Like nearly everyone else in America, I’m addicted to Wordle, the daily word puzzle game recently acquired by the New York Times. Ater the Times bought the game from its creator, there was a widespread perception that they made it more difficult, adding more challenging words. I’d seen these complaints myself. But it’s not true.
The Times didn’t add any words to the game’s list of answers, but they did remove six: fibre, lynch, agora, pupal, slave, and wench. So, if anything, they made it easier (and more politically correct).
I learned this from this guy Matthew Shallenberger’s thread on Twitter. He went on to say:
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a man riding an elephant to describe the interaction of our emotions and our reason. The elephant is our emotions; the little dude perched on top is our reason and rationality. The elephant decides which way to walk, and the rider then dutifully comes up with a bunch of logical reasons why that’s the best way to go.
This has always been true. But the past two years have thrown it into sharp relief. In the absence of clear, reliable trial data on a range of pandemic-related interventions, our gut feelings and limbic instincts have been running the show. People with opposite opinions on the usefulness of lockdowns or masks can each point to evidence for their position. And so we’re stuck fruitlessly shaking contradictory studies at each other, as the elephants we’re riding careen in different directions. It’s chaos.
So, leaving all the studies and arguments behind, maybe it's time for us to acknowledge the elephants in the room. Policy, of course, should be set using facts and reason. But on the interpersonal level — the human level of relationships and community — we need to be able to empathize with each other if we're going to hold this whole social project together. And we need to understand that facts aren’t the only thing we’re arguing about.
It’s time for us to get to know the elephants — other people’s, and our own.
I’ll go first. I really hate wearing a mask. In the spring of 2020, I was grateful for them. They made me feel safe and protected, because I was afraid. As my fear diminished over time, particularly after I and nearly everyone I know had been vaccinated, my feelings changed.
I remember the first time I went unmasked in a crowd since 2020. It was April 2021, in South Dakota. I drove to Sioux Falls to go to a bull-riding competition, and write about those who have a totally different set point around risk. The stadium was packed, and there was barely a mask in sight. I was partially vaccinated, and I slipped mine off with a thrill. It felt a little reckless, a little naughty, and totally exhilarating. Like riding a jet ski too fast or dropping a grand on cryptocurrency. I loved it.
After that, I returned to Minnesota, where there was a statewide mask mandate, and dutifully wore my mask to the grocery store, to the gym, to my hot yoga classes (ugh). When the mask mandate was lifted in May, it felt like the return of spring after a brutal winter.
The first day the mandate was lifted, I went to the gym and beamed at all the people, who beamed back at me, bare-faced, exhilarated, giddy. But people in my social media feed were expressing very different feelings. There was fear, there was outrage, many murmurings of "too soon, too soon." I was baffled. Many people clearly felt very differently than I did about masks.
(Later, of course, the masks came back. And for now, they remain.)
I asked some of my friends to tell me how they feel about masks. Here’s some of what they said:
“My mask has, emblazoned across it, the phrase from the Bill and Ted movie, ‘Be excellent to each other.’ So when I put it on I feel an instant obligation to live up to it! It’s like that old coffee mug slogan, ‘I strive to be the person my dog thinks I am,’ except it’s ‘I strive to be the person my mask says I am.’ And I have this fantasy of one day being at the co-op in a very surly mood and being nasty to someone and them pointing out the mask-hypocrisy, and me saying, ‘It’s aspirational.’” — Mark
“My friend who is a doctor and medical examiner said very early on regarding masks something to the effect of, “Sure, they're effective to a point, but there's also definitely a component of psychological comfort in the midst of something huge and scary and unknown.”
That perspective helped me be a little more gracious with myself and others, and once I realized that we didn't really know all that much for certain (about any of it), and it was an evolving thing, and we're all just doing what makes us feel the most safe and in control, I just kind of felt like, meh. Whatever. I could make myself and everyone around me miserable about it, or I could make the best of it and get on with my life and try to stay sane and try to be as kind as possible in the midst of the unknowns. I also had zero problem accommodating people who asked for more than I thought necessary. If my friend has made it through breast cancer and a double mastectomy and is here to watch her kids grow up and she wants me to wear my mask outside when we're out for a walk, like fuck yeah, I will do that for her.” — Siri
“The overwhelming feeling I get here [in NYC] is that the masks remain a gesture of civic concern. I won't lie - I still hate the way the mask feels on my face, and this is the first time I've had to wear one all day for three days, and my skin shows it. (Mask-ne, anyone?) I believe in and look forward to the day when we won't need to wear them anymore, but for the moment, it is good to feel like people are doing their best to look out for each other in a hard time.” — Courtney
“I have a friend — deeply introverted, zero energy for small talk or interaction with strangers — and she told me she LOVES wearing masks because it allows her to get in and get out of the grocery store. She doesn’t have to exchange pointless niceties with people she doesn’t know. She intends to keep wearing a mask even after restrictions are lifted.” — Siri (again)
After my dog Wabi dislocated his hip last fall, I took him for a series of acupuncture appointments. At each one, I sat in a tiny examination room with the vet as he gently needled Wabi, both of us masked and chatting the whole time. I’ve spent nearly 10 hours with this fella. I know about his wife’s work, and the topic of his daughter’s big school presentation. I know about his last vacation, and where he likes to fish.
