Master of Disguise

by Joanie Butman

The Christmas season can be a struggle for many who feel anything but merry. Life doesn’t stop just because it’s December, and neither does suffering. Even Mary and Joseph had a rough time. He's engaged to a woman who gets pregnant and claims the baby is God's son. Try wrapping your head around that one. Then they find themselves far from home, Mary in labor and no place to stay. Yet, even though their circumstances seemed bleak, they experienced a joy beyond anything we can imagine.

Life is precarious, and there is no shortage of plights that can befall us. It might be your first Christmas after losing a spouse, parent or child, you may have just lost your home to a storm or to the bank, maybe you just received a scary diagnosis or a pinkslip at work, it could be an addiction, or perhaps you are struggling with depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is prevalent this time of year. In fact, for victims of this malady Merry Christmas is the ultimate oxymoron.

During the holidays, the pressure to be jolly is overwhelming regardless of how you feel inside. For that reason many of us choose to hide behind a façade of joviality. For years I was a Master of Disguise. My past struggles with depression weren’t seasonal (I love the holidays), but there are plenty of melancholy Christmas songs that could melt down the jolliest of revelers. I was decorating this week and  I'll Have a Blue Christmas Without You and I'll Be Home for Christmas came on back-to-back. That should be illegal! I couldn't help but think of a friend whose child was just deployed, another who recently lost her husband and a family who just lost their wife and mother. Considering their heartache brought tears to my eyes. It also made me wonder how many of those forced smiles at holiday parties are hiding pain that no one else can see.

This may seem like a non sequitur, but bear with me. My bible group is studying Deuteronomy this year. Despite the myriad of instructions the Israelites were given, all of them circle back to one that is shared universally regardless of religion: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” AND “Love your neighbor as yourself.”All else flows from this one command. Sounds simple, but to anyone who suffers from low self-esteem or depression, that seems like a ridiculous instruction. No one would want to be loved like that. During bouts of depression, how could anyone possibly obey that command the way it was intended? When you feel unlovable, it is a challenge to do anything other than go through the motions. During times when I was weighed downed by depression, I carried around so many grievances against myself it was like pulling a U-Haul behind me everyday. No wonder I was cranky and exhausted. How could I believe someone could love me in my wretched state? I couldn’t, so I became the original Master of Disguise.

Like Eric in The Phantom of Opera, we all wear masks attempting to disguise our various deformities fearing that if people knew the real us they couldn’t possibly love us. Our masks (as well as our deformities) may not be as obvious as Eric’s, and they’re all different (masks of arrogance, intellect, humor, efficiency, helpfulness, etc.), but they all serve the same purpose: not to let anyone see the real us because, for many , the more real we become, the more unlovable we become – or so we think.

Just ask my family how “real” I can get sometimes and how unlovable I am in those moments. But when I leave the house, I am on my best behavior. When my kids were young and I would send them on play dates, it was always with this admonition: “Remember your manners!!” In other words, “Don’t act like you do at home.”

Do you remember the Beatles’ song, Eleanor Rigby? When describing her, Paul McCartney sings, “Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for?” This is a vivid illustration of the mask(s) we choose to go through life wearing. We don them every time we leave the house. Makes you wonder, “Who is it for?” Is it really for others, or are we trying in vain to fool ourselves?

Within our own homes is probably as close to real as we get, but even there I choose to keep some things hidden. For as long as I can remember, my husband has been trying to find out my SAT scores, which by the way, are going to the grave with me. Most women hide their age. I hide my SAT scores. We all have our vanities. Anyway, why are they so important to him? Would they change his opinion of me? Maybe, maybe not. What is more revealing is my refusal to disclose them. Somehow, I must think my scores, which I honestly can’t recall because they weren’t very memorable, are a reflection of something I’d rather he not see. That at some level I didn’t make the grade - literally.

Fortunately, God doesn’t view us in this way. First of all, we can’t hide anything from Him. He already knows my scores and ones far more important than the SATs; and believe me, far worse. Thankfully though, because of His grace, these scores won’t go to the grave with me. Anyway, the point is, He knows all our flaws yet loves us anyway. For me, it is this love that adds the Merry to Christmas because Christmas is the ultimate manifestation of God’s love. Even though life is precarious, God's love is not. That constancy is something we can all be joyful about despite our circumstances.

