Behind the Mask, by Frederick Franck

Frederick Franck

Frederick Franck

“Astonishing. Getting older and older, I still stand here at this window, watching as if never having watched anything like it before – the wrens, juncos, and purple finches picking the seeds strewn on the pile of frozen snow. Through my breath condensing into fog on the cold window pane, I still see bare branches chasing their shadows in the icy wind, black threads of water crinkling through fissures in the frozen river. I am aware that what I am seeing is no more, no less than the great Mystery, that of being here at all, that of seeing it – as from the other side of a mirror – snow, birds, my breath still condensing, that breath that started so long ago as my first cry. …”

“… It started in first grade, or probably before, but I see clearly that wondrous, shiny gold gingko leaf slowly drifting down on our playground. I picked it up in a kind of ecstasy, but then, interrupted in my trance, challenged to join in some stupid wild game, I dropped it at once, obediently. At that moment I was launched on my career of hiding, of cheating, of masquerading, in terror of being unmasked. And so I sailed smoothly through grammar school and lyceum almost unscathed, a lonely hiker on days off. For I was infatuated with that tall lone poplar, with that sloping meadow with its ruin, as madly in love with poetry, with drawing, as only the artist-within can be. But then the mirror shows that artist within at a moment of truth—I mean of untruth—of panic, when defenseless as a rabbit he was forced out of orbit. The homefront declared his first love to be irrelevant, childish, and sentenced him to become the successor of one of his doctor uncles prominent in their “art,” their healing art. I entered medical school.

Nauseated and anguished, I sabotaged my assignments to cut up live frogs, small furry animals, dead human bodies, while keeping the mask in place. Slowly I became a virtuoso in all the tricks of camouflage needed to pass as a normal mutant, an adult. As such I, or rather the stranger, was to be programmed further until I could look upon the sick, the suffering, the dying—with required objectivity—as malfunctioning mechanisms. Categorized as reparable or not, they were nevertheless processed through our gleaming white-and-chromium repair shops equipped with technology’s latest, most infallible gadgetry—by now obsolete.

Frederick Franck's lovely drawing of intertwined Doves.

Frederick Franck’s lovely drawing of intertwined Doves from Pacem in Terris

Through all the years of my sorcerer’s apprenticeship in Europe and America, there never was even a hint—it must have been scientifically incorrect—that the objects of our ministrations, our blood samplings, biopsies, X-rays, EKGs and such, might perhaps not be objects after all. On the contrary, they might well be subjects, each one of these subjects all too subjectively struggling with anguish, fear, death. Each one of them might even be more than a subject, a soul, and each soul an epiphany. …

Oh, Death, here is thy sting!”♦

—Frederick Franck, an excerpt from “Behind the Mask,” camouflaging the stranger within,  PARABOLA, Volume XX, Number 2, 1995: The Stranger. This issue is available here.

Frederick Franck, author, artist, humanitarian, author of more than 30 books on Buddhism and other subjects, was a great friend to Parabola, serving as a consulting editor to the magazine for nearly its entire lifetime, from 1976 until his death at age 97 on June 5, 2006, at his home near Pacem in Terris, the public meditation sanctuary he built with his wife, Claske, in upstate New York.