I think at this point a lot of people are starting to suffer from some pandemic fatigue. For me it’s masks. I am not talking about if masks work or not, I heard a farmer in Idaho a couple of weeks ago say it was like keeping out mosquitoes with chicken wire, but that is not where I am headed.
This article does not seek to argue about if it is or is not governmental overreach to mandate masks. No it is more basic than that: I realize I miss faces, I miss smiles. I understand there are opportunities to make fashion statements with masks even to the point of designer snobbery. I realize masks have opened previously untapped markets for advertising sports teams and businesses or even government. There may be some time and cost saving benefits. I have heard some women have decided they only need to spend time applying make up to their eyes.
Setting aside many of those potentially positive cultural and economic benefits, I suggest we may be in danger of losing something even more significant; the most basic form of communication: the smile. What is it that excites new parents? It’s that first smile. Long before there is a mama or a dada, real or imagined, there is the smile. Oh I know there will always be some naysayer around who will say “its probably gas,” but to the new parents it is the joy of recognition of love and connection.
It’s not just for new parents. The smile is a sort of universally understood signal of good will, of safety, or openness. The exception may be if someone is trying to sell you something, but that is part of another discussion.
The strategy of social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus is well publicized by signs and universally ignored directional arrows for shopping aisles. But it occurred to me there is a damaging social distancing that happens as a result of masks. It seems to cause people to look away, to avoid even eye contact. It feels like there is another level of isolation, a loss of simple normal exchanges. I know there is encouragement to smile with our eyes, but without seeing the rest of the face it is hard to distinguish between a friendly smile and a maniacal grin; as a consequence people just look away.
Smiles are so important they are encouraged. How many times in your life has someone encouraged you to smile? I remember being told that smiling requires fewer muscles than frowning, which gave rise to the little song “smile awhile and give your face a rest.”
I would like at this point to be able to point to all of the biblical injunctions to smile, but I can’t. In fact the word smile is never translated in the King James Version of the Bible. That might be why some may assume piety requires a very serious countenance. The kind of gold standard in human interaction is a “face to face meeting,” even with the wonders of modern technology “face to face” is still the best. When God gave Moses a template to be used to bless His people this was it: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Number 6:24-26 NIV). For what it is worth I am sure this whole pandemic business will pass and when it does I look forward to seeing your smiling face.
Bill Upton is chaplain of the Tooele City Police Department.