Who We Are

It has become cliché to say “What strange days these are!” But in truth, we are all living in our own little surreal worlds, part nightmare, part twisted blessing. Days are peppered with the gift of time off of our typical merry-go-rounds and the struggle to find focus without our usual motivations. In this new reality, we spin rather aimlessly on a different, unfamiliar contraption that feels zig-zaggy and uneven, keeping us off-balance and hanging on for dear life. We live by the latest news of hotspots, outbreaks, and ever-changing strategies, and by the fear that a loved one will inhale the wrong breath of tainted air and be taken from us. We have grown weary of the measures, the masks, the distance, and the hand sanitizer, and we seem to welcome guidance from people who speak in authoritative tones, telling us the things we want to hear that might justify doing what we know we should not do.

As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I was raised with mantras like “work before play,” “discipline is the key,” and “work beats talent when talent fails to work.” These drumbeats are part of my fiber, and I have spent a lifetime doing what I believe needs to be done, often at the expense of respites, vacations, and regular leisure activities. With that as my reference point, I have to say that I cannot fathom why we, as a society, have not been able to agree upon and sustain a commitment to the simplest health measure of wearing a mask. While it is indeed true that masks can be warm and somewhat stifling, the advantage of protecting each other from serious illness far outweighs any temporary discomfort. Even if the evidence was sketchy on the benefit of mask-wearing (which it is not), the chance of saving even one life should be worth the action. Have we become numb to the death toll? Would just one life matter more to us if it was our own?

As for the argument that masks infringe upon our liberty, it is mind-boggling to me that one might draw that conclusion when hundreds of thousands of lives have already been lost. It should be a tenet of freedom to feel the strength of protecting ourselves and others, even if the act of wearing a mask does not suit us. We wear clothing in public because it is the law and is an accepted structure of society, but certainly, some might feel more comfortable wearing little or no clothing at all. But we do it. We throw trash in garbage cans, although it would be much more convenient to discard something wherever we stop needing it and toss it over our shoulders without a care. We wear seatbelts and observe speed limits on the road because these practices reduce risk. We endure lengthy lines and security checks at airports as a matter of public transportation safety. We submit to the process of getting a driver’s license when it would be far more “free” to just hop in a car and push the pedal on our own terms with or without competence. We force our young people to attend school, which most kids would definitely say infringes upon their freedoms, but we agree that it is a good idea and a worthy investment in the future. These are all forms of structure and some of it is hard, and dare I say, far more difficult than strapping on a mask, but we adhere to them because we live in a society of friends, families, communities, and constructs that are there to protect our freedoms and our right to live better. Mask-wearing in a global pandemic is no different than any other sensible structure, but it’s gotten profoundly muddled in a way that I find both baffling and discouraging.

As long as the COVID era lasts, you will find me in a thick, filtered mask. I do it for myself and I do it for my community, because that older woman in the grocery store line that I might breathe toward with my mask hanging casually below my nose might be your grandmother. And I would respectfully ask you to keep your breath off my 92-year-old dad. We should do it for each other and we should do it because we are civilized. I am beyond tired of hearing people say “we are better than this” and “this is not who we are.” I am afraid that until we can begin to think with a clear, unified vision and make choices with each other in mind, this is exactly who we are.

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