My son is now a project manager for a large hospital system. Two weeks ago, he took on the task of getting remote communications and monitoring programs into ICUs so nurses could monitor Covid-19 patients without having to always enter into the patients’ rooms. This has required his team to do in weeks what they normally did in months. It also requires him to now go into offices and hospitals.
Yesterday his job began early and was non-stop. Finally in mid-afternoon, he got a chance to have lunch. As he was sitting at his desk eating a sandwich, a staff member walked by, stopped, and stared at him. “I’ve never seen what you look like,” the staff member said. “Since I met you two weeks ago, you have always had your mask on.” The staff member, of course, was wearing a mask.
I’ve been thinking about this. What happens to us when we have our masks on. I don’t mean that symbolically. I mean actually having a mask on. Interactions during my walks have changed. Before masks, if someone was also walking on the other side of the street, we would meet eyes, or wave, or even engage in a socially distanced conversation. It’s much harder to do now. Glances are brief, no talking. The masks have become mini walls that separate us.
The eyes are the window to the soul, I’ve read. But that isn’t true. Humanity is in the face. The eyes, yes, but also the mouth, the facial muscles; they all tell us about the person before us. When I go out of the house now, I am hiding myself in a way that I have never done in my life.
On the internet there are now ads for pretty masks, colorful masks, upscale masks. I am one with the People of the Mask. I am no longer an individual. The color or style of my mask makes no difference. It is the Maskness that defines us. The individualistic striving for style cannot overcome the ironic unity of the mask.
The mask, if it is a symbol at all, is a symbol of how the country has changed and how much we cannot control. All we can do is wear a mask. But even with that, there is a qualitative difference in maskness. The upscale mask says one thing. The homemade mask, another. And the bag of masks sewn to health specifications by individuals and given to the nurses my son is trying to protect, means something completely different.
The masks have a message for us. It is as profoundly prophetic and deep as the voice of Isaiah or Amos. We are Divinely commanded. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” We must remember that the call to wear masks outside is not so much to protect ourselves, but to protect our neighbors. And they wear masks to protect us. We are safer when we care for each other. The plague is kept at bay when we value each person we see on the street. We all look alike, we all wear a mask. We are all one family.
(Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser is the CRSL Jewish Student Adviser.)