Unmasked

“But she started it!”

That childhood (and childish) protest came to mind last week after a brief exchange with a woman I’ve known for some four decades. I was on my once-a-week outing to shop, properly masked, waiting for the clerk in a small store to run my credit card.

The woman approached me saying, “Look at this, Mary.” She was holding up a badge on a lanyard that apparently declared she was absolved from wearing a face mask. I didn’t care to read it thoroughly, because she was indeed not wearing a face mask. I stepped back, blurting, “Oh, but I believe in wearing a mask! It shows I care about other people.”

“Well,” she replied. “I guess I care about myself first.” As she moved away, I grabbed my purchase and credit card, called what I hoped was a friendly-sounding “goodbye,” and hastened out the door.

For many years I’ve been studying the Non-Violent Communication methods of the late Marshall B. Rosenberg. That brief conversation did not demonstrate even a basic grasp of the NVC process. Dr. Rosenberg encourages us to respond with empathy, with an attempt to understand the other person’s feelings.

“Are you feeling angry,” I might’ve asked, “because you believe the order to wear a mask infringes on your civil liberties?” Or,

“Are you feeling apprehensive,” I could’ve asked, “because you’ve seen or heard claims that masks might sometimes be dangerous?”

But I didn’t. I left the shop despairing of her selfishness. She was probably despairing of my prigishness, both of us judging the other, eliminating any possibility of mutual understanding. Rosenberg taught that a basic component of NVC is a willingness to spend time. With a pandemic raging, with case counts suddenly soaring in our small community, I didn’t believe I could afford the time to explore a route toward mutuality with someone standing inches away, not wearing a mask.

I believe Rosenberg would’ve approved if I’d simply said something noncommittal, like “How about that!” Or I could’ve affirmed that she was making her point clear with, “Appears you don’t believe in masks,” and just got the heck out of there. While I don’t know her well, I know enough about her life to be aware of setbacks and tragedies. She just wants to feel safe and free, as do we all––especially now.

“Yeah, but . . . ” you want to say. I hear you. So when there seems to be no right way to proceed, I harken back to Dorothy Day, the great social activist and religious leader. In June 1946, she was pondering the terrible state of the world: everything from atom bomb tests to housing shortages and global starvation. She concluded: “we face the situation that there is nothing we can do for people except to love them.”

Dorothy Day added a prayer: “ … dear God––please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend.”

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