It seems like a strange thing to remember more than thirty years on. I was probably eleven or twelve, walking through New York City with my parents. As usual, my mother was up ahead, driven to get wherever we were going, while my father meandered behind, absorbing the day.
I made eye contact with a girl about my age walking in the opposite direction, and she smiled. That’s the memory. A passing moment. A fleeting, ephemeral relationship.
As the movement swells on social media to make the constant wearing of masks part of our culture even when this current madness has passed, I think of that momentary connection. We’re so isolated already. I was an only child, and there are more of those now, too.
I’m just not sure hiding our faces is something we should want to adopt as an expectation. If times require it, sure. If we had East Asia’s pollution problems, maybe. But the United States responded to the pollution problem by seeking to reduce pollution while keeping our faces exposed.
At the very least, let’s acknowledge the trade-off. If we could quantify a random smile in the isolating mass of a New York City street, what would it be worth? If I were in my eighties and facing the fear of viruses, would I trade a lifetime of such smiles and memories for a little bit less risk? And if I would, is that the attitude our culture should encourage?
To be sure, living otherwise entails risk. Yes, trying to fix the world’s illnesses so as to live free is more challenging.
A short online discussion I had along these lines centered around different notions of maturity. Is it more mature to be willing to give up a little bit of our freedom in order to provide ourselves and others a little more security, or to take responsibility for our own security so that others may live more freely?
The right answer is some balance between the two, of course, but this universal-mask idea seems also brings along a sort of deprivation. Hiding our faces doesn’t just impose a restriction on us; it also deprives others of the ability to see us, to see our smiles.
This view may be destined for decreasing tolerance as our expanding longevity increases our terror of risk, but my vote is for a humanity that strives to be closer rather than more isolated and accepts that not everything is possible to control.