My son once told me, as he was about to play a high school hockey game, that the coach insisted that the players put on “a game face” before they left the locker room. Moreover, they were coached to never show any signs of pain after a hard board check. He said the coach claimed that showing pain would undesirably increase their opponents’ confidence.
A prison guard I knew years ago acted like John Wayne while on duty, but was much more “himself” when participating as a volunteer doing yard work on weekends. One of my friends consistently exudes a kind of “sicky-sweet” atmosphere when entertaining guests, but she acts rather mean and even rude when she complains about some annoying habit of her husband. In New Hampshire, where political candidates can be close up available, I once had a 5-minute one-on-one chat with a presidential hopeful. He seemed very down-to-earth, genuinely engaged, when suddenly someone came rushing by and told him, “We got the feed!” I was caught off guard because of my naivety; I didn’t realize how important, (or even what) the feed was. But once the precious TV camera with its red light lit pointed at him, his mask instantly slapped into place; Mr. Future President began smiling from ear to ear, grabbing hands to shake, spouting trite phrases and thanking people for God knows what. It was a good thing for his campaign that the camera moved off of me, because my facial expression would’ve been saying, “Where the hell did he go?”
Apparently we sometimes carry what psychologists call a persona, a kind of mask intended for the outer world to see while observing us. The term can also apply to a similar aura we tend to assign or project onto other people based on our expectations of them. For example, when approaching the guard shack of a military base, we really wouldn’t expect the Marine standing at attention there to slap us on the back and say “Hey – how ya doin’ Buddy?” Even though he might be a regular Joe, we’ve been condition to be aware of the important security responsibility people in his position have. Hence we expect him to be formal and to the point. Each time we encounter such a guard, we reinforce that persona in our memory and eventually no longer see him as a person, but only as a soldier.
It’s useful in the quest for authenticity to become aware of when and why persona tendencies manifest, since doing so might assist in identifying barriers to wholeness. The mask we wear can be useful when it communicates for us, encouraging efficiency in certain public roles. It may protect us at certain times when we need a thicker outer shell. But it can also become problematic if a persona habitually replaces the genuine person. If there is a difference between the person and his or her persona, it becomes difficult for people to relate to them.
Conversely, if we exercise the skill of becoming aware of any habitual masks that we might use as we go about presenting ourselves to others, we can figure out what motivates us to do so. Aware of being aware, we can decide to become more genuine. Jesus’ use of the word truth (Aletheia; literally: without veil ) in the Gospel of John is worthy of reflection when considering the role of our persona: “. . . you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, NRSV)