To Cover, or Not to Cover

I spend a good portion of my life bewildered.  

It seems like no matter where I go, I’m never quite up to speed on what other people are doing, let alone what they’re thinking. Bring up any topic, and you can just about count on my punk brain coming up with a completely different angle than everyone else around me. This is extremely uncomfortable.

I don’t want to to call this quality that I’m lacking “conformity”It’s not a willingness to conform that I lack. Believe me, as a shy person, I think it would be lovely to just do it, whatever “it” happens to be at the moment. It would be cool to, for once in my fringey little life, jump right in and blend with the crowd. I’d like to be respectable for a change. It’s not the desire, but the ability to conform that seems to have been left out of the warp of my soul.

So let’s just call it alienation. I am continually alienated from the people around me by my (apparently uncommon) convictions. Whether others have felt the pull of similar convictions and ignored them, or they just don’t have the same convictions is entirely between them and God. I wouldn’t even want to know. None of my business. Since we’re all reading from the same Bible, though, it really is a wonder to me that I can be so predictably orthogonal to the rest of society. Every. Single. Time. I am clearly broken.

I’ve worn a hair-covering while praying and studying the Word for several years now, even though no one else I know does this. I don’t believe it’s strictly mandated, but it is a symbol whose meaning everyone can discern. It’s a mark of submission of a woman’s own (meager, in my case) physical beauty, her glory, to the headship of her husband, who is in turn a symbol to her of Christ as He heads the Church.  There’s also that whole mysterious thing about “because of the angels” which I don’t need to fully understand in order to recognize that it is a concern. In addition to the positive reasons for it, I can’t think of any reason hair-covering would be inappropriate, so I do it.

The apostle Paul thought the covering was a good idea, and fitting in its symbolism, but “if anyone seems to be contentious about it, we have no such custom.” Let them do what they think best, in other words.

But, I note, they are being contentious.

Symbolism matters, except when it doesn’t. 

Some time ago, our pastor made a joke in passing about how we wouldn’t “be having a burka sale in the lobby” later on. I can’t remember for sure, but I think he was talking about ecumenism and that weird beast called Chrislam. Certainly he was not preaching from 1 Corinthians 11 that day, so the joke was an aside, not an attack. The fact that covering one’s hair as a gesture of modesty isn’t anything like covering the full face and form because of the supposed shame of being female didn’t stop me from flinching a bit, though.

The symbolism of the hair covering means very little to this particular pastor. Fair enough, I guess. That’s pretty much all the pastors these days, after all. It bothered me enough that I still recall the sting of the joke, but not enough to ruin the rest of the message. I mostly got over it, and the joke in context was kind of funny. But there was that shameful feeling of being seen on the fringes, yet again.

I’ve continued to cover my hair because the social pressure is the only negative thing about it. There’s no biblical or practical reason not to do it.

And that brings me to my current problem: Masks. 

Actual photo from worship service. I guess it would be rude to give them mouths when we’re not allowed to have them ourselves.

It occurs to me that the same man who wouldn’t dream of telling women to cover their heads is fully on board with having everybody cover a large portion of their imago dei so they won’t spill their newly toxic breath all over each other. Granted, the Bible doesn’t say anything about surgical masks, but I do think on an intuitive level, this ought to give thoughtful Christians pause. If covering up the faces of God’s children, muffling their voices, and keeping them from greeting one another with a “holy kiss” doesn’t seem creepy and perverse to you, I just have nothing left to say.

I can’t get with the program. I’ve talked myself around in circles on this. “Just put on the mask. It won’t hurt you, you know. Not if it’s just for an hour, anyway. Everybody else is happy! It doesn’t seem to be bothering them. They look fine. They can still sing. I mean, it’s a little strangled, but they’re being absolute troopers about it. The governor and the town council say you have to! You don’t want to get other people in trouble, do you? You’re not affecting anything by sitting it out! You’re going to get fined!”

And you know what? God bless them for being able to let go and just do it, I reckon. I wish I could see it that way. But I cannot get past the thought that our breath is not just a mechanistic thing. It’s a spiritual thing. God breathed life into the first man, and we are all ensouled with that same breath. To stifle it invokes a symbolism that I can’t participate in during worship. (Or most any other time, though there are times I don’t mind masking up to keep the peace.)

