Wearing a mask is not about you; it’s about them

Doug Hassebroek shops with a protective mask in a Brooklyn, N.Y., store amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (CNS photo/Caitlin Ochs, Reuters)


Reading about the more aggressive mask-refusers, I’ve been thinking about my father. He would have had an answer for the guy marching into the store bare-faced and defiant. He would have said: It’s not about you. It’s about them.

My dad was (he died in 2004) basically a stoic with a high view of courtesy. He took things as he found them, including people, and he tried to treat people as they wanted to be treated. That meant deference to other people’s wishes, except when doing that violated your principles or when you just couldn’t do it. Mere inconvenience didn’t give you an excuse for not doing it.

Some people who refuse to wear masks make a big fuss of it. Like the guy whose own video of himself getting tossed out of Costco went viral. It included his abuse of the store manager who made him leave. He called him, in ruder words, a wimp. Others do it more genteelly. Like some of my writer friends. But both say to the world, “Ain’t no one gonna tell me what to do.”

I use the word “courtesy” and not “manners.” You say “manners” and people imagine a courtly old man. Manners refers to a formal system of behavior, courtesy to an active engagement with the other person. We should be mannerly, more than we are.

But that isn’t enough for Christians. Or stoics like my dad. Manners require you to act in certain ways in specific situations. Courtesy requires you submit yourself to the other person. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. If we can take a punch and carry a burden a bully makes us carry, we can put on a piece of cloth.

I don’t hold a fixed opinion about the value of masks. Even if I studied all the material I wouldn’t know much more than I do now. My dad would have had an idea whether and how the masks work, because as an engineer he liked figuring out that kind of thing.

My guess is that he would have read all the reports and analyzed them for himself and decided they were less effective than hoped but still effective enough to be worth doing from the medical perspective alone. But that decision wouldn’t affect his insistence on courtesy to others.

Even if he thought masks didn’t work, he would have said that since wearing them reassured vulnerable and anxious people, and helped them enter public spaces, we should wear them. It costs us almost nothing to do. It could change the world for others. They feel scared, and even if you think they shouldn’t, they do.

At worst, masks were uncomfortable and inconvenient, and might make us feel awkward or dorky. Those my dad would not have seen as sacrifices at all. They’d be at worst slight distractions like a fly you have to wave away. I’d have gotten one of his “You can do better” stares had I complained. The courteous thing would be to wear them, so you put on a mask and forget about it.

I can imagine him standing by the breezeway door, on the way to the garage and the car, by the bureau that held the hats and gloves and things, putting on a mask and making sure everyone else did as well. He would, being an engineer, make sure everyone put them on right. And out we’d go.

I can also imagine what he, who was generally conservative, would think of the people who made an issue of wearing a mask. They would have gotten the super-intense version of his “You can do better” stare, his “What kind of man are you?” stare. Because the courteous man and woman serve others.

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.

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