I don’t know how much longer we will be wearing masks, but I’m going to assume they’re here for the long-haul. So I finally went online and ordered myself a pretty cotton one on Etsy, instead of continuing to wear the disposable ones that somehow made me feel like maybe this is just a bad dream that is imminently going away. It seems the nine dollar investment into a “real” mask was an inner statement that this isn’t ending soon.
The mask phenomenon has caused several disturbing changes to my psychological equilibrium.
Firstly, when I am masked, I am hiding.
I am concealed from the world. No one can see me smile at them in a store. No one can see whether my lips are moving in synagogue. My soft singing along with the cantor is not heard by my fellow congregants, because it is muffled. I don’t know if people recognize me when I’m out and about. In a sense, I am costumed. It’s like I’m moving about the world incognito.
Truthfully, this is strangely liberating. I’m the kind of person who’s always searching out familiar faces in the grocery store, and making it my business to smile at strangers. Now that particular mission has been suspended. I am off the hook, so to speak. I don’t have to smile or recognize anyone because they won’t even know. I don’t have to worry about anyone misreading my facial cues or signals because there is nothing to read. Just a mask. We are all we have all been reduced to just masks.
Makeup has become largely irrelevant. Why bother, when your lipstick is only going to ruin your mask and your face is mostly not visible? Again: liberating.
But it’s also depressing. Do I even matter? If a woman goes grocery shopping, and no one knows it’s her, was she even there?
Secondly, let’s talk about the masks of all my other fellow humans. Most of the time I don’t even know who my fellow shoppers are. I can’t tell if the person across the room is someone that I recognize or not. I can’t tell if they look different or happy or sad.
So in some ways our societal culture of neighborliness that Mr. Fred Rogers so iconically characterized for us has just taken another giant step backwards. It’s hard enough to find time to chit chat with your neighbors in person, but it takes so much more effort from behind a mask. Loneliness, one of the greatest threats to our contemporary society, has just been strengthened big time.
Pre-Covid, we all lamented the lack of real face-to-face time as we hid behind texts and social media. But now that precious rare face time has gotten even more compromised. If there’s anything that feels apocalyptic about this bizarre era we find ourselves in, it is the masked nature of our already fleeting human interactions.
Jewish mysticism teaches that the eyes are the window to the soul. Our faces do not belong to us. They are public property. No one can ever truly see his own face; we can only see reflections of it in a mirror. Our faces, or facial expressions, or smiles, are there for the world: to bring more joy and to bring more connection. Now that half of that face is covered, what’s left?
What’s left is our eyes. The windows to the soul. So let’s use our eyes to look deeply at other human beings. To look into another person’s eyes and see if they’re OK. To smile with our eyes when our smiles don’t show. We need to squeeze every ounce of connection out of the little that’s left to us right now until, God willing, we can finally unmask and hopefully, truly, see each other again.