How Do We Define "Love" in an Age of Masks and Exhaustion?
Why I believe some of us are lowering our masks.
No one who sees me skipping around in my turquoise Doc Martens boots, riding my bedazzled bicycle with handlebar streamers, or driving my jazzy orange Honda Fit covered with yellow daisies, sighs and says to themself, “Well that gal really likes to blend in.”
No, I identify proudly as a person who doesn’t conform.
And yet, as someone who’s been rigorously vigilant about staying safe and keeping others safe during this pandemic, I contracted COVID-19 recently as a direct result of the subtle natural human impulse to conform.
Like so many, I’ve been a faithful pandemic warrior. When we were told to stay home, I stocked up on toilet paper and stayed home. When the expert nurse-man on YouTube modeled how to wash the packaging of every grocery item that entered the home, I washed my groceries. My family avoided visiting my elderly mother who lives nearby When we were allowed back in public with masks, I masked up. I was vaccinated as soon as I was eligible. When masks were no longer required at church, I kept mine on. And at age 52, I was just days away from becoming eligible to receive my booster shot.
I did all the things.
Until I didn’t.
Last Saturday I approached the home where an after-funeral reception was being held to celebrate the life of a friend’s mother. Stretching my black mask over my face, securing it behind both ears, I let myself in the front door to join the mourners. I oriented myself to the fried chicken on the buffet table, made eye contact with my twenty year-old son, and quickly found the friend who’d lost her mother. Because I’d arrived pretty late, the house wasn’t packed. The living room, kitchen, and dining area were sprinkled with lingering family and friends who began to trickle out not long after my arrival. I joined the grieving daughter who introduced me to another friend who’d come to support her.
As we exchanged polite small talk, I began to notice that no one else in the house of strangers and acquaintances was wearing a mask. I was the only one.
Had I seen a roomful of masked mourners, I never would have considered dropping my mask. And yet as I mindlessly lowered it to speak to my grieving friend, something more powerful than my reason and common sense were at work.
Psychology Today reports, “As much as most people like to think of themselves as unique individuals, in reality, humans are social beings—and for the sake of group cohesion, people are evolutionarily driven to fit in. That usually means copying the actions of others, looking to the group when deciding how to think or behave, or doing what is ‘expected’ based on widely accepted (if often unspoken) social norms.”
Apparently it’s easier to be a nonconformist on the freeway than in a friend’s kitchen.
Because I knew intuitively that it didn’t feel right to be unmasked in a room of strangers, my mind has to fill the void to justify my decision.
“Maybe they know something I missed because I showed up late? Maybe the hostess announced that everyone present was vaccinated?”
“My son is pretty smart. If he’s not masked, it must be okay. He knows things.”
“Did the CDC change the recommendations and I wasn’t paying attention?”
But if I’m unflinchingly honest, that natural human part of me that quietly—maybe even unconsciously—seeks to conform felt that keeping my mask on would be interpreted as being judgmental. Rude. Even un-loving to the grieving family.
See what I did there? Wanting to justify my choice—that was driven more by conformity than any truly noble motive—I reframed it as the “loving” option. To convince myself that what didn’t feel quite right was right.
Four days later, I tested positive for COVID-19. When I told my son, he said he’d learned that someone else at the funeral had also been diagnosed positive. And then several more someones related to the ground zero someone. And then another someone. And while the hostess now feels horrible for not having forbidden an unvaccinated relative from attending in the first place, I don’t blame her.
We’re all tired.
Most of us have done our best.
We’re overwhelmed. And possibly grieving.
I get it.
I just want to testify to remind one person not to drop the mask to “be polite.”
If this nose-ring wearing, daisy-car-driving, middle-aged mom can be pressed to conform, anyone can.
Fight the power. Stay safe.
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Margot Starbuck, a New York Times bestselling writer and an award-winning author of over 20 books, is a graduate of Westmont College and Princeton Seminary. Margot has had a hand in over 100 major publishing projects, serving publishers as a writer, collaborator, ghostwriter, editor, and word coach.