“When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth,” said the legendary Bob Dylan. “But when he’s not wearing a mask, truth is highly unlikely.” Oscar Wilde, one of Dylan’s many inspirations, said the same thing: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
The veracity of these statements are easy to prove in the 21st century. Trolls hide their identities using social media. Concealed racists, misogynists, and antagonists cast their threats from the safety of anonymous email accounts. Lurkers cruise through comments sections to say all manner of filth behind the great invisibility cloak that is the internet.
The Hebrew proverb says, “As a person thinks in the heart, so is that person,” and there’s nothing like a mask – a nameless, faceless, trackless disguise – to extract the thoughts from a person’s heart. One can keep it hidden for a while, but when given the opportunity to speak anonymously, or to speak insulated from consequences, the truth of one’s character will be told.
On rare occasions the truth gets told without the mask, as “highly unlikely” as it may be. Subject a person to pressure; deprive one of the regular comforts; let someone face a severe, unparalleled crisis – say a pandemic that destroys economic stability, exposes fragile support systems, and upends health and wellbeing – then, one’s true identity, the one that prowls within the heart might get loose.
There’s a word for this: “Apocalypse.” Sure, that word gets thrown around a lot these days, and those who employ it have gathered for Armageddon, smell Wormwood in the air, and claim to see the four horsemen of the Book of Revelation galloping toward us from the distance. No, “apocalypse” does not mean the end of the world.
“Apocalypse” means “to unveil…to reveal…to unmask.” And that is exactly what is going on in these days of the coronavirus outbreak. People are showing themselves for who and what they really are.
Some are responding with kindness and healing, going above and beyond the call of duty. Others are helping and mobilizing the best they can. People are being generous. Neighbors are looking out for one another. The pressure is squeezing out the good that is already inside of them. As Jesus said: “Good comes from a good person because they have riches stored in their hearts.”
But this great unmasking reveals further words of Jesus: “Sin comes from a sinful person because of the sin stored in the heart.” Hatefulness, selfishness, and greed; cutthroat posturing, the glorification of inequity; calloused, vacuous failures of moral leadership: The coronavirus hasn’t caused people to be this way! They were already this way!
The pressure of the moment has simply revealed the truth – the good, the bad, and the ugly truth. And the truth is this: If people cannot rise to the perseverance, compassion, and kindness the future now demands, it was never within them in the first place.