While worrying every minute about when and whether to take off masks, we can learn something from Long Island’s own Walt Whitman.
HOW SOLEMN AS ONE BY ONE (Washington City, 1865.)
How solemn as one by one,
As the ranks returning worn and sweaty, as the men file by where
As the faces the masks appear, as I glance at the faces studying the
(As I glance upward out of this page studying you, dear friend,
whoever you are,)
How solemn the thought of my whispering soul to each in the
ranks, and to you,
I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul,
O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend,
Nor the bayonet stab what you really are;
The soul! yourself I see, great as any, good as the best,
Waiting secure and content, which the bullet could never kill,
Nor the bayonet stab O friend.
Whitman watched troops drag themselves into Washington after the long Civil War. He saw their faces and knew that they were masks to cover the pain and uncertainty inside. He saw other people “studying” those masks themselves, perhaps imagining the horrors. His reaction was compassion.
In recent years, soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have familiarized the broad characteristics of PTSD. Survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse have done the same. We know of the anxiety, the inability to feel safe long after the dangers have passed, the lurking fears that pool in the recesses of irrationality. In recent months, we’ve all come to know this kind of anxiety as we come out from under the shadow of COVID,
If I’m fully vaccinated, when should I wear a mask? Does wearing one do more harm than good? Should I wear it when outdoors in public? Maybe just when on a narrow sidewalk? And what about inside? If I go to a restaurant, should I wear a mask as I walk to the table and then take it off once I sit down? What if the people at the next table aren’t vaccinated? What would they think if they see me take my mask off? Would they assume I’m vaccinated? Would they wonder if I’m not? What does it say about me that I’m wondering the same of them? Should the schools be masked? Should trains? Grocery stores? How does the Delta surge affect any of this?
Nobody can be blamed for these doubts. We’ve spent a year and a half terrified of our neighbors. Up until March 2020 a sneeze would invariably be met with an automatic “Bless you,” a sign of fellowship and kindness. Since March 2020 a sneeze has met nothing but silence and tremors of dread.
Whitman knew this. He writes that “I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul,” a commitment to seeing through the surface to discover “that wonder” of common humanity. He was watching soldiers trying to re-enter society after deep trauma. He knew to deal respectfully and patiently and to lead with generosity of soul.
Those soldiers filing back into the city knew to put on a mask, to cinch up their individual torments for the greater good of society. Soldiers have struggled with this since the first wars of human history. In many ways it’s the hardest battle any soldier can face. But the social contract has always been about wrestling your personal demons into submission. It’s what we have to do, like soldiers putting on a mask or ordinary citizens taking them off. Either way the process needs generosity. We always need to look beyond the mask to seek the kindred soul.