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Featured Poem: We Wear The Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 10th October 2011

Today – 10th October – is a very significant date in the calendar. Every year on 10th October, World Mental Health Day is observed. The initiative, held for the first time in 1992, was conceived to raise global awareness of mental health issues, as well as pointing towards the need to increase access to and investment in prevention and treatment services (an aspect of even more importance this year, given the 2011 theme of World Mental Health Day: ‘The Great Push: Investing in Mental Health’). In the last 19 years, since the prevalence of mental health conditions has unfortunately continued to increase – it can sometimes be easy to overlook the staggering statistic that 1 in 4 people will experience some form of mental health problem over the course of one year – an up-side is that year upon year World Mental Health Day has too become a much bigger event; now people in over 100 countries commemorate the day, taking considered notice of their personal mental health and that of others. Needless to say, mental health is of great significance to us at The Reader Organisation, as we constantly affirm and strengthen the links between shared reading, literature and positive mental health; showing that reading is an alternative but effective medicine for the mind which doesn’t just offer occupation and distraction but also gives a vital and clear space to think and reflect – and today is an ideal time to do just that.

Another of the main aims of World Mental Health Day is to encourage greater and more open discussion upon mental health issues, and as well, all year round there are numerous campaigns that let people know that it’s perfectly fine to open up (just as it’s also entirely reasonable not to – being entirely up to the individual) because more often than not, there will be a willing and empathetic ear on the other side to listen. Yet while it’s fantastic that we can keep breaking down barriers, some still remain and they are the ones that can be the hardest and most cumbersome to remove; the ones that we construct ourselves. Recently – though it’s most definitely not a new phenomenon – there’s been increased talk about and identification of ‘smiling depression’, whereby an optimistic outward appearance conceals the more complex feelings under the surface that can be far harder to present to the world. Whether or not we consider ourselves to have a notable mental health condition, the notion of ‘putting on a brave face’ is a universal and inherently human thing to do - a shield to protect ourselves from life’s knocks, a mask (or indeed, a variety of them) to wear when things are just that bit too unbearable; to lie a little, yes, but predominately to see things through without shattering.

We’ve all been wearing masks for quite some time – mainly as a means of survival and self-preservation. Certainly, this was purpose of the mask Paul Laurence Dunbar wore and wrote about in 1896 – although of course, it was done so to face quite different circumstances than today, namely that of deep racial prejudice and oppression. Still, we are able to align the analogy with life today and any number of individual situations – including that of ‘masking’ our mental health. Having to rather than choosing to wear the mask – and understandably given the social climate of the time – makes Dunbar’s attitude towards it negative; it is deceitful as opposed to merely a method of defence, places in irremovable shadow rather than offering temporary shelter. Most notably, it is worn as a requirement to meet a world that is physically and emotionally hardened and costs its wearer dearly, in the form of a ‘debt’. Thankfully, we can take a more positive view now and find a balance – using our mask when we need to but also, in a world that may not by any means be perfect but is progressing in acceptance and understanding, obtain the courage in others – and ourselves – to allow it to slip and portray ourselves precisely as we are.

We Wear The Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

2 thoughts on “Featured Poem: We Wear The Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar

[…] Lisa mentioned earlier, today is World Mental Health Day and for the third year running, we have teamed up with Mersey […]

loubyjo says:

loved this amazing this was written so long ago but mental health is still regarded to many AS a TABOO subject ,

I often act strange cause my blood sugar drops and act like a drunk
society can accept this,

I often act strange because my brain is wired up wrong and I change into a monster
Society does not accept this !

GIR just accepts I AM STRANGE ,no questions asked !

One of the main reasons GIR WORKS IS that people are accepted for whoever or whatever they are, I used to get horrendously upset wanting to be like other people so called normal but have graduallly learnt to be accept being me ,with a reading group their is no need for me to put a mask on this is what causes so much stress trying to be like other people now i think who wants to be so called normal so bloody boring !

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