Imagine that you are invited to a masquerade ball.
You spend weeks deciding upon a costume for the event. Should you dress up as royalty? As a villain? As someone famous? As an angel?
You eventually settle on a costume, and go to the ball. There you find hundreds of other people, dressed in the widest variety of outfits. The party is all in good fun, and you play through the night in your chosen role.
Then, around midnight, a strange thing happens. Everyone in the costume ball suddenly falls asleep. When they awake, their memories have vanished. Where am I? everyone asks. And silently, they wonder: Who am I?
People look around the room, and begin to sort out the situation. Over there is someone dressed in gold finery, with a crown. She must be the queen of this place. And look at him over there – he has knives and swords. He must be dangerous. And look at that one: she looks like some sort of animal. Maybe she's crazy.
There's a great scramble. People flock to the "good" people, away from the "bad" ones. Some of the good people bravely begin to round up the bad ones, using the weapons at their disposal. For a while there's a chaotic melee. Eventually, after a struggle, things settle down. The bad people are subdued, and they sit – tied together – in the middle of the room.
Then, abruptly, part of a man's costume falls away, and a woman cries out. "Wait," she says, "I remember now. That pirate – he's my husband. He isn't really a pirate." The memories begin to return. "She isn't a queen – she's just dressed that way. And he's no priest, I'll tell you that."
As the costumes come off, people begin to remember their true relationships. "I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you," they say as they untie their friends and family. "Please forgive me – I forgot who you were." "I don't know what came over me."
The party-goers shake their heads at the strange turn of events. They tear off their costumes as they walk out of the party, concerned that they might forget again.
"How easily we are fooled," remarks a man as he tosses away a mask. "A little cardboard, a little paint, and our loved ones are gone."
As strange as this story sounds, it's similar to what happens in this world.
Each of us comes into the world without a stable human persona. Then, as we "mature," we work to "find ourselves." This usually means that we try out a variety of worldly roles, until we find one that feels comfortable.
The problem is that these roles are as flimsy as costumes at a ball. If we were to recognize this, we could have a bit of fun. But like the partygoers who fall asleep and confuse themselves with their roles, we tend to forget who we really are.
Let me give a personal example of this. When I was in college, I considered myself a student. After that I saw myself as a spiritual seeker, and a writer. Then a businessman, a writer again, a teacher, and so on.
The problem is that a student has to study – otherwise, his identity begins to fall apart. A seeker needs to seek. A writer needs to write. A businessman needs to make money; a teacher needs students.
So there was a great deal of pressure that arose from these roles. When I was twenty-one years old, and my time in college ran out, I fell into a panic. I was a student! And there were no more classes! What would happen to my identity? It was rather terrifying.
Almost immediately, I made the shift to writing. But what happened when a writing project was done? I couldn't exactly be a writer unless I was writing, right? I became almost manic in my pursuit of new writing projects.
And so on. The deeper I identified with my worldly roles, the more pressure I felt to strengthen them. It was like being at the masquerade ball, and finding that my costume was continually falling away. I had to be constantly vigilant to keep it all together – constantly reinforcing the stitching and the buttons. What a horror to lose one's costume!
The other problem with this dynamic was that everyone became distanced from me. I was a student, after all; but he was an executive. We couldn't possibly have much in common. I was a spiritual seeker; she had no interest in spiritual things. Might as well not talk. I was a writer; they barely read anything at all. What a waste of time, trying to connect.
The roles were all that mattered. The costumes were the thing. As I slipped into this confusion, I became very isolated. There came a time when I felt all alone in the world.
What I didn't realize was that I was being fooled by the masquerade. The student, the spiritual seeker, the writer – these were nothing but roles. They were not who I was. The executive, the agnostic, the non-reader – these were costumes as well. Regardless of how strongly people identified with them, they were merely thin coverings, ready to fall away.
Until I began to consider this, I never thought to look deeper.
What Lies Beneath
To offer another example of this idea, imagine that you have a young child whom you love. He invites you to attend his school play. You sit in the audience, watching the play unfold, until – there, dressed up as a ferocious lion, is your child.
You grin widely, delighted to see him up on stage. As he plays out his role, you see him for what he is – not a lion, but your beloved son. He's dressed as a lion, of course – and he growls and prances around like one. But you're not fooled for a minute. What your eyes show you doesn't deceive your heart.
This is what happens as we begin to look past our worldly costumes and roles. He looks like your political nemesis. She seems like a threat. He might be your ticket to happiness. She appears powerful and bold.
But this is all just a play of roles. Beneath the costumes is something that transcends them all. As we begin to treat the surface wrappings like the flimsy coverings that they are, we begin to catch a glimpse of what lies beneath.
For a moment, our hearts are touched by a flash of beauty – perhaps we see it in a friend or family member; perhaps a stranger. But for a moment, we find a glimmer of something that we didn't know was there.
For a moment, there's a shimmering of glory that makes the costume seem ridiculous. It might be gone an instant later, but we saw it. And we can see it again. As we let our vision be led past the outer trappings, the light within begins to emerge.