A friend recently asked for a recommendation for acupuncture for her dog, and I went to the vet's website so I could send her the link. There on the website was a picture of the vet. His face looked completely different than I had imagined it. My brain had filled in the lower half of his face, the shape of his jaw and mouth and nose — and I'd been way off. Turns out I wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a lineup.
Such a strange sensation: needing to go online to see what someone you’ve met a dozen times looks like.
I ran an unscientific Twitter poll, asking people to share how they felt while wearing a mask. The options were “safe and protected,” “cut off, isolated,” “frustrated, agitated,” and “neutral.” More than 3,500 people voted, and the responses were illuminating. They started out highly skewed toward “neutral,” or “safe and protected.” Later in the day, the numbers tilted toward “frustrated, agitated.”
Some people said that masks give them panic attacks or activate their PTSD. (This makes sense, given what we know about the vagus nerve and the way it connects to nerves in the face. See: “Wearing a Mask is Like Putting a Blindfold on Your Ventral Vagus Nerve.”)
Some said they fog up their glasses or dry out their eyes (because of the breath rising from their mask). Some compared it to a seatbelt, or a business casual dress code — no big deal. More than one person said masks are like pants. Like, Of course, when I leave the house I wear pants and I wear a mask. Same-o, same-o. (This I find curious because I don't use my genitals to eat, breathe, speak, or express meaning and emotion, but OK. That’s me!)
Later in the same poll, I asked: “Do you think people who feel differently than you do are wrong to feel the way they do?” The people who indicated that masks make them feel safe and protected or neutral were more likely to answer “yes,” that other people were wrong to feel differently. Later, as more people weighed in, the balance shifted to “no, feelings are feelings.”
There’s something important here, I think, especially as we move closer to masks being optional again. Speaking for myself, it’s been frustrating to feel a degree of gaslighting from those who genuinely don’t mind wearing a mask, or enjoy doing so. This seemingly widespread sentiment that only a selfish baby would have any issue with it. That because they find it perfectly benign, everyone else should as well, and that quantifying the benefits hardly matters because the cost is basically zero.
For me, the cost isn’t zero. I feel like I can illustrate this best with a photo. This is me, at 7 years old:
This is still who I am and how I operate. For better or for worse, I interface with the world. I mean, I literally engage with the world with my face.
It’s how I’m wired to connect. It’s how I express and receive. Wearing a mask makes me feel shut down, cut off, like I’m missing my main appendage. It makes me feel like my very being is a dangerous weapon I have to keep holstered. It makes me feel like the tendrils of my curiosity and connection are stymied by concrete. It makes me fucking sad.
And of course I can override these feelings. Of course I can serve the greater good. Of course, if it means conferring real protection to vulnerable people, I will wear a mask all day without pause or question. Even if it’s just about honoring someone else’s subjective sense of feeling safe and protected, I can do that. But two years, millions of vaccines, and countless frayed social connections into this thing, for me, the cost is not zero.
And I guess it would help if that was acknowledged without being belittled — that different people have different, legitimate, subjective experiences with masks. And no one’s feelings are wrong.
A mask is a tool. It’s an invisibility cloak. It's protection. A safety blanket. A cocoon. A gesture of civic responsibility. A forcefield. A tribal marker. A talisman. A violation. A wooden cross and garlic necklace. It’s life and death.
It’s an obstacle. An annoyance. A helmet. A seatbelt. It's pants.
It's subjugation. It's respect. It’s compassion. It's a barrier.
It's different things to different people, and different things to the same person at different times. Who am I to tell you what it is for you?
All I know is, separating human faces has a range of effects, from the beneficial to the disastrous. I would like us to start being honest about that.
I’ll feed your elephant a circus peanut, if you’ll toss one to mine.
My feelings on masks have shifted in the last couple of months. I desperately want teachers and kids to be done with them. The psychological impact is significant. And I think the social, emotional, and educational impact on my two young kids will be huge. My son rarely interacts with adults other than us who aren't in a mask. That's not ok for development. And it breaks my heart a little every time I have a client say that their kids are used to them and totally fine staying in them if it means other things can move forward. I get the sentiment because I say it myself. I will stay in a mask if it means my kid can take hers off. But just because one is used to it doesn't mean there isn't an impact they aren't aware of. Just as I started to feel more safe moving around the world in the summer of 2020 the more I had to do it after lockdown, the more we will feel safe without masks once the mandates are lifted. Without realizing it we are holding ourselves back because the mask sends the signal that it's not safe to be in a space with others.
After reading this, it's a comfort to take another deep breathe and feel like "no, I'm not a criminal" Half of my life I was a shy, scared introvert and worked very hard to be in the place I'm at today. I enjoy life. I want to be out in life and sharing joy with others. The anger and oppositions have exhausted me and I don't enjoy that atmosphere. Be who we are and accept others for who they are.