Our giant new television came with high definition. While my husband marvelled at the crispness of the picture and the exciting quality of the sports events, I noticed something else. 


The illusion of reality had disappeared.




Watching “Agents of Shield” and “Elementary” became a startling and complex new experience. The familiar characters and situations were all there, but thanks to something called “enhanced frame speed” so were the actors and the sets. Suddenly I could see the make-up on Coulson’s cheek and the fact that Ward’s gun was a plastic toy. Even when Sherlock and Watson went outside I could sense the presence of the camera crew—and I was standing beside them, mildly embarrassed to have to watch these people trying so hard to pretend convincingly, and suddenly not succeeding.


Eventually my techno-savvy son went into the depths of the television’s software and adjusted the picture quality. “Reality”, at least the one I was used to, returned. But I was left with a newfound respect for the difficulty and sweat required to fake it with such dedication, and for the poor souls whose job it was to pretend to be real.


They reminded me of myself. And possibly of everyone else. Every now and then I am aware of how hard I work at the performance of myself, fitting into the roles of who I think I am, who I would like to be, or who I have to be in certain contexts. I have to stop and ask, “Who am I taking myself to be?” Kind teacher, worried parent, injured innocent, pushy pedant? I have a script for each, tripping off my tongue.


But every role I take on limits both my freedom and my perspective. And there seems no way out. Our roles are self-perpetuating: people expect us to “act” accordingly, and we can only really communicate—even to ourselves—within the confines of our part. We are all forced to walk the stage. Occasionally however, we intuit that there’s another reality, lingering in the wings.


Consider that Dionysos, theatre’s god, was worshipped in the form of a mask hung on a stake. Looking into His eyes was to look into nothingness, a space that could not be defined or understood. Similarly when a sudden, inexplicable silence descended on a gathering, it was taken as a sign of Hermes’s presence. He was the messenger of the gods, and silence was both his herald— and the entire content of his message. 


And yet a world of meaning seems to throb in that emptiness. Silence forces us to listen. When the god arrives, we are called to presence, to a deeper awareness of what’s really going on, and ultimately to compassion. We are asked to see through others’ roles, and our own.


“It is often in the moments when we stumble, hesitate and fall silent that we most reveal ourselves to one another.” (Sherry Turkle) In those charged instants there can be a mutual recognition that we are each more than we can say — and less free than we suppose. For the gods themselves don’t follow any script. Rather they play a terrifying game of improv to which we all are vulnerable. The masks we wear in response to life’s vicissitudes may speak of what we fear to be or wish to be, but not of what we really are. That is a mystery we must approach with the heart and not the head.


May I have the courage to look beyond the mask, to drop the script, to dare the silence and meet the gods on their own ground. May I tread the boards knowing darkness lurks offstage. May I see it in its beauty and its terror. And may it rouse my care and not my fear.