Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.

   ~ Alan Watts ~

Scraggly. The dictionary definition of the word is: “irregular; uneven; jagged” or “shaggy; ragged; unkempt.” The word and its associated definitions describe my mustache and beard rather well. But even after three weeks of evidence that my facial follicles are insufficiently dense to form an attractive mat of hair, I continue to shun shaving those portions of my face. Shaving only my neck and the sides of my face is much faster than shaving also including the now-bearded portions in the process. But as my whiskers get longer, they tend to cause me to notice aspects of my face that I never noticed before. By “notice,” I mean “feel” or “be conscious of” or “pay attention to.” Before the presence of whiskers, I paid no heed to my upper lip; it was there, but it did not regularly announce itself and ask me to direct my attention there. Ditto my chin. They were present, but they required nothing of me. Now, though, both pieces of facial real estate regularly say, in effect, “hey, I’m here…can you feel me?” For some men, growing a mustache and/or beard is a way of making a fashion statement; their facial hair is adequately thick and the hair’s color is sufficiently different from the skin that its noticeable. In my case (so far), growing my facial hair is simply a way to avoid part of one of the time-consuming elements of daily life: shaving. My beard is too thin and its color, salt & sand, to close to my skin tone to be noticeable. It is NOT a fashion statement. My beard does not scream, “This here male person beneath the testosterone mat is one bad-ass macho mother!”  It sort of whispers, “S’up? I’ve given up shaving, for the most part, ’cause, like, I’m too lazy to shave much and I don’t really care whether I look like I take shelter in cardboard boxes when it rains.” I may keep the beard going for a while. I may shave it off. Who knows? I’m not especially decisive right now.


We have no idea what goes on in the lives of many of the people with whom we associate on a regular basis. Most of us tend to segment our lives: work, home, friends…some kinds of boundaries that might blend a bit at the edges, but that otherwise are distinct and intentionally separate.

A young married woman who worked for me many years ago had a brief affair with a foreign guy who lived in his home country but visited the U.S. at least once or twice a year. I think the affair lasted a little more than a year, but it was brief in that the two of them were physically together only twice, as far as I know. But it is my understanding that they communicated with one another by mail rather regularly during that roughly one year period (this was before email, etc.). Though the young woman was “happily” married, more or less, I got the impression she had gotten married without having much romantic experience; that lack of experience left her wondering what she missed by making such a commitment at a rather young age. (This is supposition, by the way; she and I never talked about what prompted her exploration.) At any rate, the extra-marital relationship eventually dissolved; by mutual consent, I think. And the woman remains married to her one and only husband, today. They have two adult children who have children of their own. As far as I know, my employee’s husband never knew about his wife’s venture into infidelity. I learned about it only by accident, when I came across a letter she had written but had not yet mailed. The letter mentioned “our long-distance love affair.” There’s considerably more to this tale, but most of it is irrelevant (as has been what I’ve written so far). I do not know why this is on my mind this morning. Yet it is and it causes me to think that such stuff probably goes on far more frequently than most of us know.

This situation involved a “normal” person whose behavior would never have suggested she would have been involved in an affair outside marriage. How many people in our lives carry secrets about themselves or their lives that we would find astonishing, if we only knew? Is the bank clerk with whom you interact regularly involved in a custody battle over her children? Does the grocery store manager have a second wife, one about whom you were unaware, in another town? Has the restaurant owner filed charges of domestic violence against her wife? Is the little old lady down the street required to register as a sex offender? Has your next-door neighbor successfully avoided detection and capture for twenty-five years following her robbery of an armored car service? What about you? Do you have secrets? Can you keep a secret for twenty or thirty or forty years? And what if the secret got out? Would your family and friends reject you? Would you suddenly find yourself isolated and shunned by the people in your support network?

Mi novia and I occasionally comment to one another that people can never really know other people. I think that’s a true statement. We think we know people when, suddenly, we learn something so out of character—so completely surprising—that we realize we know only as much as others are willing to share. And we have to then wonder about ourselves. Are there parts of ourselves that we intentionally or subconsciously hide because we think those secrets would put us in a different and utterly unfavorable light? And do we sometimes hide those secrets even from ourselves? Am I capable of robbing an armored car? Could I be embroiled in a long-distance love affair? Does the persona I present to the world represent the real person who lives behind my mask?

The idea that we cannot ever really know people—including ourselves—is jarring. How can we be certain of anything when we cannot even be certain of who we are?


God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.

   ~ William Shakespeare ~

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Masquerade

  1. says:

    Youthfulness post will keep my memory machine going all day.

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