When the masks finally come off, what will happen? Will we embrace seeing everyone’s smiles and noses again? Or will we be intimidated by it? Startled? Questioning: who are these people, and should I be scared?
Compared to some cultures, many Americans are not the friendliest people in public, COVID or not. After I returned from six years living in Botswana — where eye contact and greeting those you pass on the street or sidewalk is standard — it quickly became apparent that Americans in some cities and situations will do everything in their power NOT to make eye contact.
There is a close connection between eye contact and smiles, the latter now well hidden behind masks. Most people who make a habit of making eye contact with someone they pass on a sidewalk, follow that with a smile, and often a ‘hello.’ I enjoyed the human connection of eye contact and greetings when living in an African country. It taught me the value of showing such recognition to members of your community, like you got each other’s backs. Of course, this can become problematic in big cities where eye contact might bring with it a hassle or a hustle. But even in places like New York City where sidewalk greeting can be problematic, many instead connect with the person handing them a pizza slice or ringing up their items in a bodega.
Yesterday I took a walk in the small oceanside “village” where I live. It’s a village because there is very little commerce and only 170 full-time residents. A gourmet grocery store, which only recently got an ATM, and one cafe are it, besides homes and condos that vacationers rent. No gas station, gift shop or pharmacy. We had a tiny post office until last fall when it closed after the long-time postmistress retired. That was a sad day, as it was like Ike Godsey’s store in The Walton’s, where all the news in the town passed from one resident to the next.
On my walk through the residential roads, many people make eye contact and most people are happy. They are either on vacation and finally getting a respite from their crazy lives; or they are lucky enough to live full-time in our little piece of oceanside paradise. Yesterday I passed a couple of family groups. One was a dad who was pushing a cart with all the family’s beach gear: chairs, blankets, a cooler and sand buckets for the kids (sunny, 58 degrees F, mind you.). I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was high tide almost, during which the winter beach completely disappears, becoming the domain of waves hitting the riprap at the edge. But I was going to commiserate with the dad, if he made eye contact. “Dad’s always get the good jobs,” was ready to pop out my mouth, along with a smile that he could see, because we were all maskless in the cool breeze one block off the beach, each of us hugging the other side of the road. The mom was walking a bit behind him with two kids, probably 5 and 7 years old-ish. So I once again attempted eye contact, but she was having none of it.
I don’t expect everyone to be like me, to want to make just a brief acknowledgement of one another’s existence, to share the beach’s happy-vibe. I’m not looking for anything beyond that. Just as they don’t want to hear my whole story, I don’t want to hear theirs either. But I’m human, so I do judge them. It’s not a dangerous city, it’s a postage stamp of a beachside village. Be happy! Teach your kids by example to be polite and acknowledge others’ presence. I might even have some good advice for you, like: Hey, Dad, it’s high tide so you might want to go to different part of the beach.
So once we do go naked out into the world again, maskless and open to every cold, flu and other airborne funk, will we be back to our world of avoidance of one another instantly, or will there be a brief, or perhaps longer, period of openness: ‘We made it through!’ Like the feeling survivors get after hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, floods and other disasters, a comradery birthed with the collective reality that ‘we survived it’ and not everyone did. No one asks about political affiliation or religious beliefs or any other details that we generally use to judge one another and decide if we do indeed feel any common connection.
I cannot predict with certainty whether our humanity will soften for a bit. In this divisive environment, I’m not Pollyanna enough to think we’ll join hands and kumbaya with every stranger. But the jaded optimist that I am, hopefully there will be a collective appreciation for what was considered “normal” before the pandemic: going out to dinner; having family and friends over; attending sporting events and concerts; flying cross-country and not being scared it carries with it a COVID infection; and not having to wait five months to see a doctor when it used to take two weeks.
After 9-11 happened, Americans united as in no other time since World War II. And we did not forget or stop grieving as a nation for the horrible events and tragic loss of life for quite a while. First Responders became our heroes. We were heartbroken for the families of the innocents who died by the evil acts of fanatics. We prayed and remembered together. Might our post-pandemic state of mind be a parallel to our feelings after 9-11? Grieving for lives lost too soon, for the mass sickness that may linger and lurk in the infected for years to come. It’s natural for euphoric feelings to be the strongest right at the beginning of “we survived that,” and then subside as the unusual evolves to normalized with the passage of time.
When we are the normal of the future again, even if the euphoria leaves us quickly, let us remember those who helped us get through this: healthcare professionals working in the trenches first and foremost, but also others who were on the front line of risk, such as teachers, delivery drivers and mailpersons, restaurant employees, grocery store folks, gas station attendants, food packers, and everyone else who served our needs throughout this time. Oh, and your local liquor or weed store peeps who also helped out when we needed it. America is a sophisticated nation with sophisticated production and distribution of goods. Let’s not take it or the people who make it happen for granted any longer.
And by the way, when your mask can come off at some future date, smile a little in thanks. It’s contagious too.
From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast.
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