The Face Behind the Mask

The New Year celebrations have passed in a flash. 2021 is already here after much expectation but surprisingly little fanfare. In our household, celebrations were low key, keeping in mind the ongoing level of COVID 19 cases. Everywhere I turn I hear people excited for the promise of this new year, even if with some trepidation. We are becoming a people both accustomed to and yet simultaneously gun-shy of the unexpected. I am no exception to those feelings.

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This past year, I have been more restricted about who I have seen in person than at any other time in my living memory. Even the limited contact that I have had in the public arena has been behind a mask at a safe distance. Alan and I have remarked that as we have taken our daily walks, that we see a big change. As others see us coming towards them, they literally do everything to avoid being too close to us. They cross the road or make a wide sweep to get past safely. Oddly, this has included eye contact where both parties are more likely to look down or away rather than make the friendly eye contact we may have done before COVID was a thing. This new reality has served to increase our feelings of isolation. To add to this picture, our usual activities such as going to church or social gatherings have been virtually non-existent and the replacement zoom activities just haven’t had the same feeling to them. We are more aware than ever that in this greater digital age of video relationships, this is also like wearing a more invisible mask: You can’t see the mask and yet a ‘mask” of sorts is still there to hide behind.

I need to add here that as a cancer patient I am in support of masks and other public safety measures during this time of a pandemic. However, I have been fascinated with trying to understand other consequences of this strange new lifestyle that may not have occurred to us or which have not been previously seen to play themselves out. Let me share an example to illustrate. Did you know that there is research that shows we humans (and some animals too) tend to mirror or reflect each other in our emotions? Here is an example described by one of the researchers:

Someone commits a social faux pas. Observers around them show surprise and anger, communicating their disapproval in varying levels. The “offender” then expresses embarrassment to show they are sorry. The observers pick up on this cue and show forgiveness and acceptance. Finally, the loop is closed when the “offender” feels forgiven and is happy again.

Sound familiar? Of course, there are other possible reactions to this situation and it’s not quite so straightforward. Still, these kind of social interactions and reactions happen often in the blink of an eye and we might not consciously notice all the various movements between us. These processes are not only about living as social beings, but they are part of how we learn about others and about ourselves. COVID 19 has made me more conscious of these processes as I have been left more to my own devices. It may sound a little crazy, my reality is that I look forward to my weekly hospital visits for treatment as I hunger for additional close human contact.

I always believed that eye contact was the most important non-verbal communication tool. I am learning however, that we communicate so much better when we can see the whole face and body movements of the other person. Looking back on my time living and learning the language in France reminded me of this principle. As a novice French speaker, I became conscious that it was a lot easier to understand people if I could see their faces as they were talking. The most challenging conversations were those I had with faceless people over the phone. It is so much easier to understand and be understood when we are face to face with each other. Our eyes may be the windows to our soul, but our faces are the frames for those windows and are equally important in revealing the fullness of who we are.

The following story was recently shared with me anecdotally that confirmed some of my thinking. A one-year-old child who spent the working week in childcare surrounded by people in masks, was taken to their doctor for an annual assessment of development. The doctor noted that the child had fallen behind developmentally in their language and the question could be asked, is this because they had limited facial contact at the crucial time when they are learning to speak.

Our communication skills are a popular subject, but I wanted to add an equally important principle. As I have struggled to communicate with others more effectively, I have come to see that I have felt more disconnected from myself at the same time. I can thank COVID 19 for the greater appreciation that we learn about ourselves and gain personal perspective as we interact with others. We see ourselves in their reflection. That’s not to say that we accept that reflection in all its details. We get to choose that.

It’s no wonder that placing prisoners in isolation is such an extreme form of punishment. We are not only depriving them of human connection but eventually it becomes harder to even connect with themselves. Early in the 19th century in the United States, research showed that prisoners placed in solitary confinement had symptoms that included delirium, confusion, paranoia, and random, impulsive, and often self-directed violence. To me these were signals that the prisoner was losing a sense of who they were, albeit in an extreme form.

So, what has mask-wearing been teaching us? While clearly necessary for our physical safety, we are paying a price in other ways. The development of personal identity is paradoxically a community experience that is being made more difficult by the pandemic. We begin this process within our families but at some point, we need to extend that to include others outside of our family circles. We need to find ways to get out from behind our masks to re-connect with others and ourselves.

We'd like to thank Marianne Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity.

P.S. To date, Discover Identity has helped men via group sessions and in retreats. We are getting ready to launch programs geared more to women, beginning with a survey on what elements of identity are important to women specifically. We would love to have your input!