Above my desk at the very edge of my sight line sits an Inunnguaq.
An inunnguaq. It’s a stone figure. Inunnguat (plural) dot the landscape throughout the Arctic. For the Inuit people, it’s literally “something that imitates a person.” My particular inunnguaq is crafted of rose marble shot through with blacks and grays and polished to a lovely sheen. Rather than measuring in feet, mine measures in inches: five. For me, it represents a little piece of native wisdom that reminds me to always be authentic.
I fell in love with the concept, even though the Alaskan store incorrectly called them “inuksuk” or “inukshuk,” which in Inuit means, “something that acts for or performs the function of a person.” Built from the land using whatever stones were available, each is unique and casts a strong and sacred tie between the people and the earth. The Inuit built these stone cairns all across the Arctic as warnings, as greetings, as navigation, as an indication of a cache of food – for many reasons. As humans were (and still are) scarce in this sparsely populated land, travelers could gain life-saving wisdom from these piles of rocks.
Inunnguat are built to “imitate” a person. The Inuit built cairns in this form as a tribute, as veneration for another person, to mark a place of respect or an abode of spirits. I guess it’s a bit like erecting a statue, but there’s something in me that prefers the natural rock formation to a finely sculpted likeness. I like the anonymity and the “any man” feel.
They represent, these two items, something similar but with important differences. One offers wisdom to others who choose to take it. The other pays tribute to another, presumably someone with wisdom worth taking.
Maybe it’s just the season, but as I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed and hitting picture after picture of masked and costumed friends, my inunnguaq catches my eye. It is, after all, the Halloween season, when a little masked revelry offers a chance to play and pretend, to be someone or something we’re not. But it’s as though the inunnguaq makes itself known to me as a reminder – pretense is fun, here and there, but its pleasure fades and at some point it’s time to take off the mask. I can’t help but reflect on how we work so hard, sometimes, to be what we’re not – whether it’s in fun or whether it’s serious business.
You know, I have a friend who embarked on a career because it was expected of him. He doesn’t particularly enjoy the work, although it’s lucrative. It allows the luxury of pursuing other things – travel, for one – which is, in its own way, an escape from the mask he wears. It’s the only time the mask comes off, although I get glimmers of a different persona when he speaks with passion of his dream of being and doing what really calls to him.
The Greeks developed the concept of the persona, the Latin term for the masks used in ancient drama. The mask represented the actor who was heard and recognized through the voice that emerged through the open mouth. Carl Jung’s take on persona is that it’s a mask or a façade we wear to hide the true us. It’s our public personality, not the real, authentic person we hold in the shadows behind it. We may have many personae, or masks, and some may even be easy to remove. If we’re not careful, others may become stuck as we choose our behavior according to the impression we want to make, our social roles, our intentions, and how we want others to see us.
Our persona is helpful, to a point. The mask buffers us from the world and others as we develop and grow and become stronger in knowing who and what we are to be. We – the authentic we, that is – can be anonymous and empowered when we cloak ourselves in our persona. It’s a heady thing and if we’re not careful, we may begin identifying more with who we think we are and should be, and doing what we think we should rather than doing what resonates as right for us.
That’s when our mask, our persona, becomes fused with skin and bone – ours. What we want, what we are, what we dream – all that stays locked behind the rigidity of our public persona. I have another friend who, when she lets go and is fully present, is fun, authentic, real, boisterous, and a joy to be around. How sad to me that most of the time her mask is solidly in place and her true essence so dim. I worry that her mask is fusing rapidly to skin and bone.
Think about that. Are you different at work than at home? Different with family than friends or strangers? At church versus out on the town? With the boss versus your peers, versus anyone who’s subordinate? When you’re with others and when you’re alone?
Sure you are. We all are, to an extent. The question for us, then, is this: can we take that mask off? Or are we finding bits and pieces of it clinging to us? Perhaps it’s even fused entirely and is just too much effort to remove. The luckiest among us has learned to lay down the mask, crawl out and stand tall, triumphant and authentic.
My inunnguaq serves that purpose for me. I placed it there stategically just for that reason. When I catch a glimpse of it in my peripheral vision, I’m reminded of simplicity, of honesty, integrity, and authenticity. With each glimpse, I feel the mask slipping further and further away.