Everyone’s talking about them these days, even if not everyone wears them. Thanks in large part to the President’s astonishingly consistent leadership, a significant segment of the population now sees wearing masks as “unmanly,” suitable only for weaklings and liberals. In some places, people see wearing a mask as a political statement: only Democrats wear masks. 

I’m not here to debate the politics of mask-wearing. I’m not even here to debate the science of it. Health experts have provided evolving advice as the situation changed, an understandable response in a fluid situation. Initially, they recommended against masks not because masks were ineffective, but because we didn’t have enough of them. And initially it appeared that homemade masks did less to protect the wearer than N-95 masks or surgical masks, so people saw homemade masks as less desirable.

Less desirable for whom, though? Granted, homemade masks don’t stop incoming viruses that originate from other people. If Someone sneezes in your direction, your homemade mask won’t stop the sneeze droplets very well. But if Someone happens to be wearing a mask, guess what? Someone has stopped their sneeze particles themselves. If both you and Someone have chosen to wear masks, you’ve both protected each other, and we’re all better off. That’s the conclusion public health officials finally reached, and that’s why they’ve started recommending mask wearing in public spaces.

This reminds me of the classic parable about the difference between heaven and hell:

A person visits hell. Everyone is sitting at a long table trying to eat soup. But everyone has spoons with incredibly long handles, far too long to reach their mouths. Everyone is miserable and starving, trying desperately to feed themselves and failing to get a single drop into their mouths.

Then the person visits heaven, and — voila! — it’s the same scene! A long table lined with people, each with a long-handled soup spoon and a bowl of soup. But all the people in heaven are well-fed and happy. The difference was that in heaven people fed each other.

That’s what masks do. Health experts ask us to wear masks not to protect ourselves, but to protect everyone around us.

That sounds virtuous to me. Doing something a little uncomfortable, maybe a little inconvenient, to take care of other people? Sounds downright Good Samaritan-y to me. 

So what if, instead of turning masks into another source of division, we saw mask-wearing as virtuous? Saw people wearing masks expressing their care for the community, thought of them as unselfishly caring for others? Instead of shaming or judging people for not wearing masks, we could praise the community-mindedness and thoughtfulness of people who do wear masks. We could commend mask-wearers for protecting the old, the sick, the immune-compromised. We could shift from seeing mask-wearing as a barrier between the blue side and the red side, and instead see it as a public health virtue.

Back when all this started, I hoped the pandemic would bring us together. It hasn’t happened that way. Maybe I’m naive to think mask-wearing could shift to an apolitical, positively viewed behavior, but I won’t stop hoping. 

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