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Mask On, Mask Off

When people find out you write, they will not infrequently ask who inspires you. They expect you to say someone who writes, most especially someone who writes the same way you write. I can come up with some of those, if you really need them, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth.

First, it’s not a fair question.  Who inspires me to what? To write? Nothing. I don’t write because I’m inspired. I don’t write because I want to imitate someone or because I have something to say (at least, not all the time). I write for the same reason I chew food. Because it’s how I break down what life serves up. Some people inspire me to write better, or to write more, but those weren’t actually the questions.

What inspires…me?

The answer changes. Sometimes more often than the point of view in a Terry Pratchett novel. But right now, the winner of the Kimberly Emerson Inspiration Sweepstakes is Malcolm Gladwell.

On a recent trip, I listened to his 2013 work David & Goliath. A friend of mine recently got to hear him speak live (still SO JEALOUS, Kris) and recommended its alternate take on what constitutes an advantage in life. Spoiler alert: Mr. Gladwell loves to mess with your head. Not the false friend I’m sure he’d be into you if you were just totally different kind of messing. No, this is more like a talented masseur applying brain shiatsu. It might feel weird at times, but afterwards, your thought processes have more flexibility.

Cutting to the chase, Mr. Gladwell thinks we’ve gotten too stuck on one perspective. Sure, we might buy into the theory that we all have strengths, somewhere down deep. But what if our weaknesses can be channeled into strengths? What if our worst experiences have filled us with hidden resources just waiting to be tapped?

Like karate for the mind.

The trick here is not to get tangled up in the equivalence theory. Mr. Gladwell does not pretend that the advantage gained necessarily makes the pain worth it. He just figures if you have to go through the bad stuff, you deserve to find whatever good there is in it.

After listening to this, my brain prepared. Wax on, wax off. What are some of the worst experiences I’ve been through, and how have they shaped me? In what ways might I be better off for them? What things am I really, really good at that I’ve never considered as strengths before?

Only one strength came to mind. I’m told that I listen well. Not all the time. (Mom is probably remembering a certain deafness about dishes needing to be done.) Not always when it would benefit me. But since I was very young, people came to talk to me about things they wouldn’t tell everyone else. They asked my advice on topics I didn’t know at all.

The big challenge in my life, of course, has been depression. I’ve said it many times and I’ll probably say it a few dozen more while I’m still breathing: I wouldn’t wish depression on my worst enemy. That isn’t hyperbole. I believe that with all my heart and soul. How could something good come from that?

Like most people dealing with depression, I spent a lot of time trying to cover. People freak out or at best say unhelpful things when they hear the dark stuff going through your head, so you learn to hide it. You develop your own societal mask with an acceptably cheerful expression painted on it. Getting to the therapist’s office once in a week got to be my favorite moment, because it was the only time I could take the mask completely off.


Working so hard at wearing that mask, though, made me aware of something I’d completely missed before: everyone else was wearing a mask, too.

It was my own personal moment of walking into the Matrix, seeing all those fake faces and the shaking hands pushing them back into place again and again. Some people wore them in public, but would take them off around people they trusted. Others would shake theirs off in defiance only to shove them right back on again afterwards and act like nothing had happened. A few had tied them on so tightly that they’d almost forgotten the mask wasn’t actually part of their face. It hurt to see those people.

As I played through my personal game of Depression Parcheesi, I found more times to stop wearing my mask. I still have it, and much as I dislike it, sometimes I still put it on. Most everyone does, for at least a little while. I have a few friends that I think tossed theirs on a land mine somewhere, and they are the people around whom I feel the most comfortable. I want to be like that. I want to be so completely at peace that it pervades the air around me and makes everyone I meet feel more comfortable in their own skin.

When I told a therapist that people have a tendency to confide in me, she said, “You must be a good listener.” Except that I’m not, always. I don’t magically have the right thing to say and my advice is not always stellar (often because I try not to offer any). She reminded me that most of the time, though, people don’t really want solutions. They just want to feel like they’ve been heard. And when you’re around someone who makes you feel like you can take the mask off – people can really hear you. It’s amazing how powerful that feeling is.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why some people tell me their deepest darkest secrets, and then never talk to me again. That much reality can be scary.

What’s your superpower? What did the deepest parts of hell bring you?

Kimberly wishes all of you a shattered mask.


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