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Commentaries and observations about the conflicting moral beliefs and psychological issues facing our culture.
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"AWAY WITH WORDS"
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14 June 2021
The Great Unmasking
With the easing of the covid terror, I often leave my mask on the front seat of my car. Recently, I went to my bank – unmasked. I was greeted by a masked-but-friendly teller whom I have known for several years. She looked at me oddly for a longish second, then smiled (I think) and, in muffled voice, said: “Oh, good morning. I did not recognize you without your mask.”
Without my mask? I ponder her comment. Questions arise:
In what ways have I changed during this covid year? How do other people recognize me when I am masked – or do they? What impact has mask-wearing really had on all of us?
Masks serve several purposes:
- Robbers use masks to hide their identities.
- Greek playwrights used masks to denote emotional states, such as comedy or tragedy.
- Clowns use masks to heighten hilarity and draw crowds into childish tomfoolery.
- Sybaritic revelers wear elaborately detailed masks at midnight balls to increase curiosity and abet passion.
- Masks ostensibly prevent the spread of covid – but not without unintended consequences.
The medical reason for wearing masks has been to protect us from one another. We have all become potential carriers of a potentially deadly virus. We are possible sources of toxic infection to one another.
“You watch out for me and I’ll watch out for you – not in primarily benevolent ways of friendship or as affirmations of charity, but in the evasive, distancing manner of two unidentified lethal objects ….. Oh, and scrub your hands after being around me and others like me ... and I’ll do the same …..”
Some folks feel reassured by masks, despite the dehumanizing, aseptic sameness. They believe masks are a healthy addition to our lives, maybe a permanent aspect of the New Reset in progressively Prophylactic America.
So, vigorous hand-washing and masking are our best protections. But we are now learning that our assumed safety comes at a high price. Serious dark sides do exist.
Born To It
By our nature as human beings, we are communicative creatures. It is inherent in human nature to communicate to one another - and to ourselves.
In fact, we cannot NOT communicate. To communicate is one of our deepest natural instincts. It’s born into us, part of our genetic make-up.
We are not drawn to anonymity. From the moment of conception, we are communicating our individuality to those who care to see us and listen to us. From our first instant of life, we grow and change and move within our mother’s womb.
For those first nine months we continue to announce that, “Yes, here I am, alive and kicking.” We’re letting the world know we’re here. And when we’re born, we announce our arrival with the neonate’s universal aria.
As we grow and mature, we continue to communicate both deliberately and unconsciously (instinctively, often without realizing it). We use sounds and gestures and non-verbal expressions, all of which send messages to the world around us.
Gradually we learn to use words, along with non-verbal messages and body language. Our communication becomes constant through words and gestures, symbols and bodily sensations. Some people (bless their hearts) even talk to themselves aloud.
And there’s more to consider – starting with the face.
The human face is the expressive center of every person’s soul, the source of every individual’s declaration of self and spirit.
Our face is our intellectual and psychological headquarters for our personal communication, the primary vehicle for externalizing and articulating the mind’s endless energies.
Our face is also the seat of our personality. The face speaks for us to the world around us, revealing our individuality and our depth of character. Challenges to character are caught in phrases, such as “face the music” or “face your responsibilities” or “say it to my face.”
Our face tells the world when we are pleased or pouty, weary or worried, happy or harried, involved or indifferent. We may use words to deceive, but our facial expressions exude an array of non-verbal messages which may, at times, be inconsistent with what our words intend.
Our eyes and our eyebrows, our ears and our mouth also send messages. Think, for example, of that unquenchable smile which sometimes edges around the corners of your mouth … or watch someone’s darting, evasive eyes when they’re cornered … or note the small “tells” and “tics” which shrewd observers (e. g., experienced police officers and canny poker players -- and wise parents) quickly recognize. And it is very often these revelatory signs of our inner state which contradict our words … and carry real credibility.
Our mouth and tongue articulate our ideas and needs, aspirations and fears which our nearby brain dictates. Even in deep sleep, we communicate in the language of dreams.
Furthermore, when our mind (i.e., our brain) is troubled, or we become anxious or apprehensive, our body follows suit. Our heart may race, our blood may pulse faster through our veins, our hands may tremble – all in response to the commands of the mind, reminding us that we are designed by God to communicate and to reveal ourselves, even when we deny it – or Him.
The face reveals the depths of a person in dozens of ways. And, in the Christian culmination of our relationship to our Creator, Heaven is defined as “seeing God … Face to face.”
So, each human being is a dynamo of communicative energy. That energy is released - verbally and non-verbally - through the face and the whole body by our words and by a variety of idiosyncratic (personal) movements.
Communicating is of the essence of human nature.
Masks conceal most of this. Masks are designed to hide, not enhance, our individuality and identity, the hallmarks of our personhood.
When we’re behind our masks, we cannot begin to respond to one another as we truly are. We see each other only partially. Our ability to “read” the subtle, but defining, commonalities of our shared humanity is compromised. The customary channels of communication and normal signals of human discourse are truncated, distorted, thwarted, frustrated.
By design, if not intention, masks create social inaccessibility. They heighten mutual estrangement, even indifference. Worse, to emotionally susceptible persons, this perception may (correctly or incorrectly) portray others as physically or psychologically hostile, accusatory or rejecting, even threatening to body and mind.
