In my neighborhood, more people roam without face masks than with them.
I don’t usually give this too much thought, but one encounter last weekend has lingered in my mind.
My kids and I were finishing a walk around the block. We were, for reasons described in my early April post “A bandana the right direction,” all wearing our face masks.
While my ten-year-old (Li’l D) and I were walking, my six-year-old (Littler J) was pedaling slowly on his hand-me-down Ninja Turtles bike. I saw a couple without facemasks approaching on the sidewalk. Remembering Littler rolling right into a neighbor who’d been standing still just a few days prior, I thought it unlikely he’d be able to skirt around moving targets. I nudged him into the street to enable the couple to pass.
As the couple passed, the woman within it took in my family’s face masks and smirked. I didn’t think much of that, but rather focused on getting Littler back onto the sidewalk after they passed.
Once back on the sidewalk, I looked up and saw the couple rolling by in a truck. The woman (whom we’ll call “Unmasked Woman,” or “UW” for short) leaned out her window and, laughing, snapped some photos of me and me oh-so-hilariously masked kids.
I wasn’t personally bothered by her actions, but I was deeply saddened by the implications of thousands of vignettes like it occurring daily, in the midst of a pandemic, in the United States.
When I saw UW laughing and photographing, words started burbling up deep within me. They were too far down to reach, so I let them roll and swell deep within me, letting them grow to a point where they were close to reaching the neurons that direct my typing fingers.
I did not want to write too early, potentially leading me to explode with futile antagonism. Having lost an opportunity to plant a seed that might, someday, blossom into grown understanding.
I did that several times in my last few years on my old blog. Frustrated and furious how some people’s indifference was fatal to other, more vulnerable people, I simmered over with rage. I wrote-shouted a lot, erroneously believing that my participating in culturally prevalent shouting and shaming was a necessary part of bringing about societal change on which tens of millions of lives depend.
I learned this was wrong before I had words for why it was wrong. The closest I got to words was a simple phrase planted in me by my key takeaway from reading Martin Luther King, Jr.:
If the process is bad, so, too, will be the end result.
This principle, which I vaguely grasped before ever reading Brené Brown, grew more deeply rooted in me as I began reading her works about a year ago. My key takeaway from reading her works is summed up in part of the quote that began her career as a shame researcher:
“I know you want to help these kids, but you must understand this … you can not shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.”
It doesn’t work. Far from simply, passively not working to inspire positive change, shame actively wounds people.
Last month, I ordered a handful of public health and global health books off bookshop.org. The first I read was Lazy, Crazy, and Disgusting: Stigma and the Undoing of Global Health. While my reading was inspired by an interest in eventually working in public health, the book touched and healed still-open wounds I’ve carried since childhood.
As one daughter of a poor single mom of four, I saw my mother shamed by members of our community every single day. I saw her shamed for
having married an abusive man;
not having left her abusive husband sooner;
having too many kids;
not having always-immaculate grammar;
having too little money;
not having the decency to be thin;
having the “wrong” politics;
not wearing, or driving, or eating, the right brands; and
having the gall to counter charity with words about how deeply
thorn-covered charity wounded her
(and thus, as their sole caregiver, her children).
I saw how shame, this phenomenon I witnessed near daily but could not then name, corroded my mom’s spirit and energy more than poverty itself.
So when this book’s authors said that shame-driven stigma, far from creating positive global health changes, often actually devastates communities already most vulnerable, this message wasn’t abstract or intellectual for me.
It was an affirmation of what I already knew. It was, beyond that, an affirmation that I needed to keep watering those seeds of understanding positive change that King and Brown (et al) had planted in me.
Most of all, it was a reminder to pause and ask myself before writing anything that might induce shame in others:
“Am I writing for the righteous-feeling rush of splashing figurative acid on people now, or because I want to participate in positive change?”
Acid corrodes, so: In any moment, I can do one or the other. Not both.
Early in my high school career, I wrote a paper called “The Strongest Belief.” In that paper, I wrote about a favorite saying of mine:
That quote has come to mind a lot the last few years, as I’ve read on history, politics, psychology, anthropology, and medicine, among others. Every page I’ve read has made me more keenly aware how often we human beings continue to believe deeply wrong things despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Much of the time, misbelief won’t drown us; in the midst of a pandemic in our highly connected, highly dysregulated world,
many have already drowned.
Though tens of thousands have already drowned thusly in the U.S. alone, only a fraction of the U.S. population is estimated to have had COVID-19 so far. This fact is lost in the hubbub of ebullient proclamations that it’s time to “reopen” the nation.
Indeed, states across the U.S. are in the process of “reopening.” They’re easing restrictions in place the last couple of months to slow the spread of COVID-19.
For some people, the fact of closing was an incomprehensible tragedy. We should never have closed in the first place, and it was an affront to the liberty that so much of our nation did grow still.
