“I am not a man, and I am not a beast. I am as shapely as the man on the moon”
– Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I’ll never forget sitting with my big brother watching the movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As a boy, the movie touched my young heart in ways I did not understand until adulthood. You see those words that Quasimodo spoke to the beautiful women who cared for him could have been spoken by me. I’ll bet they could be spoken by you as well.
Growing up I thought I had a big head, was too dark, too fat and was embarrassed when someone said I had big lips. The meaning to me was that my lips were over-sized and might eventually suffocate me. Bottom line, I thought I was wrong, abnormal, unattractive and unlikely to succeed in life even if I did try. Nevertheless, I learned to perform. Developing the traits others complimented me on. Apparently I was funny and entertaining. I could dance better than the rest and I had a good personality. That’s what others said anyway so I became that.
Masking what I felt inside became an art and a skill.
In high school no one knew if I liked a girl and certainly the girl would never find out from me! You see I could entertain them and make them laugh even dance with them. But I would never put myself in a position to hear the words that might penetrate my self-protecting performance. Words that say you’re not good enough. Words that might confirm my greatest fears and misconceptions. That I was not a man. I was a hideous beast. That is unless I wore the mask of kindness, accommodation and entertainment.
Fast forward to my becoming an NBA mascot. The mask of performance I developed became a real mask. It was not by my own doing as I would never have auditioned for such a job. Do you honestly think someone who was concerned about self-image would ever wear a costume? There no way I would ever have risked public ridicule by wearing a costume. For me it just happened. It was part accident and part miraculous. The Gorilla’s story is told in other places so suffice it to say, “all things work together.”
So here I was, a professional mask wearer. Others invested in my masquerade. The popularity of this new persona was birthed from a lifelong love of dance, comedy, basketball and self-protection. The man inside remained anonymous. Just like I was growing up. Yet the new persona had power. I could demand instead of request. I could initiate instead of wait. (I’ve worked with a lot of athletes, celebs and business people who understand this) The power however, did not satisfy the inner desire for connection and a sense of belonging. It did not produce the naked confidence that says I am valuable even without the mask of performance or self-protection.
I walked away. In the middle of a six-figure income and popularity. I walked away. It was for me the most courageous thing I have ever done. In the face of many saying we love The Gorilla , you can’t just walk away from it! When I did this I was also walking away from the young man who lived in self-protection. The invisible mask of pride and social performance was about to be peeled back. It didn’t happen all at once. As a matter of fact it is an incredible journey of authentic living that finds meaning in every moment. Where my eyes are open and my breaths are full. You see it’s hard to breathe with a mask. Whether real or invisible and I wore them both, it is hard to breathe.
Now I invite you and others to journey with me, unveiling what lies beneath the imaginary beast. The beast of self-consciousness which inhibits our personality. The beast of arrogance which grows from pride. The beast of shame which prevents connectedness and intimacy. Unmasking reveals a new life being valued nakedly without the mask of performance and self-protection.. A journey where life is lived to its fullest and self-deprecating lies are put to rest. Where performance is intentional and soulful but kept in perspective. Performance is a spectacular gift and skill. A dramatic role played out for the enjoyment of our self and others. It is a fantastic display of human expression and accomplishment. Nevertheless it should never define who we are. We are not pro athletes, doctors, executives, housewives or the homeless. My friends you are not an addict or a diagnosis! We were created with incredible intrinsic worth. A value greater than the imagination and loved nakedly without our masks! Unveil, breathe and feel free to live.