Tuesday, May 12, 2020


As a seminarian in the 1980s, I suggested to my Religious Superior that people ought to be able to look into their priest's eyes and that therefore contact lenses were in order! He happily approved my request for contacts, whatever he may have thought of my concocted argument. I went on to wear contacts for another 20 years or so, until I finally tired of them and reverted to old-fashioned eyeglasses. I guess by then I realized that that particular barrier to looking into one's eyes probably didn't matter much after all. Now, all of a sudden, we have become a society in which we hide most of our faces from one another as well!

Of course, the precise purpose of the masks we all are now supposed to wear is not so much to hide our faces from one another as to hide our faces from the mysterious virus which others may have. Unlike those whose vanity makes them resist hiding their good looks or those whose right-wing ideology disposes them to oppose solidarity with others, I embraced the mask immediately as soon as we were told wearing one was good and the right thing to do. I do, however, find it physically uncomfortable, frequently causing my glasses to fog up and often falling off. Unfortunately, I have never been very good with technology, whether simple or complicated, from mask-wearing to live-streaming.

That said, however superficially uncomfortable my mask may be and however strange and awkward the sight of covered faces still seems, it is indeed the right thing to do; and, as with so much else, I do not doubt that we will largely learn to adapt. Other societies have been wearing masks much longer than we have. Obviously, we can learn a lot from others. (That, sadly, is something we Americans are notoriously bad at.)

Those other societies, of course, are characterized, more often than not, by more social cohesion than we have, certainly more than we have had these past 40 years or so. The lesson we really need to learn is less how to adjust our masks physically to fit better than how to adjust our emotions to wear the masks better. In other words, we too need to acquire greater community cohesion as a society. We need to relearn to value social solidarity above our over-celebrated individualism.

If and when we can relearn those older values of community and social solidarity, then it will in fact matter much less whether we can see each other's faces because we will see and feel so much more. We will, as John Winthrop exhorted some of our country's early settler in 1630: abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities ... delight in each other; make other's conditions our own rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

Whatever the infection-fighting benefits, wearing masks may prove to be a beneficial exercise in moral transformation for a society that has been taking the wrong path for far too long.

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