When I was 10, my family and I lived in rural Pennsylvania. I had three siblings and we made our own fun. We climbed trees, made friends with spiders, and played with the neighbor’s horse until the fence broke and it almost stepped on my baby brother. We mostly played outside to stay out of trouble, but inside could be equally entertaining. There were inside rules—no running, quiet voices, no bouncy ball—which were sometimes circumvented, but almost universally obeyed.
Explore This IssueJune 2019
One day, left to my own devices, 10-year-old me disobeyed one of the more sacrosanct decrees of my household: Thou shalt not climb on the cabinets. My need for fun eclipsed my innate desire to follow the rules and up, up, up I went. A moment basking in the glow of my success was followed by panic. My mom was on the porch and would enter the house momentarily. I jumped. White hot pain exploded in my left foot. It had landed, big toe first, in an open box of Legos. I stifled a scream and fell to the floor. “What on earth is going on?” my mom asked. “I think I stubbed my toe,” I lied.
My parents were confused as to how a stubbed toe could cause so much pain, as were the emergency department physicians who evaluated me when my agony had not subsided several hours later. However, I was now committed to my lie and kept retelling the same story. We were reassured that nothing was wrong. My stubbed big toe would heal up just fine on its own. And heal it did, only an inch shorter and fused at the proximal and distal interphalangeal joints. I am reminded of my trivial childhood decision to lie every time I put on a pair of shoes, one of which will forever either be too big or too small. It makes me wonder if the truth and a plaster cast may have been the better option. I also wonder how, without the benefit of time, wisdom, and retrospection, we can know this in advance.
For me, this is also true when it comes to the decisions we make daily. Some decisions are like a mask we put on. Ten-year-old me wanted her “good girl,” rule-following mask to stay intact more than she wanted to have her toe properly addressed. That same year, we fifth graders were eligible to join the school band. During an informational session, they told us that the flute was one of the more difficult instruments to learn. I heard nothing else; that was all I needed to know. Another layer of my mask at the time was proving that I could excel at all the difficult things. Flute it was, regardless of whether or not another instrument would have brought me more joy. The elements of our masks may be genetic, learned, taught, or arise from trauma or other experiences. They are almost always well intentioned.
However, I believe that the mask analogy isn’t entirely accurate. These things do not make up our masks; they make up our casts. They are put on to protect us or to help us move with more ease through our circumstances. There are plenty of resources available to show us how to add layers to our casts. Facebook and Instagram have taught a generation to post smiling pictures showcasing “Living Your Best Life.” The importance of this careful curation of visual snippets of your life is to project the image of who you want the world to think you are. Peeling away the layers and exposing what’s underneath is not nearly as publicized or glamorous.