When you think of Mardi Gras, what do you think of?
A colorful parade of feathers and masks?
A decadent celebration of beads, drunkenness, and nudity?
An invitation of binging before one undergoes the rigors of Lent?
An opening ceremony to mark the holiest time of the year?
It had taken my late teenage years to realize Mardi Gras was an originally religious event. My knowledge of it was only through television and literature, of showy parades and crowded streets of anonymity and color as people wore masks, beads, feathers, and participated in a rather scant and drunken festivity, perhaps outrivaling any other secular or religious celebration.
The wearing of masks, however, was something I never really gave pause to. Just this week I had to look up its significance. The first answer that turned out as to why we wear masks in the public celebration of Mardi Gras is twofold: to liberate the wearer to feel free to a) celebrate without repercussion and b) to mingle with any member of society regardless of class, status, or renown.
Masks are barriers. The medical masks we all wear now are barriers for us against a virus. The festive masks, however, we wear are barriers to block out our identity, a protection of our character. But while barriers are used typically to prohibit and halt, it seems masks in Mardi Gras are used to tear down barriers.
Perhaps there are social and psychological barriers we face that prohibit us from doing what Mardi Gras encourages us to do. Perhaps we put up a barrier between us and our enemies–from another party, another demographic, another “social class”—because when we fail to see commonality between us and the other, fear becomes instilled by the sense of “otherness”. The barriers we put up for our own self-restraint are a bit more intuitive; we prohibit ourselves from shameful deeds to avoid the destruction of our character, to protect ourselves from gossip, from shame, from showing the vulnerability of our will and the penchants of our vices.
I think we should wear these masks…but with caution…
The world seems so much more divided than it ever was before. Differences in opinions seems to lead to violence, slander, passive aggressiveness, and character assasination. Our beliefs and our demographics seem to get in the way of co-dwelling in the same space, exchanging ideas, and finding what is common between us. Democrat or Republican, poor or rich, no matter the cultural background, we all have a mother and a father, we all bleed when injured, are created in the same image and likeness.
Perhaps the masks of Mardi Gras, for one day, attempt to remind us of those commonalities. I wager that if most of us who differ in opinions actually sat together and spoke about things that had nothing to do with ideology that we would find common interests, hobbies, even experiences. Perhaps we’ve both lost a loved one and can empathize in that pain. Perhaps we both secretly love collecting baseball cards, play board games, or have an affinity for music. There is, deep down, something that unites all of us despite our differences.
But the work is on us to find what we each have in common, and to center our views of each other on that.
Again, perhaps the masks of Mardi Gras can bring this out, to bring together two people who otherwise would never consensually share the same street or celebration together.
Conversely, we should be wise to the power of the masks we don. Mardi Gras, as mentioned before, is a license for binging, for wanton displays, for total drunkenness. There was a study once conducted of honesty/fairness and anonymity. It involved two people…someone with money, someone without. The person with money was told they did not have to but were encouraged to share the money they received at the beginning of the experiment. The other person was told they might receive something. The person with money never had to indicate how much they were given, but were encouraged to give half. But this experiment had one difference between groups: the givers of money who had their faces naked, and the givers of money who wore sunglasses. What the report found was that those who had the money and wore sunglasses felt they didn’t have to give half, that they could afford to give much less.
This experiment may only touch on how our integrity and fairness can waver when we are anonymous, though I imagine if higher principles such as these are at stake when we find ourselves only slightly masked–sunglassess–that principles such as sobriety, chastity, and being within our right minds are also at stake when we put on a mask. Such a case can be made when we look at our discourse of politics and beliefs online, how scathing we can be in the comment section of social media or online forums, whereas we find public discourse that is face-to-face either much civil or essentially non-existing.
So these masks that we have put on and already taken off from Mardi Gras remain with us. We keep our facets of anonymity–a computer screen, an alias, or something as a pair of sunglasses–in order to protect us from our shame, no different than Adam and Eve’s crude coverings they made after coming to knowledge of good and evil. These masks are unhelpful, but perhaps we could use the proper application of the mask of Mardi Gras–as the great equalizer that fosters commonality and a humane disposition towards our neighbor–to get acquainted with the communal aspect of Mardi Gras, the collective festivity of fellow man with fellow man. Who knows, perhaps the masks we wear now in this pandemic could function to this end.
To close, I’d like to point out a kind of ironic symbolism that the day of Mardi Gras–a day of masks–is followed by a different marking over our face: that of ash. Ash Wednesday is another day that ideally unites all worlds and demographics together in a common observance. The application of ash to the face, however, is not a thing of anonymity, but rather a kind of blemish that makes us stand out, that pronounces us to something holy rather than guising us to do things that are shameful.
Just as it would be shameful to see a Jesus fish on a car that cuts off people on the highway with its driver swearing in road rage, so too it would be a shame to see anyone donning ash on their forehead engaging in shameful behavior. The mask of Mardi Gras revokes any sense of accountability through anonymity…the ash on our forehead heightens our accountability through the blemish.
Further, the ash acts like a better more perfect mask than the ivory and feathered ones we see in Mardi Gras. The theatrical masks give voice and attention to its actors and the themes portrayed by its characters, and the ash gives volume to the deeds of the person who wears them. The mask invokes a character that the human is called to portray, and the ash on our forehead calls us to a nobler personality, one of sainthood, transcended above our own naked faces. The mask is placed upon the face of the deceased or molded to imitate their face, and so too the ash reminds us of our mortality, of our eventual disintegration into ash–lest we find ourselves incorrupt.
What mask have we put on that protects and enables us to be so vile, to turn a sober attention of something beautiful and joyous into a fleeting thrill, a shameful stupor. What masks do we put on that possess us like a shaman, imprisoning us to something lower than our own flesh?
But so too, what are the common facades or markings we all wear that unite us? What mask can we imagine over our enemy, reminding us that they are little different than ourselves, our nature, our plights?
And what marks of accountability are we ready to place upon ourselves, and how long will we let them remain upon us before we let it flake away?
Blessed Lent to you all and Happy Harrowing…