Peeing In Humanity’s Pool

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Etiquette has always interested me. I noticed as a little kid that there were different rules for different people and situations. Mom pointed out early on that we don’t speak the same way to the minister as we do to friends on the playground. Twirling so your dress flies up and your underwear shows is okay at a dance, but a bad idea at the office.

The etiquette evolving for this time of pandemic interests me. On a purely emotional level, it’s an unpleasant surprise to see how many people think not wearing a mask or distancing is some sort of statement promoting some “cause,” as opposed to simply being a practical thing recommended by experts in medicine, science and public health to slow down the spread of a very contagious new disease.

I suspect many of them are simply terrified. Human beings don’t make our best decisions when we’re scared. The brain stops accepting any new input that’s complicated and we don’t have processing power or time to untangle anything confusing. It’s easier for some people to respond to fear by refusing to believe anything is wrong, because admitting what’s going on means accepting a certain amount of powerlessness.

Why not do the things we know help, like staying home as much as we can until a safe, effective vaccine is available? Why refuse to distance, or wear masks? Those give us what power we have in this situation, so why give them up?

In part, because it’s quickly become part of a person’s identity. Meaning has been attached to taking those steps. They’ve gone from being sensible precautions to personal statements. But in that process, I think some people are mistaking the statements they’re making.

Yes, liberty is important. Freedom is crucial. But they don’t come without cost. We live in a society with other people. The basic deal is that it’s understood we will cooperate for the good of us all. I’m free to drive a car, but not into your living room. I have to take a test, get a license, and obey traffic laws — and I have the right to expect that you will, too. My stopping at a red light protects other drivers (and me). Them stopping protects me (and them). We protect each other.

It’s the liberty bargain. I’m free to exercise by throwing punches — but not at your face. Your face has the right to be unpunched by me. My rights aren’t the only ones that matter. Yours matter, too. You have a right for me not to casually risk exposing you to a potentially deadly disease.

If the only thing masks and distancing accomplished was making some people feel safer during this chaotic time, they’d still be worth wearing. It’s good manners. It’s kind. It’s caring. And if people feel safe, if they see you doing your part to help, they’re more likely to feel safe enough to come out and spend money.

When someone wears a mask or distances during a global pandemic, it’s not a political statement. The statement being made is that this person thinks other people matter enough to protect or comfort them — their own family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, that exhausted nurse or doctor who’s been tending coronavirus patients (and watching people die when they couldn’t be saved), that researcher getting close to finding a vaccine to protect people, that truck driver or grocery clerk risking health and life to keep the groceries coming.

It’s not a flag. It’s not a magic amulet (you have to wear them correctly for them to work — just having one on your person doesn’t protect anyone).

It’s your way of saying whether you’re mature enough to understand that freedom comes with responsibility, kind enough to help other people feel a bit safer in trying times, smart enough to understand that not doing it makes us lock down longer and likely will get us locked down again. You’re willing to do your own bit to help get your community, your country, and your world through the biggest challenge we’re all likely to face in our lifetimes.

So make your statement — but make sure you know what statement you’re really making.

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