The End of the Mask-erade

Today, it’s official. You no longer have to wear a mask in outdoor spaces in Israel! Several nights ago, my husband, with a huge smile on his face, conveyed this new ruling to me, expecting me to erupt in jubilation.  Yet, I found that my reaction, while positive, was more subdued than either of us would have suspected. That was unanticipated.

While my husband has evinced minimal distress during this pandemic over the necessity of masking, he knows that I hate masks! Perhaps, to be fair, I should amend that last statement. After all, masks have been instrumental in reducing the spread of Covid-19. We should be grateful for them. So, let’s just say that I dislike masks intensely!

There are several reasons for my antipathy. For one thing, I find that it causes my breathing to be significantly more labored. I’ve tried different masks, but I breathe much better without one. Additionally, when I am driving around the city, I find the sight of so many masked people to be rather unsettling. I feel as if I’m in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Moreover, I am a “people person.” Communicating with others is a not only a delight but a necessity for me. However, speaking from behind a mask deprives a conversation of one of its most essential elements, that of facial expressions. One of the most important of these is the smile.  I quoted a study about smiles in my book Letters from Planet Corona. The study cited research that showed that a real, unfaked, smile engages both the mouth and eyes. Consequently, even with your mouth covered, the other person can sense your smile. Despite that, a masked conversation still does not measure up to an unmasked one.

The question then remains; why was I less than thrilled with the prospect of the gradual disappearance of masking? Perhaps, ironically, it’s because masks are one of the most ubiquitous symbols of the pandemic, and the end of masking also portends the beginning of the end of the historic Corona epidemic. And why would that long-anticipated vista fail to galvanize and delight me? Conceivably, because what was, on many levels, a global calamity was, simultaneously, a global opportunity. An opportunity that may have largely been wasted.

Concomitant with our masking ourselves, beginning about 14 months ago, other, often-hidden, truths became “un-masked.” We discovered that neither science nor medicine has all the answers to any crisis. Millions of people have died. Others, who were ill, have lingering health consequences due to Covid. We have no idea at all what the future has in store. But the unmasked truth is that it has always been so. Potentially lethal bacteria and viruses are always to be found in our vicinity, and the prospect of a pandemic is an ever-threatening presence.

To our dismay, we found the world’s leaders unable to cope properly with the unfolding pandemic which wreaked havoc on the world’s economy, the health of citizens, and our children’s education, to name just a few of the failings. All of this led to a dawning realization that we as humans are not in charge! Moreover, we never have been. Many of us had been under a delusion that our leaders, as well as our up-to-date science, medicine, and technology would provide all the needed answers. That delusion was unmasked during this crisis.

But what were we to do with these revelations?  Judging by articles written during this period and many Zoom discussions, a number of us sought to find enduring meaning in these unprecedented times. The words of the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are instructive and inspirational:

“For me, the most personally transformative of all beliefs has been the idea of hashgacha peratit, divine providence. Whenever something unexpected has happened in my life, I have always asked, “What is Heaven trying to tell me? How does it want me to respond? Given that this has happened, how shall I turn this moment into a blessing?

                                                (from  Judaism’s Life-changing Ideas)

            “Something unexpected” certainly happened in our lives in the last year or so. We have literally been “sent to our room” for a global “time out.” This time for reflection was imposed upon us against our will but, nonetheless, could have afforded an opportunity for introspection and a re-evaluation of our past beliefs and endeavors. Perhaps, it might have resulted in commitments for positive change individually, societally, and globally.

            But the question is, did it? Have we used our time so that the post-corona world is a somewhat better place?  A world less driven by materialism. One that is more conscious of and kinder to the most vulnerable among us. Has our human hubris given way to greater modesty and true understanding?  Or, will the unmasking of ourselves lead to the re-masking of the lessons we might have learned during this era?  Will we try, at long last, to return to the “old normal” of our nostalgic memory, or will we attempt to create a “new and improved normal” going forward?

            Perhaps the most optimistic, positive, and useful approach involves another, often-masked truth; i.e., that we cannot really change others. Each individual is ultimately responsible only for their own self-improvement. We can encourage others towards becoming their best selves, but the work that must be done can only be done by each person for themselves.  

Consequently, the best we can hope for is that each of us has done some of the introspective work that this pandemic should have summoned forth and that we have uncovered, individually, areas in which we can improve. Hopefully, we have also made commitments to take on practices and behaviors that are both achievable and productive. While we take off our masks, perhaps we can take on a determination to learn and grow from this pandemic.

As we begin to emerge from this difficult period, let’s hope we can enter into a period in which, at least for some of us, the lessons that could have been learned, will have been absorbed, resulting in a PC (post corona) world of PC (powerful commitments) leading to PC (positive change).

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