Secret Identities

“I want to break free, I want to break free, I want to break free from your lies, you’re so self-satisfied, I don’t need you…I’ve got to break free.”

Queen, I Want to Break Free

breaking free

Literally the only part of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” that I enjoyed comes late in Part II when the title character, Bill, explains to The Bride that what makes superheroes interesting is that, as opposed to regular humans, they “put ON costumes to become who they truly are.”  I had never thought about that before, but immediately recognized it as Truth.

As I tweeted back in August, upon attending my first ComiCon:

Rev Brian Gruhn ‏@bgruhn3 Aug  Hi, my name is Brian. I’m 31 years old, and my life is just starting. #comicon

I was only sort of kidding.

I was ordained to ministry in the United Church of Christ nearly a year ago.  On that day, I was given a black robe, as a gift from my family, and as far as I’m concerned it is the coolest thing I will ever wear.  When I put it on, it’s difficult to remember that I’m an ordinary human being, because of the way it fits and flows.  It reads–to me anyway–like a superhero costume; it kind of closely resembles what Neo is wearing in the opening scenes from the second Matrix movie.  The ministerial robe has been imbued by our society with powerful traits–sacred knowledge, prophetic speech, spiritual understanding–and those who put it on are literally cloaked in the traits of the holy.   It is a major responsibility, not to be taken lightly.  The same as someone who dons a police uniform or a doctor’s coat, we can’t help but expect certain things from the person who wears symbolic items.  It’s not that these people are inherently different from anyone else, but they have actively trained to do things and take on responsibilities that other people can’t or won’t.  Ordinary humans wearing costumes to become who they really are…extraordinary…super.

Flashback to 1994-1999:  Cosplay–slang for “Costume Play” (slang is short for “street language”)–is something I’ve always known about, and always been wary of.  Growing up on the fringe of teenage society, I was always supremely aware of two things: 1) I enjoy things that don’t seem to be popular (comic books, indie films, 80’s rock balladeers).  2)  There are a lot of things that are CLEARLY popular, which I don’t like at all (sports, doing drugs, being good at math).  Cosplay kids, LARPers (Live Action Roll Play-ers), D &D enthusiasts; these were groups of people who should have fit in category 1, things I like; but their numbers were so great in my school that I inherently distrusted them, and they were relegated to category 2.  As far as I was concerned, the Dungeon Master and the Star High School Athlete ruled over the same empire of Teenagerdom, and I was a voluntary exile from both their respective kingdoms.  What I would articulate now as a “fear of rejection,” manifested itself in high school as “I want no part of that.”  Cosplay drew too much attention to itself, attention I wasn’t comfortable getting.  I had yet to develop enough of an identity to know what to do with the little bit of attention I received normally.  So I would make snarky jokes about the kids in capes, as I did in response to just about everything in existence.  My “Mask of Snark”–a facade in its own right–deflected any hint that I might be longing or yearning to be something else…something extraordinary.  I would deploy hilarious one liners, demonstrating my zen-like detachment from the silliness of adolescence, while silently wondering where people found all those sweet looking capes.

Far removed from the professional, adult world that places power and importance in certain costumes, Cosplay has always carried with it a sense of adolescence, symbolizing “imagination,” interpreted by most as “detachment from reality.”  I wanted to detach from reality just as much as anyone else…but I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else knowing that.

Flash forward to the summer of 2013 when my bestie Maddie suggested, “We should go to Boston Comicon dressed as gender-swapped Han Solo and Princess Leia,” and I emphatically said, “Yes we should.”

Hanna Solo and Prince Leia

The most surprising thing about dressing up in costume is how normal it feels.  My fear has always been that I would attract a lot of negative attention, people making derogatory comments, or rolling their eyes.  I’m not an arts-and-crafts type of person, so I’ve always had a lot of doubts about my ability to pull off a “good” costume.  As it turns out–as is most often the case when pre-judging a situation–I was completely backward in my thinking.  I was operating from the assumption that if I wasn’t good enough, I would be judged harshly.  What could be more embarrassing than showing up to jump on the escapist bandwagon only to be told you’re not good enough to escape with everyone else…left behind in reality…costumed and alone?  To my pleasant surprise, the Cosplay culture operates counter to the outside culture that judges it.  “Good, bad, talented or not, costumed or no,” this culture says, “you are welcome here.”  The outside world may deal in judgment, but inside those walls is an economy of acceptance, of welcome, of hospitality and joy.  The costumes are merely an outward expression of an inner situation, a way of revealing the extraordinary and wonderfully bizarre gems that hide beneath the surface.  It’s not about detaching from the world outside as much as it’s about actively creating an alternative society in which elves roam free, heroes and villains break bread at the same table, and angels walk among ordinary humans.  The people there are not escapists, but rather  activists and creationists…in the truest sense.

I don’t believe I’ve ever been in the presence of more unadulterated joy than when I dressed up that day as bearded Princess Leia.  Everywhere we went, people wanted our picture.  I received hugs from strangers, people would joyously laugh and give thumbs up and hand shakes.  One young woman came to me and said, “You are the most beautiful princess I’ve ever seen.”  I’ll never really know why she said that, but she was sincere and I found myself becoming unexpectedly emotional as I was invited to think of myself for the first time as a pretty, pretty princess..and we embraced.  I believe a lot of the praise we received that day–primarily from women–were well springs of that deep river of change that flows through so many of us, the river that nourishes a deep desire to break free from the restrictions of the world in which we live.  The desire to be something more than the body we’re given, the roles we’re taught to conform to.  Cosplay affirms that whatever deep longing we have for ourselves can be realized.  Women can be pistol-happy smugglers, and bearded men can be pretty princesses.  For me, it affirmed that we encounter the Divine most fully when connecting to one another as equals, which is easier to do when we have costumes and props that make visible the truth of our inner situations:  We are all so much more than the identities we are taught to portray.  We can pretend like the universe is easy to catalog and categorize, but we run the risk of covering up the messy, complicated, ever-changing aspects of ourselves in the process.  The more we mask the imperfections of our humanity, the more pain and chaos we live with.  To make visible the contradictions and complications that shape so much of our human existence–affirming that we are a mix of male and female traits, we see light and shadow together, we possess strength and weakness simultaneously–is to be set free from pain and chaos.  Maybe that all sounds like a little more analysis than a Comicon could reasonably deserve.  But I can’t help but see the Divine at work in the act of dressing up in costume…maybe because my Princess Leia dress also happens to be my alb, a liturgical vestment I wear when serving communion.

Han Solo saves Princess Leia

You don’t realize how much snark and cynicism is in your life until you encounter purest joy, which almost always happens in vulnerable times and thin spaces.  Unlike superheroes–who put on masks to be who they really are–the masks we humans wear are usually used to conceal the vulnerable parts of ourselves, the parts we most value, the parts we worry the world will inevitably take advantage of or somehow ruin.  And since Comicon, it’s been interesting to ask myself: How do I dress to be my Real Self?  What must I clothe myself in to be who God calls me to be when I’m not wearing the robe?  Am I brave enough to take off the mask of humor and sarcasm, to be vulnerable and present to the world around me?

I’d rather not go through life without letting the world know the real me.

In related news:  I said yes to a date with someone I met online.  6 dates and 3 months later, we are still enjoying getting to know one another.  And it feels nice to set aside the masks.

Happy Halloween.

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2 thoughts on “Secret Identities

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