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  • teresamckee


I hope you’re all doing relatively well amidst the resurgence of the virus in so many states across the US and other countries around the world. Don’t forget to pause and breathe when it feels overwhelming.

I want to read you a recap of stories regarding public health mandates in the United States.

A public service announcement in the Chronicle appeared just over a week before San Francisco scheduled its mask ordinance to begin. It was very clear about its message: “Wear a Mask and Save Your Life!” Other cities and states soon followed. Instructions for how people could make their own masks at home began to appear. People who didn’t comply might face fines or prison time. Messaging emphasizes that special health measures aren’t just important because they keep the person who follows them safe. They are also important because they help protect those around them.

In Phoenix, where most people are complying with the city’s mask order, some nonetheless are poking holes in their masks to smoke. This greatly reduces their effectiveness. Still, for the small percentage of people who go without a mask entirely, reports suggest their issue has less to do with the science behind them, and more to do with personal comfort.

People don’t want to wear them because they’re hot and stuffy. Some people argue against them because they say that they create fear in the public, and that we want to keep people calm. Some businesses worry customers will shop less if they have to wear a mask when they go out, and some people claim mask ordinances are an infringement on civil liberties. For some, the concern is the idea that they give people a false sense of security and this could be true because wearing a mask is less effective when people don’t follow other health guidelines too (and especially if some are poking holes in their masks to smoke).

Cities that have passed masking ordinances struggle to enforce them among the small portion of people who rebel. San Francisco rescinded its order for a brief time, but when cases began to surge again, the city implemented a second mask order. This time, the resistance was much more intense. A group of dissenters formed the “Anti-Mask League,” which held a public meeting with over 2,000 attendees. Many public officials have been caught not wearing masks, despite their own jurisdiction’s mandates.

While the virus has been synthesized and evaluated, the properties that make it so devastating are not well understood. With no vaccine to protect against infection and no remedies to treat associated secondary infections, control efforts worldwide are limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which have thus far been applied unevenly.

Cities that relaxed their restrictions after the peak of the pandemic passed often saw the re-emergence of infection and had to reintroduce restrictions.

These excerpts are not current but were adapted from the History Channel and the National Institutes of Health. They are from the 1918-1919 global pandemic commonly known as the Spanish flu. I might have been slightly more informed about that event than the average person today because when I did my family’s genealogy, I discovered that two of my ancestors were stationed at the military camp in Kansas where the initial outbreak occurred in the U.S. and were among the first 38 people to die in the initial wave. The Spanish flu ultimately infected over 500,000,000 around the globe and killed about 50 million people, including 675,000 in the United States.

By 1918, news about the war was carefully controlled by the Committee on Public Information, an independent federal agency whose architect said, “The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.” When the Spanish flu spread across the U.S. in the spring and again in the fall of 1918, both the government and the media continued a rosy strategy “to keep morale up” because of the war and President Woodrow Wilson released no public statements about the pandemic. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if proper precautions are observed.” Another top health official dismissed it as “ordinary influenza by another name.”

If a newspaper reported the truth back then, the government threatened it. The Jefferson County Union in Wisconsin warned about the seriousness of the flu on Sept. 27, 1918. Within days, an Army general began prosecution against the paper under a wartime sedition act, claiming it had “depressed morale.” As the pandemic raged through October of that year, Americans could see with their own eyes that the “absurd reassurances” coming from local and national officials weren’t true. This crisis of credibility led to wild rumors about bogus cures and unnecessary precautions. Many experts now believe that the six to seven-month delay in telling the public the truth caused countless deaths.

When the federal government finally decided to address the pandemic, experts stated that mask-wearing was a patriotic duty. In addition to fines and possible imprisonment, the other go-to at the time for mask resistors was shaming. They dubbed them “mask slackers” and ran disparaging ads and cartoons in the papers and placed large posters in public places. They also printed the names of these mask slackers in the local papers or magazines. It didn’t work. Those who refused to wear masks were very committed to their cause.

