After publishing my last blog post about the need to accept and live with the risk of the virus, I received a comment asking me why I am disheartened when I see people in masks. The person did not understand. Here is my answer to that valid question. In the process of thinking deeply about my response, I better understand myself and why others might not have the same reaction to seeing people in masks. For those different than me, I hope this post will grow empathy and awareness. For those like me, I hope this post will give you words to articulate your own perspective.
During this global testing, I have learned about myself. I assume we all have learned more about ourselves. What we value. What we fear. How well we love those with different views than us. How patient we are when life doesn’t go our way. Prior to COVID, I had a friend that frequently joked that I did not like hugs. Turns out she was wrong. When the government ordered me to stay 6 feet away from everyone, I learned I actually do love hugs. Tremendously. Maybe I don’t initiate hugs as often as my friend, but she and I now know that I most certainly value hugs in my life.
Similarly, when the government ordered everyone to cover up their nose and mouth and chin, the value of seeing an actual face materialized. I didn’t know how much it mattered until it was lost.
I understand not everyone feels this loss like I do. I will attempt to help you understand why seeing a face is priceless to me and consequently disheartening when it’s masked.
First, you need to understand how much I love connecting with people. During my twenty years of marriage, I’ve welcomed many people into my home for a meal and conversation. My husband’s large Christmas work parties, which I loved during his fourteen years at the international public accounting firm, were another chance I had at connecting with people. His work dinners were the same. Going to church is always an opportunity to talk to someone, and we habitually are some of the last people to leave on both Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights. Once on an airplane ride, I made a legit friend with the person next to me, and we hung out a number of times until she moved away. On occasion even the brief Walmart pickup encounter has been a bonding experience. One dream I have is to move to NYC for a time during our empty nest stage of life. Why? Because of the people. So many people. Everywhere. Connecting with people makes me feel alive and refreshes me.
Second thing to know about me is I like people watching. Ever been to The San Antonio River Walk? Perfect place to sit and people watch. Mall food court? Another great location. One time post-college, I did a writing prompt that instructed me to observe someone briefly and then write a fictional story about what was going on in that person’s life in that moment. Fascinating assignment.
Third thing to keep in mind is that I remember faces not names. I wish I could do both, but names seem to elude me 99% of the time unless I really know someone well. Even the names of people who have sat at my dinner table are sadly and embarrassingly not always retained in my feeble memory bank. But faces? That’s a completely different story. Usually faces glimpsed for mere seconds seem permanently etched in my memory.
Fourth thing to consider is how much I notice nonverbals. Years ago when I was getting help for some issues one of my kids was struggling with, I learned that surprisingly not everyone reads nonverbals the same. I had no idea that was even something that we could process differently from person to person. From what I can tell, I tend to be pretty tuned in to facial expressions and tone. Cover up your facial expressions and that alters your communication with me. I can’t read you as well.
Last you need to know that what I see and experience sticks with me. I use to get frustrated that my husband seemed to be unmoved by something on TV or in a movie that greatly disturbed me. Finally I realized that people retain visual images differently. For me, what I see sticks. I don’t just forget it. Same thing with experiences. I take it all in. I’ve had people tell me they can’t believe I remember XYZ happened. I’m not trying to. I just do. Do I remember trivia, historical facts, movie lines, and how to spell words? Not so much. We all have our specialty area for what we remember. Mine happens to be in the visual and experiential realm.
To help you understand the significance of these factors combined, I want to tell you about a man I remember from a NYC subway three years ago despite us never talking to each other. My family of six was spending several days exploring the Big Apple. We made the mistake of riding the subway to head back to our lodging during the evening rush hour. Packed like sardines, we had to endure a 30 minute ride standing up. This was our first time ever in a NYC subway car during rush hour. I was literally scared my youngest, who was 6 at the time, would be crushed. As my other three kids protectively stood around her, I frantically told them, “Stand your ground!” At some point during this stressful transportation experience when I happened to glance around, I noticed the man. He was standing close to us and appeared to be a businessman approximately in his 30s (though I’m really bad at judging ages!). His genial facial expression communicated amusement at our predicament. Families were definitely not in the majority of passengers. We very well might have been the only family on that crowded subway car. No other children were visible. Only towering, silent, tired adults having just finished a hard day’s work pressed in around us. I don’t know all that the man was thinking that day. I don’t know if we triggered some memory from his own childhood or as a father. Or if he just enjoyed seeing children on his ride home for a change. But, whatever his thoughts, his facial expression and seeming joy at our presence was a great comfort to me in that difficult moment. As so many seemed oblivious or indifferent to our plight, he had actually noticed us and was smiling. His face has stuck with me and is the first thing that comes to mind when reflecting on that horrible commute. A face that I wouldn’t have been able to see today.
