It's not often that picture of a clown stops me in my tracks because it reminds me of me. But it happened when I found myself in front of Mary Swanzy's painting Clown by Candlelight at the Circus250: Art of the Show exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland.
In the picture, the clown sits at a table, still in his outfit but with his greasepaint off and resting his head in his hands. It's a very private moment, away from the gaze of anyone else.
That’s me, I thought. When everyone has gone, when I’m not projecting anything to anyone anymore, that’s me, the “me” that, in most of our cases, is only known to those who see us every day with our guard down.
Mary Swanzy painted the picture in the 1940s. At that time, the clown would probably not want his public to see him like that. It might spoil the illusion.
Today, everything has changed, and the clown might take a selfie and put it up on Instagram, saying something like, "A quiet moment after the show. What a great audience. Can't wait for tomorrow."
The boundary wall between private and public hasn’t collapsed – but it’s crumbling.
Social media is castigated as a space in which people put their public selves up for admiration by other people's public selves. It's not as simple as that. I can think of people who, among other things, put their medical diagnoses up on Facebook, relate fights with teachers on behalf of their children, or chronicle the breakdown of a love affair with, eventually, happy, beaming photographs with the new Significant Other, and so on.
Back in 2008, a professor of sociology, Janelle Wilson, in an article in Psychology Today, noted that since the 1980s, people have been living increasing parts of their lives publicly.
Wherever we go, we are under surveillance from cameras in stores, houses, shops, offices, cars even, sometimes, bicycle helmets. And then if we do something stupid that we would like to remain private, anybody with a smartphone could have the incident on YouTube before we've finished blushing. In your own home, a parent may record your entire childhood on Facebook until you get old enough to tell the offending parent to quit doing that.
The mobile phone enables us to keep our calls to ourselves by going off to a private space to talk. But what do we do? Lots of us choose to have our conversations in public, often to the annoyance of bystanders.
Of course, we continue to be fascinated by the private and by discrepancies between what we see and what we find out. The breakdown of celebrities’ relationships interest us because they give a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes – except that if the breakdown is fought out in public it’s not really private.
We used to guard our private lives jealously – like that clown who made sure his door was shut before he revealed his private face.
Today, maybe it’s our public lives we need to guard. How often does it happen now that a public remark that is deemed unacceptable by onlookers – the mob as I sometimes think of them – brings fire, brimstone and retribution down on the guilty one?
In the middle of all this, what can you hold on to? Listening to your gut feeling, I would say.
That’s the closest you can get, I think, to whoever it is you are behind the greasepaint – today’s greasepaint being your posts on Facebook and Instagram and your always-happy selfies. Now and then, silence the endless talk in your head, bring your attention right down to your stomach and see how you feel.
Your gut can give you a good steer when you’re unsure of what do and when you are no longer sure who you are. It’s not always right, but it’s right enough of the time.
Circus250: Art of the Show exhibition is on until October 14th. Prof Wilson's article is at bit.ly/janellewilson
Padraig O'Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)