Our Pandemic Society: The mask is vital, but it also hides us from each other

Highly personal reflections on life during the coronavirus from photographer Brian Plonka and columnist Shawn Vestal.

At work. At school. In stores. On the streets. In movie theaters and restaurants. Coffee shops and bars. In ordinary times, our days are full of the visages of others, the visible reality of our fellows.

We have evolved to read faces. To interpret the clues and assess the cues, to see a mood in the curl of lip or flare of nose. We communicate with our own faces, our mouths and our eyes, the faces we “make” to direct smiles or puzzlement, to express frustration or amusement.

When we know we’re going to come into contact with others, we do as J. Alfred Prufrock did and “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”

Now, as we prepare instead a mask to meet the faces that we meet, we find ourselves strangely alienated from one another. Unable to read each other’s faces, we don’t quite connect. Don’t quite engage. Even when we are among each other – in the new public square of the grocery store, say – the mask renders our interactions a lonelier experience.

And yet, ironically, it is also a message we are sending to each other: I care about you. Thanks for caring about me.

Which, happily, paradoxically, makes it less lonely.

• • •

photo by Brian Plonka

Because we live in insane times, the simple, responsible, pandemic mask has become a symbol. A point of argument. A point of defiance or rebellion. Political. Because we live in insane times, a large proportion of us won’t wear the mask.

A stunning number of politicians won’t truly support mask-wearing. With the mask, as with other public health measures, it often feels as though our viral control efforts have run smack into the wall of Pogo’s political maxim: We have met the enemy and he is us.

Where can we go, in these times of distance and detachment, to meet the opposite of our enemy? Where can we go to see our fellows, our neighbors, to share space with them, to experience them – whatever they believe and whoever they are – as allies, not enemies?

The grocery store, mainly.

Since the pandemic began, it’s been our public square.

Nowhere are you more likely to encounter your unknown neighbors and fellow citizens. Nowhere are you more likely to bump into someone you know unexpectedly.

Nowhere – short of the emergency rooms and ICUs, which most of us are fortunate to avoid despite the high and rising toll of illness and death – can we see each other so clearly living out the terms of this plague year.

We see it right there on the faces of the other shoppers.

Right there on the faces that we meet.

• • •

photo by Brian Plonka

What we see is not simple or uniform. It is health precaution, a signal of social responsibility, a grudging adherence to a government order. It shows a desire to protect your neighbors, an understanding of how the virus works, a willingness to make a minor sacrifice for others.

It also represents the strange detachment of these times. It reflects the reality that the virus relies upon normal, ordinary interactions to thrive – moving among us on the waves of our breath – and we have to take abnormal, unnatural measures to defeat it.

It’s disfiguring. It’s distancing. It hides the smile hello. It hides the thoughtful frown. Part of the sacrifice of the mask is that it robs us – a little – of our identity and it obscures the identities – a bit – of our fellows.

Covering our face is, in many ways, covering our identity.

Human beings have used masks for various reasons for thousands of years. Almost all of those reasons involve hiding, obscuring, altering or manipulating the identity of the wearer.

The earliest human masks are believed to have been used to honor ancestors who died. Some of those 9,000-year-old masks, which are now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, have crude little smiles carved into them.

Across different cultures and societies, people have made masks out of skulls. They have made masks of gold and copper, of wood and fiber. They have put masks on the dead and created masks to honor the dead. They have used masks to represent spirits and deities. To signal royalty or pray for fertility. To tell stories or relate cultural histories.

People have worn masks to joust and to weld; to revel and to mourn; to act in theaters and to communicate with the spirit world; to trick-or-treat and to rob banks.

The mask replaces the face. It becomes the face. We all can picture King Tut in our mind, but it’s not King Tut that we’re picturing.

It’s a mask.

The luchadore El Santo, one of the great figures in Mexican wrestling, wore a simple silver mask constantly. He became a folk hero, starred in movies, and wrestled for parts of five decades.

He is said to have never removed his mask in public – until an appearance on a TV show in 1984. The revelation of his own face, his true face, was seen as a gesture of farewell.

He died of a heart attack a week later. He was buried wearing his mask.

• • •

photo by Brian Plonka

The human face is believed to betray emotions in similar ways across all cultures. The face is believed to communicate, instantly and involuntarily, whether the person behind the face is angry or sad, happy or fearful, contemptuous or disgusted.

Our eyes are one key facial signal in this matrix of nonverbal communication. But so is the mouth and the area around the mouth. Scientists say that when we interpret the faces of others, we read them as a whole, a connected series of gestures and clues including micro-expressions that are essentially involuntary.

This guides our interactions – and especially casual, passing interactions such as those in a store or on the street – in ways we never notice. We don’t consider them until we’re confronted with the half-hidden face – the eyes without the context of the nose and mouth.

And so the experience of seeing others in the pandemic public square of the grocery store is often strange. It renders the familiar foreign, and masks the routine.

We will welcome the return of the plain, unhidden human face when we cross to the other side of this. It will be one of the simple joys we return to gladly, eagerly, with fresh eyes. In the meantime, when we are together, moving masked among one another, we are making a common face, a united one.

It is the face of community.

photo by Brian Plonka

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