The Mask You Live In

The Mask You Live In

Recently, a friend turned me on to an incredible Documentary Film entitled, The Mask You Live In. My friend had read my introductory article on my blog which parsed the Ghomeshi Case and made the case that the lack of Empathy within our culture can be directly attributed to the British education system, specifically the Boarding School System. She thought I’d find the film interesting. Did I ever.

Almost three years ago my wife was surfing the web when she came upon links for Boarding School Trauma. In hindsight it seems absurd that while I have spent my entire adult life trying to come to grips with my deep rage that I had always glossed over an obvious cause – four years spent at a British Boarding School between 6-10 years of age.

For two days straight I read about the Boarding School Experience and how it influences adult life, mostly in terrible ways – and it suddenly all made sense. I watched a Documentary Film entitled, The Making of Them. Made in 1994, it follows four 8 year old boys who are dropped off at Boarding School for the first time. It was difficult to watch because the school looked a lot like mine. While the Film scratched the surface of the boarding experience the tragedy of boarding is plain to see in these precious little Boys.

Those two days of reading and watching were a catharsis, which led me to read Psychologist Nick Duffell’s seminal book, The Making of Them, in which he lays out a convincing argument that Boarding School is an unmitigated disaster, both on a personal level for the boys who attend, and then consequently when these same boys grow up to be emotionally crippled adults.

On the surface, it might seem like a stretch to connect the British Boarding School System to North American culture – that is until you watch the Film, The Mask You Live In, and then you watch the Film, The Making of Them. In the former, you have inner city American boys. In the latter you have privileged, white British boys. Seemingly vastly different experiences, yet the overlap is startling.

In both environments there is (1) the requirement to grow up fast, to be a ‘Man’, even though you are only a boy (2) minimal or no place for love, emotions and feelings (3) a hyper-competitive, dog-eat-dog imperative (4) the rejection of anything other than the Masculine ideal (ie) Athletic, Tearless, Proactive, Strong, Pain-absorbing, Successful, Extroverted. Full steam ahead at all times.

I’m reminded of a quote I’ve always found funny but only in this moment have I realized the complexity of it. “He who hesitates masturbates”. Hesitation is for the weak. Masturbation is for the weak. This silly quote actually perfectly illustrates the heavy pressure that is placed on Boys and Men in our culture – the pressure to always be on, to perform, to succeed, to not fail. You take care of shit when the going gets tough, just like the Super-Men we constantly see in our movies, video games and pornography. All hail the muscle-bound, mega-intelligent Hero with the Big Dick who always gets the job done (and the girl), despite the overwhelming obstacles.

Meanwhile, how many young Men (and older Men for that matter) masturbate before having sex with Women in order to hopefully fulfil their duty as a Man (ie) to have a raging hard-on that lasts for 30 minutes, after which your ejaculate must travel a notable distance for the entire exploit to have been worthwhile? So, masturbation is for the weak but then you masturbate in order to hopefully appear virile and perform. There are so many of these irreconcilable paradoxes that Men of all ages are constantly grappling with.

It’s all an impossible standard to live up to, which leaves so many Boys and Men feeling perpetually insecure, confused and angry – and which is taken out on Women, via aloofness, passive-aggression or naked aggression. If you watch both of the afore-mentioned films you will see how Boys from such divergent backgrounds manage to have similar foundational relationships with themselves and the world. We are all some version of the Boys in these films. As these Boys – we – grow up, the result is a culture of frustrated Men who lack empathy for themselves and others. Hence we see an epidemic of addictions which seek to fill the gaping void that has been left by an Institutionalized Rational Man Project that has for centuries subjugated the Feminine.

The Mask You Live In, could be mandatory viewing for both young and old in our culture. We spend a lot of time focused on global issues such as the Environment, Violent Conflict and Human rights, but we usually ignore or are unconscious of the root cause of these pressing problems, namely, our imbalanced Masculine-Feminine system.

While it can be hard to see through the veil of violence and injustice all around us, this re-balancing is well underway as more and more people are becoming aware of the necessity of re-integrating the Feminine, Right-brain (read this brief article for an overview of the Rational Man Project and the consequent Left-brain, Right-brain imbalance). This shift is made all the more difficult as one of the defining features of the Rational Man Project is, “we do not notice the Rational Man Project’s grip on us because we are too close to it, like the fish who do not know the water; identified with it, we believe it to be our hallowed tradition.” (Nick Duffell, Wounded Leaders)

The forces of status-quo desperately and unconsciously hold on to the old ways as these anachronistic and debilitating structures fall away, revealing us for whom we actually are and how we have been. There is a mountain of profound shame and guilt associated with this evolutionary process. Let us be as compassionate and non-judgmental as possible with ourselves and others as we make this challenging shift.


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4 thoughts on “The Mask You Live In

  1. Well written and thoughtful. The dire state of human relations is surely related to the ignorance to which the world’s children are subjected. Now the interminable cartoons, video games and other stimulants have taken over the job of programming violent, self-absorbed, puppets. But the human spirit is sourced in the oceans of eternity and will.- no doubt- overcome.

  2. I just watched “The Making of Them.” My immediate reactions are anger and heartbreak. I understand that the boarding school has been entrenched in British society for likely a few centuries, but it is also alive and kicking here in Canada and the States.
    Anger? I’m not convinced that the parents of these little children are so well intentioned. Achieving status is of great importance to them and they really don’t want to put in the effort to raise a child. That is something the “upper-class” has never really taken to. If taken seriously and done genuinely, parenting is extremely hard work. I will never understand why people have children if they are not prepared to raise them. I suppose, if those parents went to boarding schools themselves, they would have no idea how to give love because they never received it.
    Heartbreaking? Having raised three children, I cannot imagine dropping off a little child who was fighting back the tears. The point was well made—an institution cannot give love. It doesn’t matter how good the food is!

    1. Hi Mary. I certainly empathize with your anger and heartbreak. Boarding School truly is terrible institution. Regarding ‘intentions’ I really do believe after my own delving and research that it is done unconsciously by parents. In “The Making of Them” 2 of the mothers really stand out for me. The first being the one (with her husband) who says, “it will be the making of them”. She has very little access to her emotions. The institutional imperative overrides all for her. On the other hand you have the lovely lady who is really feeling awful about putting her boy in the school, but despite her obvious misgivings she, like the other lady, succumbs to the Institutional imperative. She strikes me as a great mom, and one who would really like to keep being a full-time mom, but living in a culture in which Intuition and Emotion are roundly eschewed even she cannot allow herself to properly connect with her own messaging. BTW, me and my workshop fellows laugh at the idea that the boarding school food was good, when in reality it was the absolute opposite. It was horrendous, especially the once a week boiled liver that disintegrated in your mouth like chalk. You were forced to eat it. That alone was traumatizing 🙂

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