My wife Chan is working with COVID-19 patients at North Shore University Hospital in Long Island, New York. Any anxiety she felt about her personal safety on the job disappeared when she learned the protocol. She wears goggles and an N-95 mask all day. Before entering each room, she puts on disposable gloves, a paper gown over her scrubs, a hair covering, shoe coverings, an additional disposable mask over the one she’s already wearing, and a protective face shield over that. As she shared her appreciation for these safety precautions, she also shared the challenges they create. In addition to the time and energy required to put on all of this gear and then dispose of it after leaving each patient’s room, the protocol puts a strain on human identification. In a hospital setting, it’s really important to know who’s who. So here she is in an unfamiliar setting, working with complete strangers, and the cover-up stresses her ability to differentiate one human creature from the next. When she encounters another person in the hallway or in a patient’s room, she doesn’t know who it is. It could be the doctor, another nurse, a CNA, a pharmacist or someone from custodial staff. All of the things that mark someone’s identity are covered up. She can’t see the normal clues like name badges, stethoscopes, lab coats, or the color of the person’s scrubs. I hated that this caused some additional stress to an already complicated situation, but it was fascinating to me. I thought, “That’s actually kind of cool. You have to treat everyone the same.”
Humans seem to have an innate ability to size people up and put them in certain boxes or categories. We can easily and quickly stereotype people using external clues and established norms. We have certain ideas about what makes a person important or valuable, and this often impacts our behavior toward them, both negatively and positively. I think that’s one reason why many of us wear masks. We pretend to be something we’re not, so others will think more highly of us. I think too often we depend on the opinions of other people to determine our own sense of self worth. Bill Kinyon’s devotional last week was thought provoking. He wrote about the different words and phrases that have become prominent in these days of pandemic. He zoomed in on the word “essential.” They are worth repeating:
What does “essential” mean, exactly? Who or what are to be deemed essential? Some are obvious, like law enforcement or health care workers. How many of us realized, though, how important grocery store workers and warehouse workers and others in the supply chain would become to us all? Of course, they have always been important, but we often took them for granted. During this pandemic, it has been made dramatically clear just how important they are. They are among the new heroes stepping to the forefront in this time. Yet, they perform jobs that are often low-paying, don’t receive the respect that certain other jobs do, and previously would never have been thought of as belonging on the list of essentials.
Every day I receive a “Word of the Day” email from Merriam Webster. Today’s word was “flotsam.” I almost deleted the email without opening it, because I know that flotsam is the floating wreckage of a ship, and can be used in a general sense to mean floating debris. For some reason, I decided to open it, and discovered that flotsam has a second meaning: “a floating population (as of emigrants or castaways); miscellaneous or unimportant material.”
The mask has become an essential part of our public life together. I imagine the cloth and paper variety will be worn for a while, but I do hope we can take off the other ones. I hope we can claim the Psalmists words, and live as the beautiful creatures God created us to be:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14a).