Society, your a crazy breed. I hope you are not lonely without me.
~ Eddie Vedder “Society”
I step out into the smoky morning street and make my way along the wooden clapboard sidewalk of the old western town. I am wearing a mask, an N95, which is the best cheap one you can get to keep the tiny particles of air pollution out of your lungs. I feel self-conscious and am uncomfortably, literally from wearing a mask, although I am getting used to it, and socially because I am the only one wearing a mask. Tourists go about their day – poking in and out of shops and stopping at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe for ice cream and candy. They seem unaware and oblivious of the smoke and its harmful effects.
The air quality here has been rated as “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” for weeks now and I am surprised at how few people, locals and tourists alike, are wearing masks. Today seems clearer than it has been lately – I can almost see sun and sky – yet the WAQA (Washington Air Quality Advisor, which is more stringent than the EPA’s Air Quality Index or AQI) for Winthrop is 198, which is just two points shy of moving into “very unhealthy.” It smells like smoke outside and you can’t see the mountains. We should all limit our time outdoors, and need to be wearing masks if we do.
I have a book waiting for me at the library and so I am walking over there to pick it up. I feel very self-conscious about wearing the mask and find myself actually walking with my head down and not making eye contact with anyone. Wow, I am shocked by how strongly I feel and am affected by social pressure and the need to “fit in.” No one is probably even judging me but I act as though they are. I walk fast, head down, eyes averted. It is so interesting how the need to be a part of the crowd can influence us so strongly, even when I am someone who has often done things my own way and a little bit out of the norm. I mean I live in a freaking bus for crying out loud!
Yet, we are a socially adapted and dependent species and so I too feel that wearing a mask around town.
I reach the library and take it off as quickly as possible. I leave it dangling around my neck and there is a part of me that hopes people see it and think that maybe they need to wear one too. There are a growing number of us wearing masks and I think it is important to lead into my discomfort and wear one anyway. By me wearing one, I give “permission” to others to wear them also, to make it “normal” or at least not super-weird. So while I am wearing one for my own personal health, I wear it for others as well.
Are there other places in our lives where this is true as well? Places where we can embrace the discomfort in order to encourage others to act appropriately, or to say that a certain behavior is not okay? I am thinking of times when someone says something that just isn’t cool. Do I say so or just shrug it off to keep my position as part of the in-crowd? Do I wear the mask or not, and who am I wearing it for?
These questions rattle around in my brain as I pull the strap over my head, securing the mask for my walk back from the library. My eyeglasses fog with each exhalation and I can’t see the strange looks that I imagine I am getting for walking through the discomfort on this smoky, hazy summer day.
by David LaFever