The Trick to the Treats

buzzThat faint noise you hear is the sound of pint-sized spooks, banshees, and vampires gathering on your lawn. They will soon be knocking at the door plastic pumpkins outstretched. Spare yourself the tricks and go ahead and give up the treats – the unhealthy, sweet, nougat-filled goodies in your cupboard. Keep your stinking apples, raisins, toothbrushes, and granola bars. Cavity creating sugar; hyper-activism inducing chocolate; gut busting high fructose corn syrup: This is what the ghosts and ghouls want. In a few short years the tykes will have to turn in their costumes, so don’t deprive them of this rite of childhood passage.

This doesn’t mean adults don’t get in on the fun. Americans spend nearly $3 billion each Halloween, not on adorning their children for the festivities, but on themselves. Adults love to play dress-up, it would appear, and not just in October. We all hide behind masks, masks we have worn for so long, we forget the real person who lurks beneath. We so over-identify with our dress-up characters, that is the roles we play in life, that when the roles change – and they will change – we experience miserable frustration.

How many middle-aged men and women do you know who are in wretched condition because they are no longer the young, athletic, studs and cheerleaders on campus? That used to be their identity, but now it is gone, and they don’t know how to live without it. If you are an athlete, you are not going to be unable to compete forever; what then? If you are an accountant, one day you will lose your mental fortitude; who are you then? If you are a teacher, budget cuts could put you out of job; what is beneath your mask?

On and on it goes. Mother, husband, Methodist, physician, American, artist: We can play any of these roles, healthily and with fulfillment, so long as we remember that they are temporary. These are all just masks we wear. If we are shackled to these masks, mistaking them for the real person beneath, we will be shattered to pieces when the time comes to put them away; or when life inevitably takes them from us.

One year my son dressed as the cartoon spaceman Buzz Lightyear for Halloween. It was fun – “To infinity and beyond!” – and that’s about how long I thought the boy would wear the costume. In his mind, this wasn’t a temporary role he was playing. Buzz Lightyear was who he really was, his identity. That was okay for a while, but it reached unhealthy limits

“No, you can’t take a bath as Buzz Lightyear. Take the costume off,” I would say. “I’m sorry, you can’t be Buzz Lightyear at school. It will distract the other students,” and he would protest. “No, you can’t wear the Buzz Lightyear costume to Aunt Inez’s funeral!” You get the idea. 

Every time he had to lay aside his costume and mask, it was the proverbial end of the world with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It was as if he was losing himself, as if he didn’t know how to live apart from that imaginary facade. Of course the real him was beneath that rayon spacesuit – everybody knew it – except him.

This is a common affliction. We build these dramatic images of ourselves, who we think we are, who we should be, what we should accomplish, and once constructed, they have to be maintained and protected. We have to live up to our own billing, never letting a tear or a crack show in our veneer, and the mask to which we cling slowly becomes a prison. We go through life kicking and screaming every time a perceived threat begins to pull at the hem of our make-believe cape.

Here’s a better way: Fulfill the roles that God, fate, or life has assigned to you. Fulfill them with gusto. But never accept the masks you must wear as a substitute for the person you really are; that’s the trick to a sweet life.