Words by Al Blanton | Image by Ryan McGill
My four-year-old son has two Theodores in his life.
The first is the real Theodore, who is our 1 ½-year-old goldendoodle. The second is “Stuffed Theodore,” a stuffed animal who looks just like the real Theodore and has a blue collar.
Stuffed Theodore goes everywhere with my son: to church, the ballpark, and school.
At home, my son, Joshua, is super-comfortable and at ease. He is free to dance, put on performances (he has his own top hat for this), act silly, roll around on the floor, create conversations with his toys, and just be a boy. I have seen the flowering of his personality, and he is remarkably comfortable in his own skin.
But I often see a much different Joshua when I introduce him to adults. In some instances, he is apprehensive to even walk over, and when the person begins talking, Joshua puts Stuffed Theodore in front of his face and wags his hind legs—almost as if Joshua is talking through Stuffed Theodore.
It’s really sweet and cute, and I try to encourage him. I am not concerned about this shyness; I believe it is typical for many four-year-olds, and he will eventually grow out of it.
What makes me sad, though, is that, particularly if the encounter is fleeting, folks don’t get to see the Joshua I see. To me, the real Joshua is seen when he’s had time to warm up to you, when his guard is down and there is no need to talk through a stuffed animal.
What a beautiful tapestry God has created in the form of my son!
I suppose adults do the same thing. We walk around with masks in front of our faces in public, but then we drop our guards down when we get home.
Out in public, we often feel like we must “perform.” How easily I hop into this character at the bank, the post office, and on social media. I project the Al that I want the world to see, but when I walk through the doors of my home, I take the mask off.
A counselor once told me that we begin to build these masks to show to the world when we are children. We are born our true selves, but as we bump up against the world, we begin to construct false selves to gain respect, to feel like we matter, to be more lovable, and, yes, likable. As time passes, we continue to gravitate away from that boy or girl we once were, our true selves, and construct identities that reflect how the world responds to us and what it gives us.
In the book Scary Close, author Donald Miller wrote, “Somebody once told me we will never feel loved until we drop the act, until we’re willing to show our true selves to the people around us.”
Miller says throughout his life, he believed he only mattered if he was smart or funny, and he has struggled with the person who lived inside of him. We have an intense desire to be validated—as Miller says, “a person worth loving”—and often, this distorts our sense of self-value.
“I began to wonder what life would be like if I dropped the act and began to trust that being myself would be enough to get the love I needed,” Miller wrote.
My friend Greg Tinker developed a concept that I commandeered for my use in Bible circles and men’s groups. It’s called “Live One Life,” and it is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. In other words, be the exact same person in private as you are in public; if someone were to have a window into your personal life, they’d see the same person they see walking around in broad daylight.
As I write these words, I realize that this concept does not just apply to the geographical location where we find ourselves. It’s about, as Miller says, “being the same person on the inside that we are on the outside.” It means dropping the mask and finding our true selves, devoid of pretense, performance, and shame. It means realizing the beautiful tapestry that God has created in you. It means dropping the pressure of having to perform all the time. It means not having to project a certain image on social media so the world can validate our worth.
So, rest in you. Get rid of the mask.
There’s a person behind it that’s more valuable than you could ever imagine. WL