At the midpoint of summer and with a predominant strain of COVID that seems less deadly for the vaccinated, it can feel as though the pandemic is far from us. So, with more people outdoors and greater comfort overall with the increasing sense that the virus has indeed gone endemic, it feels as though in many places that there is the tacit message that if you are human, you should make every effort to return to what we had before. Handshakes. Hugs. Dancing on crowded floors. Breathing in each others’ musical exhalations.
I began instituting a policy of masks for in-person sessions with clients around this time last year, reasoning that my smallish office with suspect ventilation might be an ideal environment for perpetuating the thing that has held all of our attentions for for so very long. Most of my clients have happily complied– they are, after all, used to it. The ones that have not agreed to it have not requested in-person sessions, so I don’t quite know whether they think of me as an anxious prude or not. Whatever the case, a mask-wearing policy seems to be something that hasn’t really interfered with the work I do.
Moreover, I live in a part of Vancouver where a significant proportion of people are still wearing masks almost everywhere they go: the grocery store, restaurants, and even out for morning walks. It can lead one to feel as though there is still a healthy respect for a novel virus and its effects. And, it should be said, I do live in a community with a much higher percentage of people of Asian descent, many of whom remember SARS and were wearing masks on public transit and in stores well before the current pandemic struck. In addition, it is a well-established tradition out of concern for the community that many people of Asian descent will wear masks when they are sick so as not to infect others and cause them suffering as well.
Yet it is with great distaste that I read a recent article from a “thought leader” (although I have no idea who this person is, they apparently have something of a following) that gleefully spoke of how he engaged his family in burning their masks. He described how each of his children had different reactions, and then used one who refused’s reactions to illustrate a point about being “institutionalized.” He referenced the Shawshank Redemption– one of my favourite movies– and seemed to indicate that those who could not let go of their masks after a governmental “all clear” (those governmental “all clears” age like milk don’t they?) were somehow enslaved and fearful.
To a certain extent, I agree. I too yearn for the day when we might feel well enough about everything to get rid of masks forever. But as a psychologist, I balk at pronouncements that some (not the author of that article) people make that masks are harming the mental health of our children. The truth is, we don’t know yet. Psychology as a discipline is a funny thing in that it takes time to understand the impacts of events on our “psyche.” True, it appears that youth mental health has been at a harrowing nadir over the course of the pandemic, but reasons for this may not have anything to do with mask-wearing itself. It may be that children are discovering that the world and their lives may not go according to the narrative that their parents have taught them, and that they are wrestling with the immediacy of an issue that is an outcropping of the boogeyman of climate change: a universal condition to which there seems to be no good solution. Nonetheless, irrespective of conscious consent, it is a condition to which they are made deeply subject.
Talk about unfair.
And yet to equate reluctance to leave off wearing a mask to “institutionalization” is to express a shortsighted and even ignorant perspective. This may be because the writer writes as a privileged Western Christian white male for whom institutions have largely worked and therefore, maybe doesn’t realize that his expressions of independent “anti-institutionalized” thinking actually tread on the fears of others as being immaterial or inconsequential. It is the reverse of a trauma-informed approach. And though I am no particular fan of trauma-informed approaches in their popular Instagrammable form (but yes, I do try to practice a trauma-informed approach in my personal and professional life), being trauma-informed and deciding to walk in the way of it acknowledges the pain of others as substantial and real just makes good loving sense, even if we have no personal experience of it for ourselves. Although after a cursory bit of internet research reveals the author to probably be within similar political houses in which I dwell, his lack of understanding of what it might mean to love our neighbours and journey with them in their various states is astounding.
It is worth wondering why cities that are heavy in Asian population such as my own seem to have a higher proportion of habitual mask-wearers than other places. That is a question for someone who gets paid to research these things to investigate, but it would not surprise me if it was not only anxiety over illness, but that there might be some dimension of interdependency and communitarianism (not communism!) being expressed. That is, for people from interdependent cultures, enduring a little discomfort to keep others safe is a matter of course.
It is not a secret that I am solidly pro-vaccine. But this, not because I am convinced that the vaccines I have received are bulletproof or were as rigorously studied in double-blind situations as I would have hoped, but because basic love of neighbour impresses upon me the need to take every precaution I can to prevent the spread of a disease that could hurt many people who either cannot be vaccinated (read: young children) or who have compromised immune systems, such as the many people in my sphere who are struggling with cancer even as I write this.
