An Immigrant’s Plea

If you are like me, you’ve spent the better part of a year now wearing a mask in most public places. And regardless of whether one agrees or not with the usefulness of a mask in fighting the spread of coronavirus, most of us have done so in order to be considerate of others, at the very least.

Personally, wearing a mask has led to headaches and muscle aches (for which I’ve even missed work as I recovered from these effects), so I’ve understood from early on in this pandemic, that there were going to be a host of extenuating circumstances—similar to mine—surrounding masks, which would never be discussed in any serious way, nor would allowances be given to us. We’d be asked to toe the line at any expense; and any objection would be cast as un-neighborly, selfish, and careless—perhaps even criminal.

Even so, we wanted to be good neighbors, so we put our misgivings (and difficulties) aside, and we went along with the protocols and mandates; and there have been many, many misgivings about the protocols employed to ‘supposedly’ rein in this virus. But still we’ve worn the masks, many of us even when we are alone (not certain why)!

Now we are nearly a year into this (mad) experiment, and many of us are growing mad about it. I try not to get angry, because it rarely helps anything. But I understand the feeling. And I was sitting by myself on the upper deck of the ferry recently. I sit up there in the breeze during my commute in order to keep to myself, and to go maskless. Officially, this isn’t allowed; we are mandated to wear masks in all public places, even outside, alone, on the ferry! But I’ve learned this year that breathing is more important to me, sometimes, than following the rules.

As I sat there reading, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a ferry worker approaching me with her mask on, and I braced myself for a stern rebuke, or at least a reminder that it is mandated that I put my mask back on. I considered what I might say to her in my defense: perhaps a biological defense—that humans are made to exhale, we need to eliminate carbon dioxide and other waste products (this isn’t optional), and masking ourselves is detrimental to our health; or a sociological defense—that we are alienating ourselves from one another by hiding our faces, and this is unhealthy and detrimental to the fabric of our society; or a psychological defense—for those who feel trapped behind the mask, it increases anxiety and feelings of loneliness, depression and despair; or a spiritual defense—for those who don’t believe that the masks work (and there is plenty of real evidence for this [see Great Barrington Declaration] among other studies) what is the price for wearing them, and essentially lying against oneself for an entire year? To act contrary to one’s beliefs must be corrosive to the soul, I would think.

It is damaging to be a hypocrite against one’s own self, isn’t it? Even if it is done for a good cause, or with good intentions. And if we do this for too long, might we cause irreparable damage to our integrity? This is an honest question. To act in opposition to what we believe, even if done out of kindness for others, won’t this lead to a breakdown of the psyche, on some level? And then, if we no longer listen to our soul, will we eventually lose our ability to hear it? And if this happens, are we human any longer, or are we now merely automatons—robots and consumers, pure materialists doing only what we are told, and thinking only what we are told to think…

I considered these responses that I might make as the young woman came up and stood in front of me. I looked up at her expectantly, and she leaned forward conspiratorially, and pulled her mask down slightly just below her nose, and then said quietly while looking me straight in the eyes, “What are we going to do about these?” She pointed quickly to her mask.  

I was surprised. I hadn’t expected this from her. I smiled briefly and shrugged before she continued, “This is horrible. And they’ve increased the mandates. People are so angry about the masks, as they get on the ferry.”

“I’m so sorry,” I replied empathetically. “I understand how people feel, but they shouldn’t take it out on you. It isn’t your fault. You’re just doing your job. I know. But we need a break, we need a way out, don’t we?! I understand wearing a mask, if you are indoors in a confined space, or with the elderly. But in the fresh air? It’s too much, I think. They need to understand they are pushing people too far.”

She nodded agreement and then continued. “I am so sad. I came here from Ukraine. I escaped that, to come here, to be free. But now it is starting to happen here too. I’m so scared. I don’t want that.”

I voiced my support and asked her to tell me more about that. I recognized her accent now, and was interested in an immigrant’s perspective on our current situation. She seemed to consider the masks to be a symbol of a more widespread oppression occurring in our country, though she focused her concerns and fear on the mask mandate specifically, as if the masks were the clearest manifestation of our national illnesses.   

“I left communism. It is horrible. I love this country, but it is changing. I’m so sad. I’m scared, I don’t want it to become like Ukraine. My family escaped through Italy years ago. We can’t go back now. We are considered ‘Enemies of the People’ in the Ukraine. I have to be careful if I Skype with my family in Ukraine. I would get them in trouble.”

It seemed she must have trusted me, perhaps since I wasn’t wearing a mask. It seemed she saw me as someone who she might confide in without fear. I didn’t ask her why she came up to me, but as we talked, she smiled, and she became more relaxed, and even pulled her mask down under her chin briefly as she spoke, “People don’t read enough here, they don’t know what they have. They don’t know communism. They don’t understand why we left it to come here. This country is free. But I’m so sad. I don’t know what is going to happen here. It seems like it is becoming like where we escaped from.”  

She then apologized for interrupting me, and I assured her I was glad she had. We then introduced ourselves, at the end of our conversation and just prior to her continuing with her work, and leaving me to my reading. We said our goodbyes, and each expressed our hope of another future conversation. As she left me, I pondered everything she had said, and I reconsidered the slogans and mottos we’ve been taught this past year about wearing the mask. And I recognized a new reason to remove my mask in public—for the sake of our immigrants.

Imagine losing everything to leave the country you love in order to live in freedom. Only to find that country willingly giving up those freedoms. This young Ukrainian was afraid, and I believe she came to me, in some small way, for hope and for inspiration; and for some assurances that this country won’t make the same mistakes of previous ones that fell into totalitarianism. We are told to wear masks for the sake of others, and I’m okay with that, to a point. Yes, let’s protect the elderly and those who are vulnerable. But for the rest of us we need to breathe freely again. It’s time; it is way past time, I think. If you can’t take the mask off for yourself, do it for an immigrant from a communist country.

~FS

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