By Mel Luymes
Do you hate wearing a mask? Yeah, me too.
I’ve got a few cute ones, but every time I put one on, I feel terrible. It’s not just because I feel suffocated and I can smell what I ate for lunch (not always a bad thing!), but to me it’s a symbol of these “unprecedented” times. Maybe for a wee moment I forget as I breathe easy and skip carefree towards the grocery store, but I have a sad, sinking feeling as I remember the pandemic and turn around to grab a mask from the vehicle.
This is also the point I remember that I had forgotten my reusable bags too.
In a mask, I feel like I can’t communicate. I can’t tell who is talking to me, or what they are saying. Some days, when I don’t feel like smiling at people, I don’t. What’s the point? They can’t see it anyways. The only plus side is that I don’t self-consciously check my teeth for bits of spinach or black pepper.
I bought some adorable masks in South Korea when I taught English there a decade ago. It was common, all year round, for people to be wearing masks in public and for students to wear them to school. I felt offended and put off because I assumed these people were ultra-germaphobes and thought the rest of us could contaminate them. Until I came to work with a cough and my Korean co-workers stayed clear of me and gave me awkward glances. A Korean friend politely explained that it is respectful to wear a mask when I’m sick or if people in my house are sick. A mask saves my potentially germy spittle from flying everywhere, especially useful when packed into subway cars like sardines!
Only then did I really get that wearing a mask is an act of kindness. Duh. When I understood that, I saw that the masked Koreans at the grocery store were protecting me from getting sick, or worse. So what if I couldn’t see their smile, the mask was smile enough. I did a 180 in my views on masks during my time there.
But fast forward to here and now, and it is mandated that we wear masks. Mandated to be respectful and slow the transmission of a virus. Somehow that changes things, doesn’t it?
This mask issue (and the pandemic itself) has now become a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment. Do masks even work? Is this virus a hoax? Is the government taking away our freedom?
I get it. Nobody likes wearing a mask or being told what to do, whether by the law or from peer pressure. This pandemic sucks. For everyone. And in different ways. There is so much to be angry about and it is natural to want to blame someone.
The government is an easy target. And call me naive, but these ARE the people we elected and hold responsible to make difficult decisions on our behalf for the greater good. No doubt, our leaders are losing sleep over this. We won’t know which is the “right” decision for several years. Maybe there is no right decision.
I’m thinking, though, that this goes deep to the heart of our individual rights and responsibilities living as members of a community. A throwback to high school civics class: as Canadian citizens, we have the right to education, healthcare, justice, etc. but have a responsibility to pay taxes, obey laws, vote, etc.
On one hand, we have a right to free speech, but that really depends on what we’re saying and if it impacts the freedoms of others. Swearing in public parks could get a fine (note to self), and stating false accusations is considered slander or libel under the Criminal Code. Things get really muddy in times like these when we don’t know what is fact or what is fiction, but I would think twice before retweeting something if there would actually be consequences for spreading fake news.
Of course, we can (and should) challenge our politicians and lawmakers but it is a slippery slope to challenge or ignore the institution of law or government itself. These officials are the ones who are, and will be, held responsible for the greater good. Advertisers, fear-mongers or click-bait creators are not.
Communities work when each member takes personal responsibility for their contribution to that community. Being a good member of society means that I’m willing to consider that I might be part of the problem, and take action to protect people from myself.
And it is more than just spreading a virus or spreading fake news. A few months back, a truck sped past me and then sped past a few other vehicles, nearly caused a head-on, multi-vehicle collision before hitting the shoulder and somersaulting into a corn field. Thank goodness the driver and everyone else was okay. But I have been a more careful driver since seeing that. My being late for an appointment or needing to respond to a text message is not anyone else’s problem and I should not make it anyone else’s problem. I’m responsible for driving safely and paying attention, and I need to trust that others are doing the same.
But I’m not stopping there. What else am I responsible for? Recycling? Properly disposing of old tires? Improving soil health?
And where else could I be part of the problem? My having a bad day isn’t anyone else’s problem, and I don’t need make it theirs. I think we have a responsibility to deal with our own anger, unconscious bias or negativity and not put it into our families, onto children or into the community.
This level of kindness and responsibility can’t be mandated, can it? Imagine if we were required to hold doors open for little old ladies, or go to therapy to manage our childhood traumas?
Though I hate wearing masks, I love that moment when I catch another person’s eye and we both smile despite ourselves, creasing our eyes. As if to laugh at how ridiculous our masks are and how painful this whole pandemic is, or to acknowledge the kindness and respect of the other for wearing a mask.
It reminds me again how connected we are. And that’s why I wear a mask. ◊