Masks and How We Relate to Others

August 20, 2020

5 min read


The pandemic has made us more sensitive to the fact that everyone has the capacity to harm another – with our germs, with our words, with our actions.

In the beginning, they said not to wear masks. They said masks wouldn’t protect much against catching the virus, only perhaps from transmitting it; they said masks and other personal protective equipment needed to be conserved for those on the front lines; they said masks could even be dangerous, creating a false sense of security that might lead wearers to be lax about other, more effective measures of protection.

Then, slowly, the recommendations changed: Wear the masks, not for yourself, but to protect others – just in case you have the virus even without knowing it, so you don’t unknowingly pass it on to someone who might be harmed by it. Don’t worry about using up precious equipment: you can make a mask at home, or just tie a bandana around your nose and mouth. Do what you can, even if it’s not perfect, because we’re all in this together.

These shifting perspectives on masks echo broader issues of how we relate to others.

There are other ways one person can affect (or metaphorically infect) another, every time they interact, whether they are physically close or distant from each other.

A mouth can open and let loose all sorts of damaging particles that have nothing to do with physical disease.

And the question is, which side of that potential damage concerns us?

Are we only worried about protecting ourselves from what others might do to us? Is it only worth putting protection in place if it will save us from what they might do?

Or do we think about how we might hurt another, when we open our mouths with an ill-considered sentiment or unkind observation?

Are we even aware of our own potential to harm others?

Not long after things shut down in my area, my family went for a walk and passed a neighbor's kids who were in their own yard but quite close to the sidewalk. I tensed at their threatening nearness and considered telling my kids to cross the street, but I couldn’t do it. Crossing the street to avoid someone has always seemed like the height of rudeness. Though I knew my reasons, it felt like such a blatant action would imply that we thought they were dirty, that we were better than they are, that we have to cross the street to avoid getting too near.

Of course, we were kind of afraid they’re – well, not dirty, but germy. And since they were so close to the sidewalk, maybe I really should have crossed the street to protect myself and my children from that potential harm.

Are we even aware of our own potential to harm others?

On another walk a few days later, we passed another neighbor. This time I was a little better prepared, and as we approached I reminded my kids that we’re supposed to be trying to keep our distance from other people for now, and asked if they could think of ways to avoid the nice lady on the sidewalk without seeming rude. As it turned out, we didn’t have to worry, because she looked up and saw us and promptly walked a few feet onto the grass.

Because we weren’t just avoiding her; she was avoiding us.

I’d forgotten.

It’s natural to think primarily about protecting ourselves from others, and not so much about protecting them from us. We see ourselves as benign; we mean no harm; we don’t think about the damage we might unknowingly spread, just by opening our mouths.

But over the months of this pandemic, perhaps we’ve become more sensitive to the fact that everyone has the capacity to harm another – with our germs, with our words, with our actions – whether we mean to or not. We might be asymptomatic; we don’t know the damage we can do. But the potential is always there.

One day – and I pray it will be soon – this will all be over. We’ll have to ease back into normal life (I refuse to call the current reality “the new normal” or anything like “normal”) and remember how to interact with others without undue suspicion, without assuming they’re likely to harm us in some way and that we have to keep our distance. At the same time, I hope we’ll retain our newfound sensitivity to our potential to harm others.

With the coming of the month of Elul, looking ahead to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this is a great time to think about those sensitivities in a broader sense, applying lessons of the pandemic to aspects of our relationships that have nothing to do with germs but can be devastating in other ways.

Maybe we’ll learn to give the benefit of the doubt a little more, as we’ve learned that crossing the street to avoid someone can be an act of courtesy and respect rather than the insult that it seems to imply.

Maybe we’ll remember that a friendly smile and a kind word can do wonders to protect another person from our unintended insult, even if we’re openly crossing the street to avoid them.

And maybe we can think more deeply about the ways we might hurt or offend others, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally.

Let's be mindful of complex the ways we might harm others, and to do as much to protect them as we would to protect ourselves.

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