This week, JSA contributor Carole Leskin shared her thoughts about the how the wearing of masks, necessitated by the current pandemic, exacerbates the isolation and loneliness so many are experiencing during these strangest of times. “What My Mask Hides” provides insight into how people connect with one another and addresses a new level of pain that results when a smile, which serves as an open door to new connection, is taken away. I’m grateful to Carole for sharing her words, which prompted my own in response.
Dear New Friend I Haven’t Met Yet,
Your words spoke to me because your thoughts on loneliness ring so true, and because you did what so many of us fail to do — you opened your heart and let a stranger in.
Like you, I’ve been struggling with the way our masks obscure our personal interactions. I’ve found myself smiling and then realizing nobody can see me. I’ve noticed I look hard around people’s eyes above their masks, trying to discern a direct gaze or perhaps a few laugh lines at the corners. Is that person smiling at me? Are they even noticing I’m here?
Of greatest concern, I’ve recently started looking away, turning my face just enough to avoid what has increasingly felt like an awkward or even inappropriate interaction — a search for a human connection gone bad.
I don’t like it when I catch myself turning away.
And yet during these days, we are doing so much of that. We turn away from masked strangers, from service providers, from delivery folks and even from those we know and love. We do it out of fear. We do it out of concern for exposure. We isolate ourselves physically, just at a time when we most need connection, just as our own loneliness feels like it may overtake us. The esoteric questions of our lives become amplified in this space. Why are we here? What is our purpose? How is our own truth reflected back at us if we cannot see our face in another person’s face? When we turn away from others, do we also turn away from ourselves?
You ask a most poignant question: In these times of masking and distancing, how can we make a new friend? If a smile is the vehicle to friendship and there are no smiles, how can we connect? And what will happen to the world if there are no smiles? Who will be lost? What will be lost?
I offer you another way, another opportunity to create the human moments we desire. Let’s write to one another! Let’s return to the epistolary time—let’s create a shared and sacred space for one another within the construct of letters, essays, books, posts. Technology is on our side and conversations can take place in the quickest of moments. We can speak, we can listen, we can learn and respond to one another. In this way, we will remember that we are not alone.
Is writing the same as a smile? No, of course not. Can such exchanges substitute for a hug or a kiss, the touch of a hand on the arm of a friend who needs a gentle reminder that another human being stands beside them?
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and these, my new friend, are indeed desperate times. The invitation of a smile may not be available to us right now, but the reaching out, the asking “Will you be my friend?” is still there.
The beauty of that phrase, “will you be my friend,” is the tenderness of the vulnerability it expresses. I am willing to risk rejection, it says. I am taking a chance. You may turn away. You may not like me. You may not want to be my friend.
But I am willing to take that risk to share myself with you. Nothing brings us closer than the opening of our hearts and the intertwining of our voices. This is how we connect. This is where God resides. This is why we are here—to find the spark that exists between us, among us.
Hello, my new friend. It’s lovely to know you.