For decades, research studies have revealed physical and mental costs of isolation and estrangement. Today this includes a rise of instability amongst teenagers, increased threats of self-harm and attempted suicides. These outcomes especially, among young people, are most concerning … but not entirely unexpected.
Even for mentally stable persons, the absence of the smallest normal interactions adds to the cumulative, long-term impact of unhealthy human deprivation. This may seem insignificant to some people. But continuing isolation from normal cues of human life imposes a serious psychological and emotional toll.
Historically, for example, one of the cruelest incarceration techniques is inmate isolation. The prisoner is deprived of the simplest communication, namely, the sights and sounds and normal interactions with other human beings.
We know that ordinary human interchanges actually stimulate the waiting senses and activate the brain. The absence of normal stimuli can trigger severe psychoses. Even monks vowed to silence wisely assemble several times daily as a community to share common prayers, tasks and meals.
Human beings need community. We need one another.
Association with others is essential for mental and spiritual wholeness, even for those who seek solitude. Why? Because solitude is different than isolation.
Coming To Our Senses
There is yet another consideration which deserves our attention. Our five external senses and our internal senses are also geared for communication.
Along with our five external senses, we possess at least four internal senses: 1) imagination, 2) memory, 3) critical thinking and 4) knowledge retention (some add common sense and wisdom).
Our internal and external senses are our indispensable resources for learning, knowing, judging, decision-making, choosing, behaving and communicating.
We use our senses 1) to learn about the external world through the data we receive from the outside, 2) to process that data as we filter it through our internal senses, and 3) to express ourselves in some form of behavior (verbal and/or non-verbal).
All our interchanges with others - even fleeting glances - carry messages which influence our perceptions of threat or attraction. Why, for instance, do we avoid eye contact on the subway? Why smile at a baby or a friendly stranger? Why snub that waiter?
Each “encounter” has a cognitive component and an emotional sub-text. We evaluate the “scene” around us and we judge the levels of pleasure or threat, value or irrelevance therein. Again, we communicate, if only to ourselves.
So, when we wear masks, we conceal social cues which we all rely on for cultural cohesion and for our “cognitive map.” Our senses are deprived of their natural food. And, as experience tells us, human beings do not thrive in emotional vacuums or cognitive voids. We yearn to know. We yearn for communication.
Masks muffle clarity between people. Masks often garble our words and stifle our messages and frustrate the listener.
Masks hide the countless subtle but salient non-verbal signals which reveal our moods and emotions. Others are deprived of personal and emotional cues about our state of mind and heart.
- Think, for example, of the delight in sharing laughter with others. Remember the simple grandeur of watching their faces, and they watching us, as healthy hilarity engulfs us all and, for that instant we are one.
- Recall the pleasure of making faces with a little child, a small joy made impossible by the intrusion of masks.
- Try kissing your Beloved with a mask on. Fuhgeddaboudit!!
Finally, Some Considerations….
Reliable facts are difficult to find these days. Contradictions abound. Accusations fly. People take sides. Get the shots. Don’t get the shots. Rhetoric gets heated. Feelings are bruised. Public officials and medical experts clash daily. We are often sorely tried.
So, what’s to be learned beyond all the huffing-and-puffing? Several fundamental lessons emerge to remind us of life’s basics.
- We are created by God. God gave us life, with the gifts of reason and choice, even in the midst of chaos and wonder.
- Let us neither abuse our reason nor cloud our common sense by preening excess or presumptuous rigidity.
- We are wise to be aware of God’s presence at all times. He can never be replaced by political slogans nor nudged aside by medical professionals or by frothy television anchors.
- Our universal fallibility is the overriding human truth in life. Thus (as my dear Aunt Hortense sagely advises) it’s always wise to “stay on God’s good side and be kind to people.”
- No amount of wealth or prestige, no intellectual attainment or fleeting celebrity protects us from our human vulnerability.
- Since life is our most precious gift, maintaining our spiritual health and moral clarity is how we respect the gift of life.
- Our best response to the gift of life is our gratitude.
- Let us, therefore be ever grateful even for ambiguity. Ambiguity reminds us to invoke the gift of wonder and the virtue of humility; humility, which is really accepting the truth.
- Let us also remember we are deeply dependent on others for survival, for healthy conviviality, life-long learning and to share the heart’s profound need to love and be loved.
- Respect and civility are, therefore, ever essential.
- The idea that we do not need anyone in this world is an absurdity of macho fiction or a badly-educated ego.
- We need facts to think rationally and to choose wisely how we will live benevolently and respect one another.
- Our prudent decisions must be based on facts and evidence, not on the shallow blandishments of celebrities or the precipitous opinions of random “experts.”
- Beyond the hype and ambiguity, one Truth stands the tests of history and common sense, time and experience. That Truth is God. God exists. We are creatures of God.
- That single mystery of Faith – that we are all God’s creatures, come what may – is the first and final point of living. All else exists in the light of that Truth.
So, may God keep us - each and all - healthy in mind and spirit, witnesses to Faith and perseverance in Goodness within our wounded culture; a culture which, especially these days, is so greatly in need of clarity and Hope.
May it be ever so …..