Why is it disheartening for me to see people in masks today? That small piece of fabric that supposedly keeps in the virus also keeps in the encouragement, the strength, and the connections that are shared simply by seeing someone’s face. Carrying on conversations, or even simply ordering food at a restaurant, is often not an easy task when masks are involved. Even people I know well have been hard to understand when a mask is worn. With facial expressions hidden, nonverbals are greatly reduced as well. However, the one big nonverbal unavoidably yelled loud and clear when wearing a mask is, “Stay away!” Consequently, connecting and communicating with people has been severely impacted. People watching is definitely not the same. And, I no longer have faces to add to my memory bank. Even faces I already know have surprisingly not always been recognizable when encountered in public. The most shocking experience was when someone I know very well recognized me and a friend at a restaurant and eagerly said hi to us. At first, I had no idea who was behind the mask. Last, since what I see and experience sticks with me, all of these negative interactions are not just forgotten. Now my memory bank is becoming full of moments where connection was significantly diminished. Not a good feeling for someone who feels refreshed and energized after meaningful connection.
Bottom line: that fabric across the face is significantly hindering interpersonal connections
Until now, I have silently endured the masks without vocalizing my perspective on social media or my blog. I had confidence that “this too shall pass.” I pressed on to the finish line, which I thought had finally arrived this summer. Praise God! What a huge relief! When the CDC now proclaims that vaccinated people need to mask up again, I see no end-date in sight. Ever. No finish line. That’s why I’m finally sharing how I see masks negatively impacting society. When will we start prioritizing and stop sacrificing all of those moments of priceless interpersonal connections that can never be quantified or fully measured for their positive impact?
To those who claim that we are killing people when we don’t wear masks, please consider this. I have faithfully been attending church for the past 14 months without wearing a mask. I have been going to our martial arts school without wearing a mask. The majority in both of those venues have not been wearing masks. How many of those hundreds of people have died from COVID? Zero. Who exactly have I killed?
What does hurt others is how I treated the one and only person who has died during the past 14 months and had entered one of those buildings during the pandemic. Though I value hugs, on one particular Sunday early on in all this turmoil, an elderly widow, who always has a smile and a humorous interjection to add to the conversation, wanted a hug from me. She lived all by herself with no family nearby and would constantly speak of her husband, who she missed terribly. Over the years, I had spent quite a bit of time with her, had her in my home, and knew her well. On this particular day at church, our paths had crossed outside. How did I respond to this widow’s initiation of a hug? Without hesitation, I vocally told her no. The government of my country and state and the elders of my church had instructed us to socially distance, and I was seeking to submit and obey their orders. In the moment, I thought I was doing the right thing. The loving thing. I am thankful to God that when He called this widow to Heaven suddenly and unexpectedly it was only after I had given her another hug. I cannot imagine the pain I caused her that Sunday, nor the pain I would have had to live with if that had been our last interaction. Have we as a society forgotten the impact a hug can have? Have we forgotten the science about one of the most normal and natural gestures of love?
Like this widow, we have an unavoidable appointment with death. (Hebrews 9:27). Maybe we will die from a virus. Maybe from a car accident. Maybe in our sleep. But let’s face and accept the hard truth: death is coming for each of us. As to the pandemic, we all endured the shut-downs, wore the masks, and waited for the vaccine. It’s here. When will we have the freedom to remove the fabric across our faces so we can strengthen the social fabric of our society?