My wife and I are mask-wearers. When we cover our faces in public, people may wonder, “Who’s behind those masks?” *The Lone Ranger, one of my all-time radio favorites, got that same reaction; people wanted to know who he was under that disguise. This pandemic may set up the same question about us.
At first glance, our face coverings identify us in two ways: On the one hand—as senior citizens—we belong to one of the cohorts of statistically probable victims of this incurable disease. (Sadly and unjustly, those who are poor—particularly persons of color—are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19.) When we wear our masks in public, those who meet us could justifiably think that we are trying to protect ourselves. They would be correct.
On the other hand—starting from the earliest days of public health warnings—our masks might also signal that we are trying to protect those around us from exposure to the virus. Whether currently experiencing symptoms or not, we could be carriers of this disease. Because the virus particles can linger on surfaces and live inside us invisibly, those who think of us as possibly dangerous might also be correct.
Another who’s-behind-the-mask fact that’s most basic: Those of us who wear masks in public are doing our part to limit the spread of this disease. We understand that, in a pandemic, the greater good is served by individuals who consider the welfare of the larger society to be more important than their personal needs or desires. As a small measure of self-sacrifice—somewhat akin to self-isolation—mask-wearing results in the well-being of others we will never know. Other resolute mask-donners might also understand that reason for our mask-wearing. They would also be correct.
Wearing a mask in public remains just a little bit strange for me. The negative connotations are strong. Keeping my face away from others’ view may seem like I’m trying to hide or disguise my true self—as though I don’t want others to see my feelings or character. Because most people have some skill at reading faces for social clues that undergird their social interactions, my mask might deprive them of that possibility. Or maybe, just maybe, I just miss being recognized for who I am—I don’t do well as an anonymous other—I’m not a lone ranger.
However odd it feels for Chris and me to wear masks—and however unsettling to seem like we are strangers or worse—it feels right for us to keep at this practice. We want to be examples of reasonable caution. The consequences of disregarding even this simplest practice—similar in intent to social distancing—can be severe. Nothing good can come from ignoring these scientific facts: This pandemic kills people and ruins lives. Masks slow it down.
One more thing to tell you, a personal note: When I need to balance the sadness and strangeness that comes with mask-wearing, all I have to do is think about your countenances and characteristics—those of you who I know and have known from our friendships over the years. When I think about you, I’m okay again. Thanks for your faces.
Masked or otherwise, I know who you are….
*The question, “Say, who WAS that masked man?” was one of the final lines in every episode of The Lone Ranger. The kindness of this outlaw-fighting stranger didn’t have a face or name attached to it. Listeners and viewers were left with only this tantalizing clue to the masked man’s identity: He was a former Texas Ranger with a passion for justice. His Native-American partner was equally enigmatic.