This week an article on hospitality in the journal Conversations touched upon the etymology of persona, an English word derived from the Latin persōna (mask; character) and personare (to sound through). As I read past the author’s brief mention of the word and finished the article, that phrase “to sound through” lingered. It was one of those thoughts that seemed to beg, “Chew on me.”
Later that day, while in the middle of a tedious task, “persona” was back in my mind and I asked the Spirit to help me understand its significance. Lately themes such as masks, facades, true identity and authenticity have been appearing and reappearing in my observations, conversations, reflections and reading. God seems to be ever-so-gently leading me into new territory, inviting me to shed old layers – long-used coping mechanisms that are no longer working so well. It’s exciting. And scary, too.
So, curious as usual, I logged onto dictionary.com to gain a direct definition of the word persona and there found a very fitting psychological description. According to the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961), a persona is a “mask or façade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment and not representing the inner personality of the individual; the public personality (contrasted with anima).” As a recovering chameleon, this phrasing makes total sense. Identity, on the other hand, means “the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another.”
Acting out a persona versus living out my authentic identity has been my way of life for many years. As anyone who is familiar with “shape-shifting” can attest, the persona-driven life is exhausting. You’ve got to determine the “appropriate” part to play in each circumstance, perform that part convincingly, monitor others’ reactions, and continually make corrections and adjustments. Which mask do I wear in this situation, with these people, on this day, at this time? While the life of a chameleon can be thrilling for a while, depression and anxiety inevitably result, the fear of being “found out” gnaws incessantly, and the disconnection from one’s core causes deep pain.
After sitting with the “sound through” thought for about a day, I found some time to finish reading the journal, which concluded with some of Henri Nouwen’s practical insights for humble hospitality. Paraphrasing Nouwen’s words from the Inner Voice of Love, Wil Hernadez explained,
…You cannot give away anything you do not first possess or own, like your “self.” Indeed we cannot give or share of ourselves if we do not have a sense of self which we know, understand, accept, and love – one ultimately worth offering to others. Moreover, we can only minister (self-give) out of who we genuinely are. What enables us to minister with real depth and effectiveness is our capacity to live out of our center, where our core identity is deeply lodged.
It is only when we claim our own belovedness in God and we become confident that we are unconditionally received and loved by God that we can love others gratuitously. It is from this secure place that we are completely able to give of ourselves to the service of others.
God is leading me on an adventuresome journey of self-discovery, yet those old personas (I’ve collected several over the years!) can be so sneaky and still pop up all the time, especially when I feel fear and want to hide or try to gain some sense of control. How tempting it is to cover my true self with some sort of costume. The sweet little girl, the compliant child, the silent helper, the peacemaker, the people-pleaser, the over-achiever, or perhaps the safest of all: the spotless mirror that reflects whoever you are and whatever you believe…
I love how Nouwen illustrates the process of connecting with our true selves as coming to be “at home in our own house.” I join with him and pray: Lord, may I be more and more at home with you, with me, and with others.
Are you at home in your own house?