The Mask Task

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Like most of us these days, I wear my mask any time I expect to be in a setting that may require physical proximity to others.  

A long long time ago--last month I think it was--when this mask thing began, I remember thinking there were positive aspects to this.  The mask is the great equalizer.   It doesn’t matter what we look like underneath.  No need to worry if I forgot to apply my lipstick.  And wearing a mask makes us a part of the "club" of people who care about each other and ourselves.  So out on the street during a walk, or dutifully keeping our distance at a supermarket, we would say hello to each other with a kind of clubby camaraderie. 

But with time I had been finding that this has worn thin.  It takes extra effort to make eye contact with a stranger when the eyes are all you see; it’s much easier for me to choose not to notice the "other," walking in the opposite direction.  To stay within my own bubble and thought-stream.   To lose sight of their unique being.   And I don’t like that feeling.

I also wear a mask at all times when I’m at work as hospital chaplain.  I’m finding that with everyone, including patients wearing masks, the masks are both life-saving and life-narrowing. It can be hard to recognize nurses and other staff when seeing just their eyes, particularly for those of us with imperfect vision.  For those who don’t hear well, not only is the voice a bit muffled by a mask, but the mask doesn’t allow for the visual cues for lip-reading. 

And worst of all by far, for a chaplain, is that it is so very hard to read a masked person’s facial expressions.  A patient’s eyes may signal a sadness, or an emptiness, or suffering, or positive feelings--and that’s helpful, of course.  But we cannot see a tensing of facial muscles, or a twitch, or a quiver of the chin which might signal teariness, or a grimace of pain, or a smile.   And for the patient receiving a first visit from a masked chaplain, he/she cannot read the chaplain’s face to establish trust that the person before them is caring, non-anxious, receptive. 

So both at work and during free time--on top of the pervasive emotional burden surrounding the presence of the Covid-19 virus--I had been feeling mask-beleaguered. 

And then I came across a Facebook post by my friend Sarah Byrne-Martelli, an Orthodox palliative care chaplain with much experience, insight, and an indomitable positive spirit and can-do attitude.

In this Facebook post, which Sarah gave me permission to copy here, she wrote, “I'm finding a new way to smile over the mask (shown here), which involves squinting and raising my eyebrows. This is probably expediting new wrinkles, but it's worth it.”  

These words and photo helped me so much!  I realized that I’d allowed myself to be beaten down by face masks, of all things!  With everything else that was going on, I was giving in to the obstacles caused by wearing the masks, instead of taking Sarah’s approach of simply doing what it takes to make this "new normal’"work.

I realized that if I see this as a positive challenge rather than a burden, it changes everything.

I am working on making my eyes and eyebrows express more than they ever used to need to, for the good of the patients.  I have become more intentional about using vocal expression and body language.  I try to assess as soon as I can if a patient is not hearing me well through the mask, to speak more slowly and distinctly, to ensure understanding.   I put in the extra effort to make meaningful eye contact with nurses and other staff that I used to do effortlessly.   Masks notwithstanding, I work on looking attentively enough to recognize familiar people, to offer an individualized word of greeting and encouragement, to open the door for interaction.

I make the most out of truly seeing a person’s eyes and eyebrows and forehead.  There’s a lot of depth and God’s beauty there, and I see more when that’s all I can see.  And thus I am reminded that, among other things, “the eyes are the windows to the soul.”

I’ll call this change in approach a win-win.   And once again, I thank God.    

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Tania Bouteneff as blogger

Tania Bouteneff is a chaplain who lives and works in Connecticut.