Bad news first:
It’s school picture day and you forgot to get haircuts for the kids and their only collared shirt is sitting in a smelly heap on the laundry room floor and yesterday they were running and they sprawled head-first on the driveway and now it looks like somebody ran over their face with a cheese grater.
Of course they did.
They always get wounded above the neck the week before picture day.
But now the “good news”:
You are looking at the school picture order form and discover you can erase almost all evidence of childhood by paying $12 for the “Premium Retouching” package. It “Whitens teeth, evens skin tone, and removes blemishes and scars!”
I’m not making this up:
In my kids’ school, for a few bucks, you can remove almost all signs of life. For a few bucks, you can put an electronic mask on the broken and wounded and complicated and messy and tender and vulnerable and lovely humanity of a child.
The Masks We Wear
But what will happen when the picture comes home and the kid sees his or her pristine face and wonders where his road rash went or why she can’t see in the picture the scar she sees in the mirror every day? Deep down he or she is going to know what happened. They’re going to hear the silent message loud and clear:
You’re not good enough the way you are. Hide your nicks and scratches. Hide your signs of life. Pretty yourself up. Only perfection is acceptable. Go ahead, wear your Halloween mask this week, but when you take it off, put on a mask of an entirely different kind.
Put on the mask of perfection. Put on the mask of safety and hide your original, beautiful, wounded face away beneath layers of protection and pretending.
Every year, when the order form arrives, I get angry at the institutionalized shame. Every year, I get on my high horse. But this year, several nights after picture day, I got knocked off of my high horse by the whispered goodnight conversation of a ten-year old boy.
When We Take Them Off
I arrive home late on the evening of my son’s first group guitar lesson. The house is dark and quiet but he’s awake in bed as I tiptoe into his room. I’m worried because he’s the youngest, least-experienced guitarist in his class. I’m worried he’ll act immaturely and be rejected. I’m worried he won’t be able to keep up with the more skilled players.
Suddenly, I’m the one who wants to purchase a “retouching package.” I’m the one who wants to make my son pristine. I’m the one who wants to erase all evidence of imperfection from his life.
It’s the way I feel when my daughter dresses herself in striped pink leggings, a multi-colored checkered shirt, old sandals over wooly socks and a big brown headband, and I worry about kids judging her and parents judging me. It’s the way I feel when one of my children melts down in the supermarket and our real face is revealed to everyone around us. It’s the way I feel when my kids fight in a restaurant and my family’s real face is revealed in flying bits of pancake.
At messy times like that, I’m the one who wants a mask to hide our imperfections.
So, I walk into his bedroom and he rolls over to look at me and I can see his white-toothed smile beaming in the shadows and he gushes, “The other kids are way better than me, so I made a ton of mistakes. It’s going to be a huge challenge, but I’m going to learn so much.”
My son tells me he picked up some road rash and no “retouching” is required.
I reflect to him, “Sounds like you’re okay with making mistakes in the group lesson?”
He looks at me like I’m crazy, and he says, “Of course I am. Last year Mrs. Stephenson taught us that mistakes are a part of us and that’s totally okay because we’ll get better at them.”
Our mistakes are a part of us.
And that’s okay.
We’ll get better at them.
Daddy, I’m not perfect. I’m going to make mistakes and the world is going to see my nicks and my scratches, but no worries, my face is good enough.
No masks necessary, Daddy.
Born Again Without a Mask
Mumford and Sons sing,
“I know my weakness, know my voice,
and I believe in grace and choice.
And I know perhaps my heart is fast,
but I’ll be born without a mask.”
I wonder what would happen if a generation of parents said, “This is enough. Because my child is good enough, just the way they are. They were born without a mask, and they will live without a mask. The Halloween of our shame is over.”
Scratch that. Because we can’t do that for our children until we can do it for ourselves.
I wonder what would happen if we all said, “Enough. Because I am good enough. Today, for a moment or two, I’m going to take off my mask, and I’m going to look in the mirror and I’m going to behold my original, messy, lovely face staring back at me.”
I think it would be a moment of honesty and weakness. A moment of freedom. A moment in which we find our true voice. A moment in which we fall into the arms of grace and know we’re okay, just the way we are.
I think it would feel like meeting an old friend, long forgotten beneath the layers of time and hiding. I think it would be like coming home to a place where the light is always on.
And I think our days might begin to feel a lot less like Halloween, and a lot more like Christmas morning, as we discover the gifts we are beneath the masks we wear.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.