What struck me most when thinking about what I had learned about that period of time compared to now is that we seem to be continuously stuck in repeating our mistakes of the past. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

So, let’s be mindful and learn from history. I’ve previously shared that I catch myself judging people in public who aren’t donning cloth to cover their face or staying physically distanced, and once I get judgey, I know I need a new story to tell myself or the judging just gets worse. So, first new part of the story begins with the fact that shaming doesn’t work, so I can stop glaring at non-mask wearers over the top of my own mask.

According to David B. Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the School of Global Public Health at New York University, “the stridency of opinions and extreme polarization over masks can be chalked up to one thing: Because this virus and pandemic feels so unfamiliar, we’re clinging hard to whatever makes us feel safe in the moment.”

He told the Huffington Post, “Humans, like other primates and other mammals, have a strong inherent, underlying survival instinct that gets hyper-stimulated under sudden threat of an unknown enemy. This leads to what psychologists call ‘hot cognition’ with a strong and powerful set of emotions that completely override and erase the usual rational cool thinking.”

Okay, we’re all in fight or flight mode, but that still doesn’t explain what it is about the mask that works people into temper tantrums. Abrams went on to explain that, “In moments like this, people become hyper-vigilant and super-sensitive to any threat. As their adrenal pumps, they respond with massive posturing of anger and a readiness for fight. It is like the rug has been pulled out from under them and the usual world order is gone. Some people become ready for anything.”

While I admit that I sometimes feel like New York’s governor and want to say as he did, “Don’t be stupid,” it doesn’t sound like that will work either, since calling an angry person a name rarely results in a peaceful or winning solution and when someone’s acting stupid, it’s probably beyond their prefrontal cortex’ ability and they can’t think smartly.

According to Joseph Trunzo, a professor and chair of the psychology department at Bryant University, “Any human behavior, even seemingly simple behavior, such as wearing a mask or not, is determined by multiple factors: political beliefs, ideology, social factors, education. Layer into this the context and all the changes from moment to moment with this virus, and you very quickly have very complicated reasons for any individual’s behavior choices.”

He further explained, “COVID-19 has ushered in one of the most uncertain eras in modern history, and “uncertainty breeds fear, which naturally fuels a need for control. The mask gives us a modicum of control. When faced with uncertain situations over which we have no control, we tend to exercise it wherever we can, so we feel safe. Some will feel safer exercising their control over not wearing a mask, while others will feel safer exercising their control to wear one.”

He suggests that if the need for control is the driving force for someone not wearing a mask, empathizing with their feelings of uncertainty can sometimes convince them to put one on and that most of us, pro-masks or anti-masks, share that same baseline fear. That does feel true for me. I do feel more in control of my safety by wearing a mask. I don’t know if I can feel empathy, yet, but I can at least understand someone wanting that feeling, even if not wearing a mask doesn’t make sense to me.

There are other reasons people refuse to wear masks, of course, including the terrible job officials did at the beginning of the outbreak on messaging here in the U.S. (again, same as 100 years ago). Instead of saying they just didn’t know if masks helped or not, they specifically said don’t wear one. I don’t know if that occurred in other countries, but add to that message that so many people do not trust their governments and feel that their civil liberties are already under threat, and it’s plausible that this is one way they can put their foot down and feel like they’re taking control of their freedom. For those who do trust their governments, just as in 1918, many government officials aren’t wearing masks themselves, which obviously sets a terrible example in convincing someone else that they should wear one.

The common thread through most of these reasons is uncertainty and control. We’ve talked a lot recently about uncertainty, which is something the human brain strongly resists. Control is something the human brain strongly craves and most of us don’t feel we have much control over anything these days.

We can’t make someone else do anything, ever. If you don’t believe me, try feeding a baby its first dish of broccoli. Good luck with that. And we can’t control something that’s out of our control, but we exert a lot of energy trying to do so anyway.

There are limits to our personal control in any situation. And our current disruptions have made the limits of our control glaringly obvious. Similar to the 1918 pandemic, the majority of us are complying with the physical distancing and mask mandates and a small percentage are not. And just as in 1918, we can’t make them. As much as we want to, that is not in our control.

In this situation, facing major uncertainty on a regular basis, the only way to regain a sense of personal control is to let go of control, or, surrender. Surrender involves noticing that there is nothing we can do to change the situation. Surrender does not however mean giving up.

