Wear a mask

By on March 20, 2021

Wear a mask. It’ll change your life.

Last week, my wife and I were in counseling with our therapist. Both of them have given me consent to write about our conversation.

Our therapist, K, mentioned that, in terms of “everything getting back to normal”, in the sense that we’re not in this COVID-19 particular state of crisis and emotional assault, she’d read that it would take about five years.

Haha, I joked: the next pandemic will have already started by then.

It has been difficult, right? If you’re reading this, odds are you probably score highly on the conscientious index. You understand the reasons behind wearing a face mask and that you have decided to put collective wellbeing above personal inconvenience.

Like last year, we’re in transition: this time to the prospect of mass vaccination. This period brings a new flavor to the stress we’ve been experiencing, a different one from March of last year. The coming months are just as unknown, just as unprecedented. It’s entirely reasonable to feel worried or anxious about what’s coming next, what it will be like, how we will behave or choose to behave, both individually and collectively.

We talked about March last year as part of processing this latest change. I had taken my last flight on February 29, coming back from a workshop at Berkeley. For some of us, we were about to enter a constant state of alert. Going out, we would be scanning, continually, for threats: at the supermarket, is that man too close to me? Should I be sanitizing everything? Have I sanitized enough? Do I have the right kind of mask?

We never stopped, but as summer ended, what we were scanning for changed. Is opening back up safe? Should we be sending children back? Should we be going back to work? In America, it got worse as we got closer to Thanksgiving and December holidays.

We’ve lived with this for over a year now. You can feel it, right? It’s exhausting. All that cortisol, all of that adrenaline.
In the last few weeks, during this new in-between state of the vaccine coming, but not, as the saying goes, evenly distributed, K had gone on a family trip to a town in central Oregon. It was an expedition from the blue Democrat-voting region marking the Portland metropolitan area into a sea of purple turning to red to red.

K is in a high-risk category. She told us about her group diligently wearing masks and keeping distant. Together, they were being responsible. Even if it looks like hope is on the way, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. We can’t afford to let our guard down now, when we’re so close.

But when her group went about town, they were surrounded by people who weren’t wearing masks, outside or inside.
It made them anxious. Why weren’t these people taking precautions? Hadn’t they seen the science? Didn’t they want to keep other people safe?

K knew the answer. Here, in this community, not wearing a mask was a point of pride. This wasn’t really a surprise. K had family here.

This was the first time she’d been in such a situation, among so many people like this. She had taken the trip thinking that perhaps things would be safer now that the end was in sight.

But the community she was in was behaving as if there wasn’t a pandemic going on at all.

As if everything were back to normal.

Only there was one difference.

Everywhere she looked, it felt like there were people staring at her. Judging her.

Some people were actively angry at her, derisive: oh, you’re one of those mask wearers.

Everywhere, contempt for her and her group.

It was worst indoors, she said.

The trip had turned into something else. On top of the persistent scanning for threat of the last year, of looking around worried whether people are wearing their masks correctly, making sure you’re keeping appropriate distance, and so on, now she and her family were in a situation with a new stress: pervasive and persistent scorn, judgment, hatred and contempt.

We sympathized. That sounds horrible.

And then I thought a little about what my life has been like.

I said: this is like racism.

How do you mean, asked my wife and K.

I said: because people were judging you because of how you looked. They didn’t know anything about you, but for the fact that you were wearing a mask. You were in constant fear at any interaction.

People were calling you names. You were made fun of. And while you weren’t physically assaulted, but suddenly you were in an environment where you were on high alert because you were worried you could be. You’d seen videos of people being spat on, coughed at. Anyone could’ve been a threat to you. You were outnumbered. You were sticking out. You were marked.

I said: Imagine growing up like that.

Imagine the world being like that from the moment you’re born, for every single day. Imagine only feeling safer when you’re around other people like you. Imagine never knowing when or if someone’s going to explode at you.
But the difference is, you could leave.

The difference is, when this is over, you can take your mask off.

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