Last week in a writing session I offered for staff at the local hospital, we used a prompt inspired by the wonderful poet David Whyte who wrote, “…as human beings, we have this extraordinary ability… to be someone else and to hang a mask in front of our real identity.”

I asked the participants to identify their own mask and what allows them to remove it.

Maybe because we were sitting in a conference room of a hospital or maybe because I had just oriented as an on-call chaplain the day before, the word mask conjured the kind worn in the presence of someone contagious or susceptible to infection. While a mask typically conceals identity, in some contexts a mask doesn’t detract from  authenticity; it preserves it.

I recalled an afternoon spent in a women’s prison over twenty years ago, with an artist friend who led a group of women in a creative activity centered around masks. Jen brought unpainted plaster forms that each woman could decorate to express some aspect of herself she concealed. As part of the activity, after the women finished embellishing their masks, each one shared what it represented. The truth-telling in that room led many of us to tears. It was the act of holding a mask in front of a face and speaking through it that allowed these dozen or so women whose lives were invisible to most of the world, to be seen more fully—by themselves and those of us bearing witness to what they revealed.

Ironically, the women were not allowed to keep their mask due to security concerns so they displayed them on a bulletin board in the classroom with the warden’s admonishment that if one mask went missing they would all be destroyed.

When I returned to the prison the following week, I gazed at the masks—the glitter and glimmer of sensibilities, the black and blue paint of one punctuated by tears. Sequins and feathers festooned another. Each told a story or many—in cryptic form.

We all need skin to survive, and in northern climes, clothes. Too much vulnerability will kill us. Not enough will do the same. If we hide behind masks all the time, we develop no immunity or resistance, not just to germs, but to scorn and misunderstanding, reckless judgment and wanton dismissal. If we don masks that protect us from deadly bacteria and lethal forms of hate, we can survive long enough to inhabit some measure of authenticity. If we learn how to fashion masks that enhance our true identity or preserve it, the masks function like the fan of iridescent color a peacock displays to attract a mate. Blue-green tail feathers declare essential nature.

For the women relegated to prison, their daily uniform consisted of varying shades of vulnerability. Each morning as they awoke, before they slipped into Department of Corrections-issued undergarments, shirts and jeans, their collective anonymity paradoxically rendered them fully exposed. To be able to hold up a plaster form augmented with colors and textures they chose, to express a truth about themselves they wanted to tell, created the kind of vulnerability that humanizes and connects. It happens in the absence of hostility, predation, or judgement and it flourishes in the presence of respect, recognition and reciprocity.

If we mask our vulnerability to protect ourselves from infection, we enhance well-being. If we wear a mask to avoid exposing the fullness of who we are or what matters, we diminish ourselves. If our masks reveal deeper truths than we might say without them, they serve us well.