Lark Ascending: Why I wear a face mask
One distinct memory I have of the time I lived and worked in New York City — now 20 years ago — is that I refused to wait for traffic signals.
I had lived in Manhattan for 18 years, starting my career as a low-paid, entry-level publicity assistant. Eventually, I became the publisher of a hip, downtown media company, and like most New Yorkers, I walked everywhere. Confronted with a red light, unless there was a car 2 feet away from me, I’d cross the street anyway.
I never consciously thought about this, until one of my sales reps, visiting from the Midwest, pointed it out.
“You walk like you know you’re important and everyone should get out of your way,” she said.
She meant it as a compliment.
But I was taken aback. I thought of myself as law abiding and considerate of others. Why did I do this?
Yes, most people waited at the corner for the traffic light to turn green. But as CEO of a company, I was extremely busy — we were in the process of going public — and traffic would just have to wait. For me. Stopping at traffic lights interrupted my thought process and was inconvenient, and I was a person who valued myself, and my time, enough not to accept this. It was a matter of self-respect.
If pressed further, I might have added, “New York has too many traffic lights, and they stay red for too long. I am responsible for several dozen employees, a multimillion dollar budget, clients, board members. The fate of this business depends upon me getting to where I need to go, ASAP.” Having to stop for traffic lights could be seen as an attack on my personal freedom to make a living and upon free enterprise itself.
Sometimes, the memory of the young woman I was years earlier — at the mercy of the powerful and connected — made me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Now, crossing the street when it suited me confirmed I was no longer that person. It was only weak, herd-like people who followed silly rules represented by traffic lights in Manhattan.
What I didn’t have the awareness to see was that by forcing all traffic to slow down, I was making travel just a little bit harder, more time consuming, for everyone else. It didn’t occur to me that no one likes to have to wait for green lights, but we all agree to do this as a society so people don’t get run over, and we can generally function in an orderly fashion. I was setting a bad example for other residents of New York.
The attack on New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, proved to all of us, at least for a time, that it doesn’t matter how important you think you are: Catastrophic events can level you, your loved ones, your job, your community. But it also reminded us that communities are held together and become stronger when individuals extend themselves beyond what is personally convenient, sometimes in ways that even seem counter to their personal interest.
Today, it is harder for me to insist upon my personal convenience as singularly important. I know that if I agree to wear a face mask in a store, I will be breathing through a stuffy and uncomfortable piece of material, which I’d prefer not to do. I am accepting health information that may be different tomorrow or next week. But more important to me is that by wearing a face mask, I am extending courtesy and solidarity in a visible way to all the employees of that store who spend 8 or 10 hours a day among crowds of people and may be concerned about catching coronavirus. I am trying to say: I am with you in this. On the chance that I might have or be carrying this virus, I am doing what I can to protect you and everyone else in this store. My community.
If I am in that same grocery store and see someone walking in the wrong direction down an aisle, I can choose to see this as a threat to my personal health and welfare — or courteously point out the error to the other person. Or I can inconvenience myself slightly, turn around and shop in another lane. If I see a car I don’t recognize in my neighbor’s driveway, I can step out of my personal comfort zone, and ask my neighbor: Who is that? Is it someone from out of town? I am worried. Can we talk about this?
So I wear a mask, while it is recommended, because I believe the idea of community — of America, even — is an idea that cannot be sustained when individuals believe that the traffic light, for example, doesn’t apply to them. And that the idea of community blossoms when a hodgepodge of people find a way to live together that supports and enhances the desires we all have for a healthy life, liberty and the pursuit of our own dreams and aspirations.
Christina Holbrook’s column “Lark Ascending” publishes biweekly in the Summit Daily News. Holbrook writes about life in the mountains, from the beauty of the natural surroundings to the quirkiness of friends and neighbors to what makes a good life. She moved to Breckenridge in 2014 and is the author of “Winelands of Colorado.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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