For many people, the closing was a comprehensible annoyance. They grudgingly practiced physical distancing, washed their hands more frequently and vigorously, and wore face masks out in public. While they felt the ache of it, they understood the necessity as well, and yearned for the day that life as normal could resume.
For others, a sometimes quiet, sometimes shrieking dread crept into our homes and bones. We—for I number among this group—could see how late these halting half-measures came, how slow this beast was rolling, and thus saw that the months to years ahead could be very, very painful without coordinated efforts to quickly, decisively eradicate it with much more comprehensive, geographically widespread measures.
In a pandemic, it takes a single superspreader—one single enthusiastically mobile infected person—to carry the disease to multiple homes, stores, clubs, churches, and miscellaneous other communities, to see the disease proliferate again, with each of those newly infected sharing the wealth across their own sets of communities.
In other words, for those in the latter group, it wasn’t necessary to read Yaneer Bar-Yam’s writings to understand the dangers of inadequate COVID-19 response;
we did it, in many cases, to better find words capable of articulating truths too big to easily fit in them,
hoping that the right words could help lead to many lives spared.
When UW mirthfully snapped photos of me and my face-masked family, I can only imagine (not being able to ask her) that she believes the threat—if she ever perceived a direct threat to her bodily self—has passed. Alternatively or additionally, she may well believe the masks themselves are ridiculous, ineffective, failing to appreciate the asymmetry I described in my “bandana” post from above:
A few days ago, though, I got to telling my husband about how many dog-walkers my sons and I are seeing on our twice-daily walks. “I’ve never seen nearly so many people out walking their dogs!” I said. “I think this means I really need to start putting something on my face, pronto. It’s all about asymmetry of consequence. Worst-case scenario for wearing it is I look silly and nothing else changes; there’s no benefit. Worst-case scenario for not wearing it is hurting–or even inadvertently contributing to killing–someone else. With such asymmetrical costs and benefits, it’s dumb to be walking around out there without some stopgap barrier.”
(See how shaming words like “dumb” creep in even when trying to be vigilant about avoiding them? While I was describing my own thinking here, I was not alone in acting this particular “dumb” way.)
I don’t wish to shame UW. I do, however, wish she’d stopped and asked, “Hey, can I ask you about your masks? Why are you wearing them?” That—curiosity over judgment—could’ve begun a potentially meaningful exchange.
Alas, that’s not the way we tend to do things in the U.S.: we judge first and ask questions, if ever, later.
How do I move away from that? How do I move from judgment to curiosity? How do I believe a thing strongly—that COVID-19’s worst direct and indirect impacts are yet to come, and that their magnitude will correlate with our actions and inactions now—and yet also be curious enough about people who believe otherwise to listen to them and hear the fears that roil in their hearts?
Here, too, I am guided by the work of exceedingly empathetic epidemiologist and author Abdul El-Sayed. In his recent Healing Politics, he writes about moving “Toward a politics of empathy”:
Rather than fall prey to the fearmongering that is being used to tear us apart, empathy politics encourages us to recognize the struggle against the system of insecurity that unifies us. Ironically, it is only in centering the emotions of the other whom our insecurity might lead us to demonize that we can turn our attention to the system that has marginalized us all.
Reflecting further on the politics of empathy, El-Sayed writes that those who embody it
believe that all people deserve empathy. We recognize that people can be both wrong and redeemable. Therefore, we do not condemn people but rather their positions, attitudes, and perspectives when they are unjust, immoral, or unethical. We believe that everyone can someday be a partner in the work of justice, equity, and sustainability, even if they may not be today. That is because we recognize that if we are not unifying, we are being divided, and that the work of unifying is what America is about.
Brown describes empathy as the opposite of shame. Knowing in my bones, from everything I have experienced in my life so far, how true this is,
I also know in my bones how right El-Sayed is to cast aside shame and judgment as tools for change, and to instead lift up empathy.
Thanks to El-Sayed, I have a picture—no, so many pictures—of what a politics of empathy looks like in action.
And so, when thinking today of that UW laughing, I know that I saw only a glimpse of her;
that she cares about many things and can be reached, with empathy but not shame;
that we both struggle and fear and rejoice and love;
that she is not my enemy.
From each of the authors I’ve read so far, I can identify a key takeaway or two. I’ve named some of those here.
I also have a key takeaway from my public health readings so far: As humans, our destinies are intertwined, from the poorest of us to the wealthiest.
To effectively care for any, we must care for all. Microbes exemplify the truth of this interweaving most uniquely: They could not care less about bank account balances or human-designated neighborhood boundaries.
If I rage at UW, the maskless woman who set this post stirring, I do not show care. I do not show empathy. I do not reflect, in act, my deep belief that “redeemable” is a category into which every single human being may fall.
And so, rather than laughing and taking my own pictures, I’ll instead hope that today
she finds and spreads less shaming laughter and more love, as I, too,
will try to do, knowing that the quality of my sons’ future
depends upon it.
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.