The 17th century writer of maxims, François de La Rochefoucauld wrote, “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.” He was so skilled at expressing human paradoxes that his maxims are still, often quoted today.
La Rochefoucauld was born into royalty but was involved in plenty of intrigue due to King Louis XIV’s fear and distrust of the nobility. He was once imprisoned for eight days in the Bastille after an humiliating interrogation by Cardinal Richelieu. So, he felt forced to comment and write anonymously. It wasn’t until one of his articles was published in Holland without his permission, that La Rochefoucauld came clean and began writing without an alias.
Although La Rochefoucauld disliked being called a writer, he became well-known for the artistry of skillful arrangement of words into memorable maxims. They outshine his important, yet forgotten treaties and conventions he drew up. The contradictions he observed in the world at large and in his own life inspired his short, insightful proverbs.
All of us wear some form of disguise each day. We do not disguise ourselves as a form of deceit, but we do so out of the desire to survive in a world of uncertainty and danger. Our disguises become the default faces we display to our colleagues, the public, and our acquaintances. Sometimes our disguises work so well we forget who we really are, ourselves. We feel forced to wear disguises for the sake of attracting a mate, friendship, employment, and prestige. Some of us wear masks in order to avoid discrimination and scorn.
“My dad’s idea of punishment was to dress me up in all green to disguise me as grass, and then throw me in the pasture. Cows bit me all over.”–stand-up comedian and actor, Bryan Callen
Wisdom is sometimes disguised as humor. Callen’s little throw-away line can be taken at face value, or it might say that camouflage isn’t always beneficial. Blending into one’s surroundings can sometimes cause personal pain. Regardless of whether or not Callen intended his joke to be insightful, he knew that disguise is sometimes quite absurd.
Disguise as a subject of humor is far less common than disguise used to mask ulterior motives. Dramatic flair, charisma, and seeming charm are used to persuade audiences and build loyalty to a leader and a cause. Such disguise, done exceptionally well, sways large groups of followers to act against their own interests. Thus, disguise becomes the stealth tool of deception to enable greed and lust for power. In the most tragic cases, the followers and the leader become victims of codependent hubris. That is, they become ensnared in their shared delusions of invincibility.
On the more mundane level, we live among our peers and harbor no overt evil intentions. We have become so accustomed to hiding our true selves from others out of fear of ridicule, or banishment that it becomes difficult to even recognize ourselves. Then we wonder why people fail to understand us.