Many of us are wearing masks these days and they are not all of the COVID variety….
I once avoided a bloody beating by instantly summoning a snarling, threatening mask of red hot rage. As a newcomer in town, I was unaware of turf issues that separated the clientele of the half dozen bars that lined the main drag in Ketchikan Alaska.
I had walked into the logger’s den, and my appearance telegraphed that I was demonstrably not a logger. This was made clear by the suspendered, flannel shirted Bunyan of the guy I sat next to. He turned his head toward me, took an instant theatrical double take and announced for all to hear,
“Well look at the long haired, hippie, communist queer who just walked in!” A half a dozen of his compatriots quickly circled in for support as he grabbed an empty bottle of Rainer beer by the neck. There was no mistaking its intended use.
Not only was a I not a logger, I was not a drinker, and I was most definitely not a fighter. I hadn’t been one of those kids who had grown up brawling in the neighborhood. Never got or gave any a bloody nose or a black eye. I’d only been in Alaska for a day, and a quick visit to a bar seemed like a good way to confirm that I was indeed in The Last Frontier. Apparently though, I wasn’t the only one with something to prove.
I don’t know who was more surprised, me or my tormentor but there I was, now instantly transformed into a vicious snarling dog. My eyeballs were bulging, the veins in my neck were popping, I was quivering with barely contained rage. I looked like I was ready to spring for the jugular. It was an award winning act born of desperation!
“I don’t have to take this shit from you dammit. We can either fight or be friends. Now what’s it going to be?”
I’d conjured this phrase from the memory of a story I’d heard from a guy who had picked me up when I was hitch-hiking. It worked! The guy loosened his grip on the bottle.
“Buy this guy a beer!” I had a new buddy, though I didn’t linger long there, and subsequently discovered a more welcome watering hole.
That was a long long time ago. I’ve asked myself many times since then, whether my rage was real or manufactured, and to this day, I’m not sure. Had I simply tapped into a deep reservoir of my own simmering anger? I was thinking about this encounter recently, and remembered a story I once read.
There was once a king who ruled over his lands through fear and intimidation. His face was contorted in a constant fierce scowl.
To look into that face was to feel at the same time the icy chill and searing heat of anger.
Was it any wonder then, that his subjects avoided his gaze at all costs.
When, as sometimes happened, they were caught off guard, and did catch the Kings eye, the King could not mistake the fear reflected in their faces.
This made the king even angrier. Had he not brought peace and prosperity to his subjects? The crops flourished, people were well fed. Enemies were kept at bay. The merchants coffers were full. Appreciation and respect were his due, yet hardly a word of thanks or a sign of respect could he coax from his unwilling subjects.
Vexed with these thoughts, the King sought counsel from his Chief Wizard.
Use your magic to make people like and respect me,” he commanded.
“This I can do Your Majesty, but only if you follow my instructions without question,” replied the wizard.
The King was not pleased with the terms, but reluctantly agreed.
With a snap of his fingers, a word, and a puff of smoke, the Wizard handed the King a mask, a mask that was a perfect rendering of the King’s face, except in one detail. The King’s mask was smiling, with a warm and welcoming gaze.
“ You must put it on and not take it off for one hundred days. Do this and you will have what you want”
“But, with such a face, the people will lose respect for me… objected the King.
“My instructions without question… your majesty!”
And so it was. The King put on the mask.
The next day, he thought he saw several people briefly look up as he passed.
A few days later, he was quite sure that he had seen someone smile at him.
By the end the week, several of his bolder subjects had risked a word of greeting.
This was a surprising but not an unpleasant feeling for the King.
Word soon spread about the King’s transformation.
Now, rather than avoiding him, people contrived opportunities to see him.
They waved and shouted their greetings.
‘My unpleasant subjects are changing,” thought the King!
Now he would sometmimes stop along his way, attracted by an eager face. He found himself listening to the people’s stories. They told him how life had been for them, sometimes easier, sometimes harder. They shared with him their joys and sorrows, of birth, weddings, and funerals They talked to him about the burden of taxes. The burden was lifted. They spoke to him about summary judgements in court .
The King made changes in the administration of justice.
The King began to take more and more pleasure with being out and about amongst the people. Passing by a humble cottage, a village lass would offer him a piece of fresh baked bread or pie. Eager children pressed close for a pat on their heads.
But he knew that all was just a ruse. Only the mask had changed the people’s hearts.
The hundred days were coming to an end.
“Enough he thought! Better to be myself than to deceive these good people any longer.”
He stood in front of the ornate mirror in his dressing room. He took one last look at the kind and smiling mask then with a quick jerk of his hand tore it off.
To reveal… the kind and smiling visage of his own face, a face that mirrored the mask in every respect. He ran his fingers over his forehead, his eyes, his mouth, his cheeks. It was him! It was him! He laughed, he wept, and then he laughed again!
The Kingdom continued to flourish. And many there were, the King foremost among them, who lived happily, for the most part, ever after.
Why did I recall this story and connect it to that long ago misadventure of mine? Because yesterday I went around all day with an angry face. The fleeting encounter that kindled my anger had come and gone. But I couldn’t shake the feeling. I couldn’t let go of it, and it colored the entire day… a day masked with anger.
We put on masks and then they are difficult to remove. Eventually we may even forget that we are wearing one. We harden our faces and hearts, thinking perhaps to protect ourselves, but stay hardened long past the time when disguise or guile might be necessary or useful.
A seeker once came to the Buddha.
“Please help me learn to overcome my anger.”
The Buddha replied, “Please show me your anger now.”
“I can’t do that. I’m not angry at the moment.”
“Then return and show me your anger when you are angry again.”
“But by the time I get here, and in your presence I won’t or can’t be angry.”
Buddha concluded. “You can’t show me your anger, or bring me your anger, because anger is not your true nature.”