As I read the words I wrote over a decade ago, I think this essay perhaps says less about the nature of society, and more about what it felt like to be a teenager. Has the high school experience changed in the intervening years? Or do teenagers today feel like they are always trying on masks, struggling to figure out where they fit into the world? Do these words still hold relevance to an audience today?
The amazing youth who attend the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka are beginning to put together the worship service for Sunday, March 18, 2012. As I help to empower them from my position as a minister and youth leader, I’ve been reflecting back on the adults who helped me find my voice when I was a youth growing up in Wisconsin. In a burst of nostalgia, I went through my bookshelves and found my very first sermon, written as a personal essay for Doc Cass’s AP English class in 2000. It was shared with Unitarian Church North in Mequon, Wisconsin as the sermon for the youth service the following spring.
A bright smile that reveals nothing. A certain veil behind happy eyes, masking true emotion. A quick handshake in greeting. A distant nod of welcome. Meaningless phrases such as “It’s nice to see you,” or “Yes, we’ve met before.” This is the arsenal of words and gestures that arms the average person of today, equipping them for their daily venture into the polite world. These manners allow them to meet people, greet people, and treat with people without revealing a single personal detail about themselves.
Am I the only person who sees something wrong with this?
Politeness today is not only manners and tact. It is avoidance. To be polite today, you avoid asking personal questions, you avoid topics which involve personal opinions, and you avoid expressing strong emotion. You are expected to be quiet, mildly happy, interested, and yet distanced. It is a useless mumbo-jumbo that allows every person to hide everything about themselves that is real and true.
Finding out a personal detail about a stranger is a subconscious faux pas of the highest order. Once you know a detail about this stranger’s life, you remember it, and that memory forms a tie to your heart. They suddenly have a past and a future, hopes and dreams, laughter and tears, loved ones and ones that are not-so-loved. That this virtual stranger could so quickly form an attachment is a rather frightening concept to some people, and so the subconscious warns them never to be personal, never to get too close, or someday that tie will pull a little bit too tight, and it will hurt.
It is this avoidance of attachment that I believe is the worst vice of society today. It is fear of the pain that is the price of attachment which makes people hide their souls away in a locked closet, far away from others, so that no matter what happens, no one will ever know who they are.
The problem with this is that the lock on that door rusts with time until the key won’t turn anymore. Your soul is lost even to you. There was once a time when you would bring it out in private, where no one could see it or criticize it or fear it. But eventually it became more difficult to lock it away again, so the solution, of course, is not to let it out and make outsiders cope, but to keep it safely locked away so it can never be hurt or mocked or known. You put on a guise of happiness and laughter and friendship, and you make your way out into the masquerade we call life.
And you can’t let that mask slip. Never show anyone what lies beneath, behind, inside. Sorrow, anger, pain, suffering. These emotions upset society’s view of how life should be. And so when these emotions slip through the mask, the average outsider will try to “help” you safely hide them away again. The strong will comfort you until you have enough control to get the mask back into place. The weak will turn away from these uncomfortable emotions, not quite meeting your eye, waiting out of sight in the wings until you’ve learned the lesson never to be yourself. It’s a lesson we’ve all learned, at one point or another, and I believe it is the most difficult to unlearn as we develop and mature. Thus these emotional and subconscious restrictions still chain us to the rigid post we refer to as “politeness,” no matter what we’ve learned, who we know, or how we feel.
No one can do anything for anyone else to free these bonds. You must learn to do it yourself. Reach out to comfort a friend in silence. Talk to the stranger sitting next to you on the bus. Learn to be welcoming and open. Learn to be true to who you are and what you stand for. These actions will weaken the chains which have bound you since childhood. But most importantly, learn to listen to other people and to really hear what their hearts are trying to say to you.
Remember: Rare is the person who truly understands what it means to cry. And rarer still is the person who will sit with you and not try to wipe your face with the mask that has slipped to the floor. But rarest of all is the person who will embrace you and love you and see through that mask to unlock the door where your soul is captive.