Choosing Your Mask
Hello again, brothers and sisters. It's time to conform. 🎭
We are often told that the age of the metaverse brings with it the existential threat of permanent fragmentation in human identity. Now that we humans have the ability to completely unshackle ourselves from our boring vanilla appearances and personalities, we are supposedly destined for a fluid stew of self-serve reality, with disastrous consequences. As the operator of a pseudonymous personality, I take this issue seriously. The dangerous waters of personhood are of course a space to navigate with immense care. Few things could be more important than the danger of shattering your own self through hubris or inattention. But is this danger truly the chief concern as we face the future of human identity? Or does it present stunning opportunities as well as any number of chances for shipwreck?
Supposedly the masks that are now so easy to don and discard are warping our natural selves into unrecognizable aberrations. This seems like a frightening prospect, if we are so certain that humans as we naturally occur are a perfected people. But if not, surely any tool to enable our alteration might be able to work healing as well as harm? It all depends, of course, on what you believe is the proper end state of human race.
Asserted: Human beings are not born with intact and ideal identities but form them throughout life.
I would be much more afraid of the consequences of shaping and reshaping our identities if I believed that each human emerges from the womb a fully realized personality, or even a beautiful blank slate to be wonderfully filled with experiences and quirks, each step a chisel lovingly revealing unglimpsed beauty. However, both of these visions of human personality tend to disappear when confronted with the chaos of one’s own offspring. Having children exposes you to a daily field experiment in human personhood, as you are privileged and sometimes agonized to watch a tiny individual fumble their way towards maturity. You quickly realize a few things. Humans enter the world with adorable quirks and emergent personalities, true. But they also arrive with latent faults, small personal disasters cocooned and waiting to spread their toxic wings. This concept really shouldn’t take all that much defense, but a visit to a child’s birthday party should be proof enough for doubters.
Not only do we begin our lives in an imperfect, even a broken state, but our identities are not solid things that sit placidly at the core of our selves waiting to be discovered. Children change identities daily, even faster when they engage their imaginations. Pastimes and favorite activities are taken up and discarded rapidly as they mature. Future career paths and daily pursuits appear and disappear with flickering intensity. And we cannot laugh gently at children, secure in our own fully-formed adult identity. Are you still avidly pursuing the hobby of last year, or gaining mastery in the career you took a college degree to secure? Immutable layers of deterministic identity are a fiction existing only in the world of the social statistician, while in the real world we know ourselves to be a bundle of shifting allegiances and faddish interests, discontentedly evolving and mutating throughout our lives.
Asserted: Human identity is formed through conformity to external patterns of being.
If we are not afraid of ruining the supposedly beautiful flower of our own identity, we still have to face the struggle of how to become what we ought to be. The situation is actually even more fraught if we let go of the quest to define ourselves by prodding into our own hearts for clues at an eternal personality and nature. Of course there are many competing gurus and sages that step in to fill the breach, eagerly pressing on us their own scheme for spiritual discovery. But let’s take a moment and step back before we enter the fray. To generalize, we can already see that human beings are constantly trying on masks and fragments of identity, and have been doing so long before the internet made the process so obvious. The lunch tables in school separated by interests and clothing styles, the selection of a palette of artists and creators to adorn our young lives with some sort of aspirational meaning. We take up golf and subscribe to Youtube channels filled with gardening tutorials and buy running shoes, constructing layers of our own personality with no idea of how permanent they will become. Whether we realize it consciously or not, we are emulating a pattern, trying to adopt the trappings of a person we wish to be in the future.
Cynics see this practice and relentlessly bombard anyone who dares to aspire with derision. Terms like “Larper,” “Poser,” and “Weekend Warrior” are used to beat down anyone who reveals a desire to build a new and better aspect in themselves. The aggressive gatekeeping doesn’t only reveal the uneasiness of those settled in their own mediocrity for anyone genuinely trying, however. It also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how humans were made and how they function. It assumes that humans can be sorted into categories neatly and finely, Artist and Builder, Good Person and Bad. I am proposing a return to a less innovative understanding of humanity that places all humans in a single category: Unworthy. We know it inside ourselves, if we stop for even a moment to pay attention. And how do we become worthy? Maybe the identitarians are onto something when they proclaim that it would be practically impossible to undergo a process where we could become something better or even different than what we are.
But you see I’ve never been a very practical person. That’s probably why I’ve staked my entire life on the belief that becoming like God, flaws and failures exchanged for perfection, is not only possible but mandatory. And when we ask how it will be possible, we are told “In this manner, therefore, pray. This do in remembrance of me.” We are given a pattern, a rote, and even a perfect example to follow. We are handed a set of Someone else’s belongings and told to trust that if we wear them obediently, we will grow to fit them. Now I am of course not suggesting that Christianity can be simplified down to a program for human betterment through acting rightly. To do so would be to remove everything that distinguishes the Truth from an online course hustled by a Twitter celebrity. I’m simply doing what we always do here: reasoning from the largest and most clear truths down to the realm of the everyday. And every day I accept a task of holy pretension, trusting that I am being supernaturally conformed even when I do not see evidence in the moment that this is taking place. Perhaps this pattern could hold true if we applied it to less weighty matters?
Resolved: To use the tools of identity to consciously emulate the patterns of the Person we should become.
Back to the original question at hand, then. Why am I not pontificating on the dangers of wearing masks as we enter a brave new world that seeks to tear at the holy fabric of our personal identities? Well simply because nothing is holy about my own identity. Perhaps this is all just elaborate coping, a fiction to tell myself that pseudonyms are valorous after all. Maybe. But I mean it sincerely, at the very least. What if you let go of the feverish quest to define yourself by yourself and reached for something higher? If you stopped being afraid of losing yourself, what could you become? What if everything was larping after a fashion, as we lay out the tools of our trade and then begin to fumble with them until our hands receive supernatural guidance? As always, these are not symbolic questions. I am asking with the most genuine concern possible. What if the mask you put on becomes true as you wear it, as long as you don’t listen to the voices accusing you of pretension and deception? Seen this way adopting a persona becomes less an act of hiding “who we really are,” and more an act of accepting that who we really are right now ought to be a dingy highway rest stop on the journey to the Heavenly City. The question becomes no longer “shall we wear masks” but “who must I become, and how can I adopt, even now, the ways and actions of this Person?” Always remember that Joseph Campbell got it exactly backwards. The Hero doesn’t have a thousand different faces; but every single one of us could spend our lives placing His true face reverently over our own, until the day when we have been conformed to it.
When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? ~ C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. ~ 1 Corinthians 11:1
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:12
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. ~ John 15:10