The masks we wear

When I was in high school, my creative writing teacher — acclaimed Canadian writer Jack Hodgins — asked me to do something strange. I was the first one in class, always, because two of my afternoon classes were in the same room.

He put a chair on top of a table and asked me to sit on the chair. Then he gave me a paper bag.

“Put it over your head,” he said.

I did as he said, albeit with more than a few questions whirling around my brain. Soon the students filtered in. I couldn’t see them, but could hear their feet stop at the doorway and snorts of laughter. What is Sandra doing, sitting on a chair that’s on a table with a bag over her head?

Once everyone arrived, Jack asked the class what they saw. Or rather, what they didn’t see. The answer was my expression. The exercise demonstrated how important expressions can be as insights into a character. And as life has ensued, I’ve learned how those expressions can belie what’s really going on inside. So describing a person by the look on their face can either show what they’re feeling, or show the mask that protects their true feelings from the harsh world.

Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. You might know people who are always smiling, no matter what’s going on. There are those who rarely crack a smile. Others simply look vacant.

This is my “riding face.” I always rode scared, but you’d never know it. (Forgive the glare — I have this framed)

I started taking horse-riding lessons at age 38. Almost immediately my coach, a seasoned eventer, decided I should immediately join the sport. Eventing is a triathlon of horse sports — dressage, show jumping and cross-country jumping.

It was terrifying but I loved it, if that makes sense. My horse Molly and I were equally unathletic but we tried hard. I think Molly taught me how to channel my fear and focus on what’s ahead. I fell off a lot, but never got hurt. Molly’s quirky ways made me into a half-decent equestrian.

I’ve ridden other horses in recent years, but never really got over the nerves. In a way, it’s a good thing. Being on your game keeps you safe. I keep rechecking my position and correcting any flaws. After past years of lessons, I hear my coach’s voice in my head.

Okay, back to the mask. I have a wall of pictures taken during horse shows, and over jumps I’m always wearing that blank mask, the one that shows no emotion. It’s a protective barrier that keeps me safe from predators, and I must have learned early in life to not show that “weak” feeling of fear.

I know I show that same blank look when the cash register balks at my commands and I have to call a superior to sort it out. I know it shows when a sibling gets in touch for whatever reason — it’s never good. I know it was handy when I was a journalist. Never a good thing to show an interview subject — like a convicted murderer — that you’re terrified to shake his hand.

Blank expressions can be useful when you don’t want your feelings to show. But the trouble is, they often reflect a blankness inside, an inability to feel what you feel. When I rode Molly over the obstacles of a cross-country course, I suppressed all the fear. But when we crossed the finish line, the feeling of accomplishment was incredible. My smile could not be suppressed.

As I say, emotional health begins with awareness to how we cope with emotions. And maybe we get stuck in places we don’t need to be, because the emotions themselves aren’t the enemy.

What we fear are the reactions of those around us who may discount our fear as “bad.” Probably because they do the same thing, hide their fear under layers of protection.

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