There is personal power in action. Make a list of things that you can control about your situation, and start putting your energy towards those things. By the time Los Angeles started to lift some of the stay at home orders in May, I was going pretty stir-crazy with the monotony of being locked down, but my instincts told me it was too early to open things back up, so I sat one morning and thought about what I would like to do before they shut us down again.

You may recall I talked about our internal guideposts a couple of weeks ago, that rod of values and purpose that resides inside of us? Not a single idea made it past my guidepost, as one of my strongest values in achieving my purpose in life is excellent health. Each idea when compared to my guidepost was a no-go. Was it worth risking health to go to the beach? No. Was it worth my health to see a movie? No. Was it worth my health to visit a museum? Nope. So I went nowhere and here’s the weirdest thing. My monotony, boredom and frustration of being stuck at home disappeared after that. The only difference? Now I was in control instead of someone else controlling me. We’re really uncomfortable when not in control and I hadn’t realized at all that this was such an issue for me until the day I made the decision about whether to go out or not.

We can also deal with our emotional responses in an active way by recognizing and coping with the emotions that result from an experience. As fights break out between mask-wearers and mask-resistors, what emotions come up for you, assuming you’re not in the midst of the fight? There’s probably fear, resentment and frustration, at a minimum. You might even be having an emotional response to me sharing expert suggestions that we empathize with non-mask wearers. I can completely relate to all of these emotions as I have them, too. But my real fear isn’t someone sneezing on me. It’s getting sick. For many, it may even be a fear of dying. I feel resentment over someone not having to do something that I’m doing and don’t like because it’s uncomfortable. I resent that other people aren’t considering the impact they could have on my health. And of course, it’s super-frustrating to think that the virus is surging because of all of these people not wearing masks and congregating in crowds.

Blaming those who are not following the rules for the surge of cases provides us with an easy outlet for all of our own pent-up frustration, for our deep disappointment that we’re still stuck in this mess, and perhaps most importantly, that we still have to live with this massive uncertainty every day. I’m not condoning defying public health mandates by any means. It is likely that it is a combination of congregating and not wearing masks that is causing the latest surge, but instead of holding a rigid belief in why this is happening, we could perhaps shift our thinking more toward probability versus knowing for sure, which helps lessen the blame and also eases our own stress.

Reframing the meaning of the situation and engaging in activities that help us cope with the situation are also helpful in surrendering what we can’t control. Instead of focusing on my desire that everyone wear a mask so that I can feel safer, I can look at my experiences as an excellent exercise in strengthening my mindfulness skills. As already mentioned, this has been quite the test for me in managing my judgments. When I’m in a store and someone is walking down the aisle without a mask, I immediately turn around. Risking my health for a can of beans does not pass muster with my internal guidepost. But I can also reframe that situation from being aggravated that I couldn’t have my beans because of the mask-less shopper to a good reminder that I do have control, over myself. I notice it, too, when I pull into the grocery store parking lot. If it’s packed, I know the store is packed and I simply turn around and drive home. Noticing that something is moving me further away from my internal guidepost is mindfulness. It’s also taking control of something I can control – my own behaviors. Unfortunately, I have no other personal examples at this time because going to the grocery store is my only outing over the past four months. We’ll check in on my sanity in a few more weeks!

I’m surrendering the notion that I can do something to make those who refuse to follow the mandates do so, not because I think that exposing others to a serious illness is the best action to take, but because my judgment or my attempts at shaming them into doing it don’t work and only increase my stress and feelings of frustration.

Consideration of our connectedness and behaving in a manner with the greater good in mind is a foundation of mindfulness. That doesn’t just include people we agree with or that we like. We’re all connected and our collective behavior affects everyone and everything. We can all try to surrender our judgments and instead focus on finding effective ways to help those that don’t understand the consequences of their actions in an open-minded and caring way. I know it’s tough, believe me. But if what we’re doing now isn’t working and we keep doing it anyway, does that make any sense?

I’m focusing this week on my internal language and not dictating people’s behavior in my own mind, reminding myself that I cannot control others. Except for one thing. Please, don’t poke holes in your mask to smoke!

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