Smiling Behind Masks

I was scanning lines, searching for articles in the news, trying to choose what I’d read and what I wouldn’t. The morning read. The light reading. The reading I wouldn’t quite plunge into, even if what I saw would sit on the corners of my mental bookshelves throughout the day.

I didn’t read the article but I saw a title on a page about why you should smile behind your mask. It got me to thinking about my own answers to the prompt and about the dual possibilities of wearing a mask, of being masked, and of being authentic. It got me to considering where smiles come from.

And the title prompt is a good one, no? Smile in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of a day when it’s nothing but helpful that people can’t see the twist and curve of my lips when I hear what they say, see what they do, note who they are? But does it take something away, hiding these things called smiles?

Like lots of people, I think about how these masks are more than tools to maintain health and to minimize transmission of germs. A mask is a direct way to keep from seeing and being seen. Masks keep your germs to you but they also keep you from spreading your true identity in a way.

Masks can keep you in the habit of being fake, practicing inauthenticity, accepting reality as you offer yourself in the world without the important contribution of feedback.

As much as a mask is a tool promoting real health, these masks are also complicating the already complicated practice of being and showing who you are. Don’t we have enough trouble being who we are, presenting ourselves as we are?

So smiling. Smiling is a behavioral way of responding. It’s an embodied act, a gesture, sometimes an uncontrolled one. They are reflexes of a kind. They are also interventions. Reflexes show up spontaneously. Interventions come as a result of intention. Smiles can be both.

In college, I took–and dropped at midterm–an anthropology course. It was cross listed as a gender studies course. A three hundred level thing I was not ready for in my second year at U of I. I had never heard of gender studies and wasn’t even surprised to be the only young man in the room. Even less surprised to be the only Black because, well, it wasn’t Hampton.

The professor was as tall as anyone I had ever seen and she walked with a power and grace that was curious to me. She had done work too deep for me to appreciate at the time and talked about it. She pressed her feet into the floor as she taught, moving through the room in sandals, which threw me off, because it was cold all the time in Urbana-Champaign.

I have forgotten most things from the class. As I said, I dropped the course. But one thing I remember is something she started into about smiling. She was describing the behavior in chimps, explaining that a smile was theorized as a passive, self-effacing attempt on the part of the animals. Smiling was like cowering. Smiling was an attempt at deference in the presence of some stronger chimp, some more powerful other.

Now, I like smiles. They are surprising, often reactive, things. They come when you force them and when you think nothing of them. You can smile in a way that expresses disgust. You can smile from within and show everything that needs to be seen.

They can be attempts to pass the moment quickly and to relieve pressure, perhaps like with the chimps, and smiles can anchor you so far inside joy that you use all your good and bad teeth.

I think there are questions developing in me about these smiles and these masks. Which smile am I offering behind this mask? Am I en-joying myself, finding joy inside the face and body that is restricted or not by this mask? Am I being seen for the sometimes grumpy man I am? Is the soul deep joy coming through my ears, my eyes, off my head like a little halo?

But there are other questions. Am I hiding? Am I bouncing off that fabric or paper mask the reality that I’ve created, reiterating a lie about who I am, and keeping my germs to myself? Am I, therefore, ineligible for healing? Can I be seen for any fraudulent expressions of myself, and am I finding paths to be open and real and honest and accepting of truth? Am I looking at my real face and my real self in mirrors of life that I haven’t created, those self-created mirrors that make me look better than I really am? Am I looking?

Sometimes you smile when you know you’re in the presence of greatness, of a greater person, or a greater other if you will. I wonder if you and if I can cower in the presence of the truer other in the self. I wonder if rather than living inauthentically, you might consider smiling at who you truly are. Of course, the other related inquiry is who are you?

When you know who you are, there is very little to frown about. Even behind a mask you smile because of the reactive and reflexive delight in being the person you deeply, honestly, and truly are. I think it’s the unknowing, the rejection of one’s identity, that causes the downward smile.

When you know who and where and why you are, you meet joy. A joy that cannot be taken but only given away. That means, when you know you, you’ve found happiness. How can you not smile behind the mask?

Introductions to Theology

Me and a Womanist Sister are working on a webinar for the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education where we introduce the community to Black Liberation Theology. It’s part of a series of didactics that’ll be accessible to our pastoral educators and CPE students.

The series is called 8:46 and will have 8 webinars that are 46 minutes long–in sober and theo-ethical acknowledgement of Brother Floyd’s murder and how ministers, clinicians, and leaders might nurture our work in everything from the social construction of race to the psychological implications of racism and other sins.

I’m working with a practitioner from North Carolina and we’re offering an introduction to (Black and Womanist) theology. In the preparation, I found a sentence Dr. Stephanie Mitchem wrote where she said that theology begins not in studying in the classroom but in living a life.

So I’ve begun journeying over the beginnings of theology, the origins of my own, lately. It’s resting with me that the origins provide a long shadow over the rest.

If theology begins in a word, who wrote it or spoke it or claimed its authority? If theology started in a person, was that person relatable, relatable in every way or particular ways? If discourse about the Sacred started in practices, were those practices exclusive, open, and are they relevant? The questions continue when you think and live theologically, right?

Think about yours. From where have your best understandings of the Transcendent come? How were you introduced to your “theological” world? We could keep going. These are the kinds of questions that need answers.

World Makers

Yesterday Rev. C.T. Vivian died, and at the age of 95 he joined a community beyond. I have thought about his life, his record, and the public ways in which he lived. I didn’t know him and have never met him, but I’ve always been drawn to ministry leaders whose lives have been full and long.

In a day when theological visionaries and ethical leaders can be hard to find, it is even harder to support those folks throughout lives that contain many days. Our godly leaders end early, die young.

I think of a remark that Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes made about the how powerful and politically corrective it is to live a long life. When I contemplate the life of Rev. Vivian and when I recall the pictures of people like my other preaching hero, Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, I’m drawn to lengthy trails of service and the even longer lists of persons who have also made those ministries and lives possible.

The private and the popular are on those lists. So many people make a long life of ministry doable.

May we remember Rev. Vivian and all the people whose names are alongside his in the cause of justice and better world-making.