But let it also not be a secret that even though I am fully vaccinated (and have just scheduled my 2nd booster shot), I continue to wear a mask indoors not necessarily because I am afraid of being sick, but because I might have a virus that will kill you or perhaps, mysteriously so, lead to months upon months of suffering in its long form. Wearing a mask is my expression of solidarity not only with those who are fearful of becoming sick, but it is my small part in indicating that we are still in this together, and that what affects one of us, affects us all. Or, if you prefer, what infects one of us potentially infects us all.
Maybe it’s the interdependent Asian in me that thinks this way. If so, then I’ll happily wear it. But just because it is culturally conditioned doesn’t mean it’s unhelpful for some or wrong for all.
I confess, anti-maskers do not do much to earn my approval, especially those who would display in their “freedom” an unwillingness to make a small adjustment for the lives of others. I think here of St. Paul’s admonition concerning meat offered to idols (cf. 1 Corinthians 8) where he enjoins Christ-following communities to consider the “weakness” of others as something to be borne by all so that, in the particular case of the Corinthians, there would be no confusion in these less theologically-sophisticated people that you cannot actually engage in pagan idolatry and follow Jesus at the same time. I recognize that confusion around allowances for polytheism for fledgling believers in the Ancient Near East is a bit of an apple to the orange of mask-wearing during a 21st century pandemic, but can we not also “weep with those who weep” and are fearful of the disease, and can we not flaunt our “freedom” not to wear masks to our family in Jesus? Especially the latter, for it can be interpreted as a juvenile attempt at displaying courage. Does this in fact show courage and encourage others? Or is it the adolescent mind that proclaims fearlessness over heights and pretends to practice parkour over city rooflines and expects in their false machismo that this would make it safe for all?
Detractors have argued that Jesus touched lepers, and so in some ways gives us license to be bare-faced in all situations. (I have also read that mask-wearing is a distortion of the image of God, which, if true, would mean that all clothing is a distortion of the image of God!) But let us keep in mind that the principle I am arguing for is concern and care for others, not for oneself. What lepers needed from Jesus was not only their physical healing, but also the reminder that they are human by way of his seeing and touching them. Mask-wearing is not an equivalent because it is not a shunning from community such as lepers were treated in Jesus’ time, but rather, it is a precaution for those of us who live in communal indoor spaces.
Even more, to ask others to remove masks because of your felt freedom displays ignorance of the various reasons they might want to keep wearing masks. I have had more than a few female clients tell me over the last few years that they enjoy wearing masks and will continue to wear them because they feel less pressure to “smile and be pretty”, and feel fewer prurient male gazes in their direction as a whole. Not only this, but I have noticed that clients and others who may be on the autism spectrum seem to like the “squeezing” and limiting of sensory data that masks can provide.
I titled this post with conditional language (“maybe”) because it is always dangerous to say Jesus would do one thing or another without actually being Jesus. I hope to be surprised and proven wrong about who I think is in the renewed heaven and earth with me. But making sense of what Jesus does and his Spirit says with respect to the consistent theme of paraclesis (“coming alongside”) and indeed, his very Incarnation and kenosis (“self-emptying”) should be instructive about what Jesus might do were carrying out an earthly ministry in the here and now.
Will there be a time when we can be free of masks for this particular pandemic? I think so. But that time is slow in coming. Although the author explicitly wrote that they were relatively indifferent to their child’s reluctance and that he seemed willing to work with it, the grand display of burning your old masks seems excessive. Why not just say, “we don’t need these anymore” and then, if you so desire, discreetly throw them out? Why not make a commemorative quilt out of the cloth scraps? Oh, because burning displays contempt for a thing, which is why ignoramuses have book burnings and not “archive the books so that they’re forgotten festivals.” And as new variants continue to rise and render public spaces inaccessible to those who for medical or psychological (or both) reasons cannot access them, chastising anyone for their reluctance to let go of their masks is not only backwards–dare I say it– it may even be sinful. The apparent display of contempt for a thing, not altogether effective and symbolic though it may be, intimate’s the author’s mind for those who might still see the use of masks. And it is this lack of consideration for the state of others that is far more contemptuous than a baseless charge of “institutionalization.”