Yet another birthday has come and gone, but months ago my wife Marla asked me where I would like to spend my special day. I told her that a casual stroll through The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park was my wish, and she cleared our schedule and made arrangements. Traveling by train and taxi to New York last week, on Tuesday we walked up the museum steps into the Great Hall on Fifth Avenue. Inside the building is an imposing and larger-than-life collection of treasures. Exploring the museum, we visited galleries of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, artifacts, bronzes, tapestries, and textiles. They came from around the globe and represented various cultures spanning ancient Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, Pre-Columbian Mexico, Pacific Islands, United States, Hellenistic Greece, and the Roman Empire.
I’ve walked through this museum many times before – when I was a student at the Naval Academy, with Marla early on in our marriage, years later with our two young daughters, but I notice something new every visit. This time, I felt like I noticed more masks in all the diverse exhibits that it started to feel like a theme. These masks covered over a millennium of time – it seemed like innumerable cultures incorporated masks into their society and their art. Ancient Egyptians painted mummy masks for burial; the Romans shaped intimidating bronze masks for their cavalry soldiers to instill fear in their enemy during combat; dancing Pacific islanders wore facial masks of turtle shell, wood and feathers to fend off evil spirits; and a group in Africa shaped a lifelike facial mask of their tribal heroine as a tribute to her societal contribution. What did it mean, that this decoration seems to dominate this particular visit to the Museum, on my birthday?
Reflecting on my own experience with masks, my first inclination was that it was very limited – used only for an occasional holiday like Halloween and Mardi Gras. I did not fulfill my childhood wish to become the Lone Ranger and wear a mask everyday. It was with these thoughts on my mind that we left the Museum, and entered the subway to travel to Times Square. Compared to the quiet of the Museum, it was jarring to be on a crowded train with strangers and then on one of the most heavily trafficked blocks in the city. Passing by a homeless person asking for coins and a countless stream of tourists and business people, a connection formed between my quiet time uptown and my current situation. I was wearing masks, a new one with every face I saw. Whether it was indifference or inaccessibility, there was a barrier between me and the people around me.
Once I realized I was wearing various masks, I began to see masks on others as well. Everyone wears them, not unlike the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans, and the Pacific Islanders from ancient times. Whether it’s to seek protection, practice intimidation, or show celebration, our masks are not objects that can be hung on museum walls, but are no less real. As I get older and learn more about myself, I had yet another discovery during my time in New York City on my birthday about how easily I slip on a mask. My hope is that by the time the calendar returns to another birthday I might be more open to greater thoughtfulness and vulnerability by taking off my mask and finding people as they find me, looking them in the eye and offering them attention they deserve.
Alan Baker is Principal of Strategic Foundations and ministered in the Navy and Marine Corps as a chaplain. He now serves Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as an adjunct faculty member, and Senior Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy.