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shed the mask

Everyone Should Shed the Mask 


[Editor’s note: the author has written several articles for Brownstone about how lockdowns wrecked her education, especially given her special disability. This piece is a follow-up on how her shattered dreams have turned into a special life for her.]

Following authority is easy. It can help people survive in this crazy world but can also have major costs. 

I know because that was my life once. I accepted society’s prescribed role of being educated in order to find a career. Though I thought school was fulfilling, the sense of contentment I had was an illusion, one that I only saw clearly after being isolated from society. 

University life taught me to simply accept its lessons and did not encourage me to question what they meant or my values. My focus was set so completely on studying that I could not develop well socially, emotionally or spiritually. Thankfully, all that changed when I stepped back and noticed the hollow figure that I had become. Joining a meditation group and then a drama class enabled me to develop into a human with real emotions, faith and social abilities. I cannot go back to my simple, empty life after that.

Authority figures always told me that I should go to university because my intelligence was a gift that should not be wasted. I was unsure what else to do at the time so l followed their advice and devoted myself to my education so completely that everything else got pushed aside. 

Some of this devotion was necessary. Being blind and able to use only one hand, I had to put in at least double the time and effort to do the same amount of work as the other students. My routine revolved almost entirely around school. When I wasn’t in class, eating or sleeping, I was usually doing homework. 

Five years of that took a toll on me. I am something of a perfectionist, with extremely high standards for myself, which harmed me socially and emotionally. Classes and homework came before friends, meaning that I had few deeply rooted friendships. I had no time to engage with many people beyond a superficial level or even have fun with my family very often. 

All of this increased my stress levels and made it difficult to find joy in life, especially during paper and exam time. I was almost always tired, nervous and irritable then, needing just enough energy to finish the semester. Even afterward, it was difficult to stop feeling like I had not completed everything as well as I would have liked. Still, somehow I kept pushing myself to go on and start the process again next semester. It was like being a wind-up toy. Perform one task until you run down, wind up and do it again. My concentration on school gave me no opportunity to experience being truly alive.

School lessons furthered the illusion that following authority is right and necessary. University studies are done according to a prescribed curriculum. English majors like me are expected to analyze the literature we study in the ways the professors teach. Unfortunately, since the university’s teaching methods are politically slanted, a very limited number of opinions are included in class discussions, even though the stated goal is to increase diversity. 

Diversity can mean including people from all different backgrounds. However, woke ideology is embedded so deeply into the education system that it disregards traditional values as outdated and inherently wrong. Even if I hated a text or really disagreed with what I was learning, I could not go against the beliefs that the system pushes. 

When I tried to ask questions about the other side of the story, the response was usually something like, “Everyone has biases and we can’t teach everything.” It was easy to parrot back the expected answers and go along to succeed in class. 

While I learned the theory well, I developed a dispassionate, academic writing style that closed me off from forming my own opinions. This stifled my creativity and self-expression, making me feel more like a puppet than a human. “Follow the norms and be rewarded,” the university teaches. My only reward was a blank sense of contentment at finishing more courses, which brought little actual growth.

My hollow feeling extended to the faith knowledge that I picked up during university. I had little formal religious training before coming to the school. My parents encouraged my siblings and me to discover our own faith paths, teaching us strong Christian morals without basing them on the Bible. 

In contrast, Christian teachings were a prominent feature in the university’s classes and chapel services. I learned about typical Christian views and how to study the Bible during theology, which provided theoretical religious knowledge. Following God was a frequent subject in class and chapel but I had trouble understanding how to do it. Did I need to do something special or was I already doing what I needed to without knowing it? What did faith actually mean? 

Asking some of the Christians at school for help with my questions only increased my confusion. The chapel services that I attended left me wanting something without knowing how to find it. They contained beautiful music but it felt like the lessons did not relate at all to my ordinary life. 

Even though quoting scripture was a huge part of the services, I could not connect to the passages. “Religious practice is often empty if it is not rooted,” my meditation teacher once told me. This was the case for me throughout university. Though I had theoretical knowledge and knew some Bible stories, the deep, spiritual connection was missing. I was left with many more questions than answers.

 I also felt that the Christianity taught in university was merely a learning requirement, with no greater significance for me. There was an emptiness to my faith knowledge that the school could not fill, making it necessary to seek a different method of spiritual fulfillment.

I found a new depth and sense of fulfillment by being removed from typical university expectations. The shock of being forced to leave university pulled off the mask I wore. It hurt to have the only life I knew ripped away but growth came after the pain wore off. I finally recognized the blank puppet that the school was shaping me to be, a mere toy that went with its expectations just to get through class. 

One sharp blow and the toy broke, freeing me to form my own character. My new quiet lifestyle provided the opportunity to reflect on what truly matters in life: genuine human connections, compassion and freedom. That set me on a path of active seeking to build a deeply rooted, meaningful existence. 

Writing provided a solid first step. Instead of the bland, formal tone I used in school, a good friend encouraged me to let “the human emotion seep through.” I began using that approach for my articles and poetry and finally found my unique voice. I could not only ask questions but could openly speak up when I noticed something wrong in the world, which is how my articles came to be. 

Writing poetry helps me to feel emotions more deeply, with sadness, anger, fear, love, joy and peace all working to shape the words. That brought me closer to a hidden, deeper part of myself that is more open and willing to be vulnerable. I could finally breathe and discover my interests at my own pace. Those interests range from finding new books, to spirituality, to simply spending time with my family and pets. Instead of only letting the university’s expectations shape me, I began a journey of self-discovery, which would enable me to grow in other areas as well.

My meditation group helped fill the blank spaces in my spirituality through a combination of religious teachings, mindfulness practices and music. I remember the warm welcome when I joined. I was wanted and could discover my faith at my own pace. This faith felt genuine and consisted of spiritual experiences, rather than talk about typical religious beliefs. I was amazed at how simply I could begin forming a connection to the Divine, or rather noticing the one that was already there, just by paying attention to my breath. 

While religious instruction is part of the meditation, my teacher’s clear explanations make many of the lessons feel alive and relevant to me. Unlike the university’s version of Christianity, I can absorb some of their deeper aspects easily. They also tie in well with the mindfulness exercises that ground the meditation in the physical world, bringing it directly into my life. 

Music adds beauty, helping me remember and connect spiritually to the lessons. These tools provided knowledge about God and my beliefs, allowing me to begin rooting myself spiritually. Now, I see a beautiful inner light when I meditate, furthering my growth by solidifying my link to the Divine. Of course, I get distracted and sometimes struggle with whether I know what I’m doing. When that happens, it helps that others are there to reassure me that it’s okay. Spiritual awareness is rewarding, though not always easy to maintain. 

As a beginner on my faith journey, I question several aspects of religion. Thankfully, my teacher is understanding and suggests different ways of thinking about certain concepts that fit better with my beliefs. Exchanging the word “fear” for “love and awe” helped me approach my relationship to God and prayer more positively. Even without a specific religious commitment, I sense the Divine love that fosters growth, spiritually and in our connections with others. That is much more fulfilling than the theoretical approach to faith that I learned in university.

Social and emotional growth showed themselves clearly in the drama class I took at university this past semester. Being an improv course, it contained little paper-based work and focused on more than grades. Because drama was so different from any other class I had taken, it meant more to me. 

When my teacher said that she was proud of me for doing my best, especially with the daily challenges I face, it let me know that I was accepted. That allowed me to grow socially with the other students too. My classmates and I played various games that helped us to develop a deeper sense of trust than I noticed in my previous courses. 

One game involved throwing balls to each other and remembering the patterns while learning the other students’ names. Many activities were not totally blind-friendly so I needed help with playing and moving around the room. That meant relying on the others in a stronger way than most people do, letting me form closer bonds with them than typical class discussion would. Improv is also about bravery and honesty.

 It took courage for me to create characters and bring them to life, even though I felt nervous because the whole process was new to me. I also noticed a deep honesty during the class performances. Our characters had hopes, desires, real emotions and were able to express them freely. This honesty extended into my ordinary self as well. 

I found a few like-minded friends who I could share my views and emotions with, without worrying about whether they would understand my opinions. I could not only express myself but also build deeper relationships than I previously had with most friends at school. The freedom to spend time together, laugh and cry openly is worth much more to me than the hollow satisfaction of finishing more courses. 

It is necessary to have somebody to share life’s simple, important moments with and was a true blessing to find that locally. Being included in the drama class provided a social and emotional fullness that opposes the emptiness I knew before leaving university.

My experiences over the past while have enabled me to think deeply about loss and transformation. The way that the university treated me certainly left scars and a sense of loss but what did I really lose? A tired paper mask that followed society’s expectations without truly thinking about the impact they had on her. She was always focused on getting through another semester and doing well. 

However, that focus led to weariness and a lack of joy. There was never any time to stop because the next assignment was always coming. That is not who I am anymore and I do not want to go back. School is promoted so much but I learned more by stepping away from its influence and seeing what hides under the polished exterior. 

I am grateful for the experience because it enabled me to recognize and embrace my deeply held values. Love, kindness, honesty, respect, creativity and freedom are necessary for human flourishing. Sadly, many still embrace the mask as if it is the only truth that exists. If society is to change, all will need to see and peel away the polish. Then, we will have to work together to replace the emptiness it covers with a society rooted in genuine morality and positive human values.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Serena Johnson

    Serena Johnson is an English major who studied at The King's University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada for five years. She was one of the university's first blind students. She was forced to take Academic Leave due to the vaccine mandate, which negatively impacted her ability to learn.

    View all posts

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