“Son of Man”, Rene Magritte
After nearly four years of my life, and countless hours lost on my commute into and out of Washington DC, I have noticed there is a constant among the thousands of faces that share the same fate… There simply are no faces.
The morning train cars have their silence broken only by the sounds of the squeaks and clacks of the rail cars rolling over the tracks. The conductor coming thru to check for validated passes is the only voice heard the hour plus trip. Its like living in the movie “Groundhog Day”, only worse. The afternoon train is not much different, except for the sun shining through the windows, and a few high school type clicks of co-workers chatting all the way to their respective stations. But the constant is still there… the silence continues with faceless faces.
I watch as countless humans board the train and search for a seat, but the faces are expressionless. Much like the faceless businessman in Rene Magritte’s 1964 painting of “Son of Man”. You know there are supposed to be faces, but its almost as if everyone is masked, and just going where they are expected to be. Much like carpenter ants that march in line dutifully executing their activities. I see no change in the humans around me once I transfer to the Metro system. How can so many hundreds of faces, be so blank?!
Lately this painting has been screaming to me as I sit through my commute daily. Maybe it is just the atmosphere of working in a politically charged environment, and one that is driven by prioritized personal agendas above where I sit. But I have started relating more and more to this painting.
I seem to focus one small portion of the eye peaking out from behind the apple that is effectively being used as some type of a mask. I’d like to think that is portraying someone in the position of authority that is constantly trying to assess their leadership capabilities by stepping outside the view they normally are in, to honestly assess their organization and accomplishments from time to time. But reality hits me, and even hurts me from time to time, by advising I am wrong when looking around at real life.
From where I sit, I have routinely seen the mask worn as a defensive mechanism. An individual shuffles in line to work just enough to get by, they tow the line, and simply go through the motions of executing the demands that senior management sets out as expectations, however those change as regularly as the individuals in the positions do. I see entire floors of individuals in my building, sitting in their cubes, donning their masks, trying to protect themselves from being scarred from the hostility in the environment stemmed from not “getting the memo” of change on time. For as many hours that an individual will spend their energies working tirelessly to meet today’s demands, there is little doubt that by tomorrow a task will not have been done to meet the expectation that will be in place tomorrow. A mask lets you hide the pain and disappointment from the environment as it piles on to each person’s shoulders. From time to time, you can see someone peaking around the side of their mask, wondering if they are in a safe environment yet. But those moments seem to be short lived. The price for standing out from the crowd is high, so back behind the mask all flee. Everyone rushes to make sure that when they finally get home at the end of the day, they can quickly remove the mask, which hopefully left little permanent scar beneath it, and be surrounded by friends and family who enjoy their company. Once the mask is gone, they can begin taking the time to forget about where they spent, and even wasted, 8 hours or more hours of their life. And the cycle will continue tomorrow, as it has for years. There is a price to being thick skinned, earned from years of thinking a mask wasn’t necessary.
I have also seen the mask used by individuals hiding behind their position, no matter how temporary that mask is, and pursuing their personal agendas to please their selfish professional drive. This does occur frequently in our stress driven world, but is so prevalent in this area of the country it is simply overwhelming. Dominance of self-serving personality traits seem to surround us from individuals that skillfully hide behind their mask. Ethics and values are easily compromised by those that hide behind their mask, peeking around only to see if anyone has caught on yet. They drain organizations of positive energy, and stay only until they confirm there is no more that they can selfishly acquire at the expense of those around them.
I don’t necessarily believe in either of these, as I strive to perform to the best of my abilities daily. I have been forever scarred by countless individuals climbing their way to the top of their self-defined career ladders at the cost of all in their path. I have learned the importance of keeping that mask on for a while when meeting someone new. Since working in DC, I have repeatedly failed to find an organization that isn’t driven by personal agendas at the top, and self-serving mask wearers down the chain.
I think it is time to find a different zip code for my next career, life is too short to not be “ me” and be“real” every minute of the day. I am a real person with a real personality that is tired of being surrounded by masks.