With that understanding comes a true sense of peace. Before I was able to transfer that truth from my head to my heart, I realized I had never felt truly loved. Yes, I knew my parents loved me and my husband loved me and even my kids – sometimes. However, these were conditional love. To be honest, my parents and my children didn’t really have a choice – they were stuck with me for better or worse. Regardless, to some extent this kind of love depends on how one behaves at any given moment. All of them at some point, if they’re like the rest of us, entertained wishes (sometimes silently, sometimes loudly) that they could change some aspect of my personality. If only you could be more obedient, more loving, more academic, more agreeable, more patient or on the flipside, less angry, less bossy, less anal, or here’s a good one, less RELIGIOUS – whatever it is THEY would want to see in me or not see in me. Of course, my own list of If Only’s is longer than Santa’s Naughty and Nice List; but blessedly, God doesn’t have any If Only’s. For Him it’s an “as-is” love.

My mother used to tell me I would never be able to truly love someone until I learned to love myself. Unfortunately, like most things she told me when I was young, I didn’t believe her. I thought if I could just convince someone else to love me that would make me more lovable in my own eyes. Now that I am older and wiser, I understand the wisdom of her statement. It is impossible to have a healthy relationship while hoarding feelings of self-loathing. If you don’t feel worthy of someone’s love, you are always suspicious of that love. If you made a wrong move, it would disappear. If they got a glimpse of the real you, they’d run the other way. It’s difficult to trust a love you don’t think you’re worth because you never see yourself through the other person’s eyes, only your own.

I recently read about a sociologist named Charles Cooley. He is known for introducing a theory called the “Looking Glass Self” in 1902. ”According to Cooley, the way we think about ourselves is formed in large part by what we think the most important people in our lives think about us. In other words: I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.” Wow, that’s a mouthful.

Here’s the challenge: choosing to believe we are what God thinks we are – trusting that God loves us in our “as-is” state. Choosing to see ourselves through His eyes instead of our own. There’s no need for masks here. I laugh when I think of the first game of hide-and-seek in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve hid in shame. What were they thinking? That the God that created the world and everything in it wouldn’t be able to see them behind that bush? The moment we choose to stop trying to hide is when we will be bathed in a love so healing all of our deformities melt away. We can become what He sees. The realization of the kind of love God has for us creates a peace that cannot compare to any worldly love. It transcends your circumstances. That feeling is the peace every Christmas card trumpets – and with good reason. It is something to celebrate.

And the best part about God’s love is that it’s even more evident in our unlovable moments than the good ones. When everyone else can no longer tolerate us, when all our masks have been stripped away, He is there. And it’s in that place that I found my peace, where God’s love finally reached my heart.

Even though all my deformities seem to melt away in the warmth of God’s love, in reality, they are regrettably still there. However, I no longer need my menagerie of masks because my faults are no longer my focus. Life is so much easier when you are not trying so hard to prove to yourself and everyone else that you are worthy. Since choosing God’s love as my foundation, loving others and even myself has become second nature. When you are the recipient of such grace, you can’t help but share it with others. And the more you give, the merrier you get.

Nevertheless, even though God’s love is a gift you can’t earn, you do have to choose to accept it to appreciate its true value. Its worth can only be measured in the effect it has on your life and in the lives of those you touch. The Christmas season is an excellent time to ponder this statement, “God’s love is His gift to us, how we choose to respond to it is our gift to Him.”

Let’s face it, holidays are stressful – especially for moms who have the responsibility of creating family traditions and memories. Trying to maintain or find our joy amidst the Christmas Crazies is an important choice in how we reach the New Year. May God’s peace and love saturate your soul this holiday season so that the smile you wear will be an authentic expression of the joy and peace that comes from opening God’s gift, not just on Christmas morning but every morning of the year.

As a postscript, I just want to clarify something. The birth of Christ changed everything and nothing at the same time. Mary and Joseph were still in a pickle. In fact, now they were fugitives from Herod as well, which is how they eventually ended up in Nazareth after hiding in Egypt for a couple of years. Nazareth wasn't some cushy suburb either. Even one of the apostles declared, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” I am not a Pollyanna though I have often been accused of being one. Availing yourself of God’s love won’t necessarily change your circumstances, but it will change how you choose to deal with them. As always, it's your choice.