Looking beyond the mask

Saturday, April 15, 2006

"I know little about you; do you have a family?" I found myself asking a familiar waitress in a local restaurant.

I was unprepared for her answer, for she always possessed a caring smile and an interested demeanor.

"Yes, I have a family," Abby replied. "And I just lost a son to cancer about six months ago."

I dropped my fork in astonishment. Abby had waited on my family during that time of sorrow but never showed any sign of personal problems. She was always concerned for the patrons and greeted everyone with a smile and a "How are you today?"

Not knowing how to best respond, I said: "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sure that was difficult for you to endure." It was obvious she appreciated my interest because she hastily answered, "Not as hard as seeing him suffer."

She filled me in on the details of his death as we talked briefly while she worked. I pondered how she could have worked under the stress of a dying son. How could she have kept from showing her grief?

I continued to wonder how many hide behind a mask concealing their real feelings. I'm sure most do. I grew up hearing the clichˇ, "Laugh and the world laughs with you, but if you cry, you cry alone."

Consequently, when people inquired about my welfare, I learned to reply "I'm fine. How are you?" Little do we know of the pain one might be carrying inside. I have since learned that many are grateful for a sincere inquiry concerning their welfare.

A few years ago as I visited my doctor, a nurse named Sally was present in the examining room. Sally was a friend I had seen little of during the last year. I knew she was involved in a divorce settlement, but I was unsure of how matters were progressing. I asked her how the divorce proceedings were going.

She filled me in on what was happening. When I was ready to leave the doctor's office, she re-entered the examining room and said. "Thank you for your interest in my divorce and how I'm faring. I appreciate that."

She too had been wearing a mask both at work and within her social interactions. However, it's often necessary to wear a mask of sorts, for one has an obligation to employers, friends and family. We need to remember, though, that one seldom knows what's behind the face someone wears on the outside. People are often fragile within and crying for a show of interest and love from someone else -- a gesture that says, "You matter!"

We shouldn't probe unnecessarily into the business and private affairs of others, but nevertheless, we need to approach people recognizing that no one escapes hardship. We can often show compassion by our mere presence.

Scripture reads, "when we pray, enter into a closet, shut the door, and pray to the Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly," Matthew 6:6. The Word also says "When you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so your fasting will not be seen by others for your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Matthew 6:17-18.

Many misinterpret that advice when experiencing hardships. Rather than sharing with others and receiving comfort, they hide behind a smile and keep their problems confidential. After seeing positive reactions from people in whom I've shown genuine interest, I hope I'll always remember to "look beyond the mask" to see what's underneath.

Ellen Shuck is director of religious education at St. Mary's Cathedral Parish.

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