Jesus asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

We don’t know who is carrying coronavirus so we have to assume everyone is carrying it. If we are at war, and coronavirus is the enemy then the vehicle of my enemy is my enemy. That makes everyone my enemy. My neighbor is now my enemy. This is a terrible way to live and conduct grocery shopping.

How do we overcome this mindset?

For some, the answer lies in The Mask.

It is a sign that even if my neighbor is unknowingly infected, my neighbor is trying to protect me. Now, my neighbor is not my enemy. My neighbor is my ally.

But what about the one across the aisle not wearing a mask? Although we can see The Mask as an ally, we don’t need to see our neighbor as an enemy.

Rose-Colored Glasses

If only the neighbor could be the one who thinks like us, everything would be easier. Alas, it is not so. It’s no longer news that we are a divided nation, but schema theory might offer a possible solution for overcoming this deepening and ugly cleft between neighbors during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Schema theory, in layman terms, means perspective. In illustrative terms, it means a lens. In poetic terms, schema might mean wearing rose-colored glasses (or green or dark and murky). 

Someone you know says she doesn’t want to wear a mask.

One person thinks, “Why is she against masks? Doesn’t she care? Lives are at risk! We should do all we can to protect people!”

Another person thinks, “Good! They are stupid anyway. Just another way to restrict liberty, keep people afraid, and set against each other.”

How do you see the act of wearing a mask? Is it an act of love to protect those around you? Is it an act of defensive protection to help the most vulnerable? Is it just an act of conformity? The lens through which you interpret the events taking place and motivation of others is your schema.

A Life With Masks

Surgical masks were already part of my life. I wear one once a week. It comes in a package with sterile gloves as well. My husband and I don our masks, our gloves, mask our four-year-old and begin a sterile medical procedure, every week. But during the everyday medical procedures, we do not wear masks. 

Holding my son in January, when I was sick and coughing and the other children in house spiked fevers throughout the week, I wore a mask, in order to protect him from the fever which would put him in the hospital. 

While some see masks as a tangible example of the interference of liberty and others see masks as the way to be a neighbor and not an enemy, my perspective came from our experience as caregivers to a child with a complex medical condition.

Medically, there are particular conditions in which a mask is beneficial and other conditions in which it is not, where no proven physical benefit or harm is apparent. We are, however, more than just bodies, and the passion surrounding mask wearing taps into that immaterial part of us.

What is Most Contagious?

In “Secret Desires: The Great Dancing Plague of 1518,” Luke Arthur Burgis describes the intriguing practices that sprang up around the Dancing Plague. He writes, “Social disorder and social tensions were high. The trigger for the dancing was always a crisis — an impossible love, a forced wedding, a job loss, the transition into adolescence, or something else that upset the dynamic in the community. The beliefs and remedies that formed around the dancing mania were cultural formations that had little to do with science.”

The dance associated with the disorder, called the tarantata became, according to the Italian cultural anthropologist and ethno-psychiatrist Ernesto De Martino, “a ‘minor religious ritual’ which had the effect of restoring order from chaos. The ritual functioned to protect the people and their community from an even bigger crisis: it provided a form of catharsis that helped resolve social tension.”

Burgis proposed, “Anytime humanity has been threatened by a plague, the most contagious thing has never been the disease itself. Humans are social creatures. Our anxiety, fears, hopes, and desires are the most contagious.”

The value or virtue attributed to The Mask, puts a spotlight on those who don’t wear it. For some, The Mask is wrapped up in the destabilization of society that came with mandated state-wide shutdowns. They feel coronavirus is the least of their worries as they struggle to keep their business from folding or to put food on the table. The Mask becomes a sign of one more effort to destroy the livelihood built by these individuals.

These are two different lenses, or schemata, through which the question of face masks, and frankly most of the top-down measures regarding the Covid-19 Pandemic, can take, with individual nuances to boot. 

Coronavirus is contagious. But I agree with Burgis on the powerful contagion of our anxiety, fears, hopes, and desires are the most contagious.

The point of all this is not to say wear a mask or don’t wear a mask. The point is that something that seems as simple as wearing a mask, (interpreted as a sign of helping people), is more complicated than meets the eye. What this is, is an invitation to consider what is your lens through which you see the present crisis? What influences and shapes your perspective? And is there a way that you apply this understanding to those who might be thinking or acting differently than you. 

That very act of understanding, of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, bridges the gap that turns the unseen enemy to the neighbor I can see.