the country. Meanwhile, the king had selected a new queen who, unbeknownst to him, was Jewish. She eventually revealed her secret in effort to save her people. By telling the king her true identity, she convinced him to spare the Jews. Instead, the king would dispose of the treacherous advisor. And so, the Jews celebrate to this day by dressing up as the characters of the story, donning masks and getting drunk.
As with most things religious, there’s some room to doubt the facts of the story that girds the holiday. But the point isn’t historical accuracy. The point is to suck the marrow from the story itself and from the traditions that define it.
For Purim, we wear masks. We celebrate while hidden. We get to show others only a frozen image of our own choosing, one that stays consistent no matter what the mask-wearer is feeling. Expressions that would usually betray our innermost feelings are invisible.
The outside world is denied the opportunity to see the ‘real’ you, and celebrates it for a night.
For a night, it’s all fun and games.
But what about when the mask doesn’t come off? What happens when you find yourself playing a game of pretend all the time? Is there a danger of becoming so enamored with your chosen costume that you forget what you look like underneath?
Here’s a story of how this might look, in real life, non-metaphor terms.
A client comes to her therapist, saying that she’s just not satisfied. She can’t put her finger on it, but she feels anxious all the time, and can’t get herself to take action in a committed direction. After some conversation, the therapist learns that this woman is endlessly invested in the happiness of her children, her husband, her sisters and brothers, her coworkers, her boss…the list goes on. “I can only be as happy as my saddest child,” she says. Somewhere in her life, she learned that when people around her were happy, she didn’t worry about them leaving her. She found that the more she hid her own needs and desires, the easier it was to help the people around her to be happy. It was truly efficient and effective. It worked. As far as she could tell, the people in her life were happy, and if they weren’t, she was adept at helping them fix whatever the problem was. Her mask enabled her to look “fine" all the time, so that no one would have to worry about her. But eventually, she forgot that her own life satisfaction required her to notice her own needs. She forgot that she ever put on a mask in the first place.
Now, in therapy, she’s working on the accepting the uncomfortable feelings that come up when she takes the mask off. Her skin isn’t used to being exposed like that, and she forgot what her face looks like. Her therapist is helping her resist the urge to just put it back on, which would, in the short term, make her feel better. Instead, she is now involved in the work of owning her needs and wants. She’s beginning to show the world her real self. The hardest part, she finds, is that she can’t always control her emotions. Even so, she is becoming confident that the world will still love her.
In honor of Purim (and Mardi Gras!), ask yourself, what masks do you wear? Can you take off the mask when you’re around people you trust? What happens when you leave it on too long?