Just as the only reason I can come up with to take off my hair-covering is to relieve the discomfort of being different, the only reason I can conjure to put on the mask is to relieve the social pressure. I would be wearing a mask just to make the pressure stop. That is a very bad reason to do anything.

Masks don’t do anything discernible to slow or stop the spread of a virus by healthy people. But there is something they do very well:

Masks separate us.

They remind us not to touch one another. They keep us from fully reading each other’s emotions. They prevent us from even recognizing people we don’t know very well. They give us something to hide our thoughts behind. They act as a constant reminder that nothing is allowed to be normal right now.

Possibly the worst thing they do is to leave a blank spot in the impressions our smallest children should be forming right now of interacting with other people, especially strangers. As we’ve learned from studying feral children there is a window of opportunity for children to learn certain things, and those formative years cannot be reclaimed. Who knows what social effects this unprecedented year-long mandate might have? Perhaps there will be no negative effect. I hope and pray that’s so. But would you want to be the guy that signed off on that experiment?

Human beings cannot live under this kind of stress without changing their relationships with one another. And they can’t do that without affecting their souls. 

And in spite of the purported benignity of the coverings, masks do make us breathe differently, whether too deeply or not deeply enough, because they bring the usually unconscious act of breathing to our constant attention, where it becomes less efficient. I know for a fact that many people get panic attacks from focusing on their breath this way. Asthmatics are very familiar with the phenomenon. We can have perfect oxygenation, and yet our very breathing is causing us to feel like we’re suffocating. There are ways to overcome these panic attacks in the short term, but it’s a powerful indicator that we should not be doing this all day long every day.

Even while failing to prevent viruses from riding out on our breath to reach others, masks can trap enough of our vapor to cause us to increase our own viral load. They definitely make us rebreathe bacteria, as well as collect it against the skin. It’s highly impractical to change or wash masks frequently enough to prevent this when we’re wearing them as an 8 hour clothing item for work. I doubt that more than a tiny percentage of mask-wearers are doing it in a sanitary way.

Breathing freely is important to human health–body and spirit! Because I know this, I am reluctant to join the rest of society in wearing a mask, even though after nine months of the madness, I am painfully aware that I’m offending some pretty strong social norms.

Here, strangely, symbolism becomes a valid argument.

Because, as you know, you have to wear the mask to show you care. The argument from science is scarcely ever even attempted, for good reason. There is very little science to support it! Instead, we’re socially shamed for even questioning the practice. Masks are there to make everybody around you feel like you care about them, even though nobody is in any greater danger without them. Comforting, ineffective symbolism is now the approved way to show you care. And don’t you dare try to hug your grandmother. ( Don’t click that link if you don’t want to cry. I had a mild confrontation with a nurse over this back in June. My grandmother was visibly upset, and I went around the table and gave her a big hug and a kiss, and I’m not sorry.)

We’re told that wearing a mask is to keep you from passing the virus on to others, not to keep you from getting it. Never mind the complete lack of understanding of such a simple thing as circulating air. Here’s a clue: if I can breathe, a virus can get out of my mask. There’s a demonic little trick in that tactic, in that the mask doesn’t show how much I care for myself, but how much I care for others. It doesn’t make me healthy. It makes me a good person. Nobody wants to go out in public and make everyone else think she’s a bad person.

I am downright allergic to that kind of manipulation, so I guess that’s my medical exemption from mask-wearing.

And that is the source of my bewilderment. After nine months of being told that good people wear masks, that breathing freely means you’re reckless or rebellious, and that you just don’t care if other people die, how is anybody ever going to be convinced by mere facts to go back to normal? And be treated like a pariah? They won’t. They’ll just wait until the powers that be tell them to take it off. I despair, because if people will fall for this–not just for a couple of weeks until they figure out the trick, but for as long as they’re commanded to by an illegitimate authority–what else will they fall for?

As someone who is used to feeling like an oddball no matter where I go, I seem nevertheless to be far more sensitive to the alienating effects of these face-coverings. Maybe it’s just the last straw after living so many years going against the flow. I’m tired. Maybe I will finally learn to love Big Brother, if this goes on long enough.