We’re at odds over so much. Masks, too.

I don’t think too much about wearing a mask these days. I certainly don’t like it, but it doesn’t feel like the huge deal it once did. It’s more like wearing a seat belt. I’m not scared to drive. I do it every day, but I respect what can happen on the road. Even though the odds are low that I’ll be in a collision, I wear a seat belt.

I wear a mask in the same way this year. I don’t feel frightened like I did early on in this mess, but I also respect what can happen. So I wear this “seat belt” now in public spaces, except at times when I’m outside and a good distance from others. I look forward to being done with masks, and I think that will come, hopefully soon. Pandemics come and go. That’s true throughout human history. When a pandemic comes, I will respect it and do what is necessary. And when it’s gone, I’ll be grateful. This will pass. I am sure of that. All things do.

In the meantime, I’ll feel comforted when/if I catch this virus if I can look back on the previous two weeks and feel like I was less contagious to others due to wearing a mask. The inconvenience of a mask won’t seem so bad when weighed against this fact, which will come as great relief, not a burden in personally painful moments.

Obviously, masks carry a lot of symbolic weight, which is another way of saying they generate serious emotion. We just see different realities these days, which frustrates all of us, no matter your side. Right? I think our political battles too often devolve into gross displays of disrespect. This means everyone shouts and no one hears a word. And everyone feels totally disrespected and angry. Our level of debate is tragically awful. It’s nothing but a game of character destruction. I want to actively fight against that form of debate.

So let me at least try to be a little different. I think there’s a sincere emotional power that comes with shedding the mask in crowds. I understand this. I don’t feel the same right now, but I understand it, for sure. If you are not afraid and you feel like you are being ruled by the fear of others, then this feels like true inner oppression. And, on top of that, it’s natural to passionately rebel against any fear.

This is generally a positive impulse. We all want to hold onto bravery, not fear. Bravery feels redemptive. Fear feels destructive. To live right now without a mask in public is a form of inward control over fear. People who call anti-maskers dumb aren’t recognizing the inward emotional war that is within each of us. We all battle fear in one form or another. And we don’t want to be beholden to the fears of others. We have enough fears of our own, right? How dare you saddle me with one of yours. If you are passionately anti-mask because you don’t want to be bound by the fear of others, I get it. I really do.

But in my reality, wearing the mask is not a show or expression of fear, but a small sacrifice during the strangest days we’ve ever seen. In my eyes, wearing a mask is also a small victory over my own social fear. That’s because wearing the mask in Madison County is to make peace with the notion that other people are going to think you’re weak, that you’re scared, that you’re some kind of wimp. It takes something inside to go against this social pressure when the numbers feel against you. Try walking into a room as the only person wearing a mask. You’ll see what I mean. On the flip side, any person who has been the only one in a room in Athens without a mask has felt this same social pressure. We are all affected by the attention of a crowd. And we are inherently swayed by the weight of social norms, even if that inner sway is to reject the norms. We all want to prevail in our own way. This inner battle for some sense of victory is hard no matter who you are, no matter your politics. We seem totally blind to this fact as a country, how all of us battle inwardly. And that blindness feels to me like a huge part of why we seem so lost as a nation. We never see or hear each other in any substantive way. And we are trigger-happy with judgment of people we don’t know or care to know.

But emotions are a secondary matter in certain situations. Can you agree with that statement? If so, think of your own example. I’m sure you have plenty. One of my examples is a global pandemic. Emotions are important, but secondary against such a force. This virus is as strange as anything we’ve seen. It makes no sense. It can be deadly or nothing at all. It can spread rapidly in a crowd, or spare a crowd. It can linger in bodies and harm over time or pass without any physical evidence. It is a true wildcard. And we are all searching for clarity. Conspiracy theories tempt us because they provide very tidy emotional clarity, but rarely any factual backbone at all. Scientific facts provide bits and pieces of what’s provable, but leave us longing for personal, emotional clarity — a more sensible narrative. All of this is hard on us. We are all trying to balance 2020 information chaos with inner mental well-being. It’s rough.

In this crazy environment, I see that many have completely ducked out of any thought of the virus. And as I said, this makes a lot of sense emotionally. This is a common thought. It is now a social norm.

But for now, I’ll stick with the seat belt mentality. Click it and drive. Do the work that must be done. Don’t be afraid. Just be safe. When a mask works, we never know what sickness or death we helped prevent. It could have been our own or someone else’s. But we are never privy to that knowledge. That’s why it takes some faith to accept that it matters. But I adamantly contend that this commitment is not a weakness but a strength. To wear a mask is a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. To lose a loved one is nothing minor at all.

I know there are parents angry at the schools for requiring masks, especially since the COVID-19 numbers have been low so far. Thank goodness for the low numbers. We can’t see what those numbers would have been without masks, but it’s not an experiment I care to see initiated now. On top of that, any severe sickness or death that follows such a policy reversal would hold terrible weight on any policy maker.

I know that masks represent weakness to some and strength to others, and we will never agree on who is emotionally right. We are each committed to our own emotional truth. That’s why you can never argue any soul out of their political position. If you think you have, then someone is probably lying to you to shut you up. Consider that the same battle over masks raged in the U.S. during the Spanish Flu over 100 years ago. And this current battle will surely end, then rage again at a later date and with a different illness.

But I say click the seat belt at school for 2020-21 and reassess for the next school year. This time will pass. Let’s protect each other in the process. Let’s do the work but be safe about it.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal, a sister newspaper of The Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at zach@mainstreetnews.com.

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