“If beams from happy human eyes have moved me not…”
Robert Louis Stevenson, A Message of Joy

For many of us, when and whether to wear a mask is a painful and divisive issue. Maybe in some places it is not; or maybe if we all had a better understanding of certain things it would not be.

One way or the other, the fact is that for many if not most of us, there will continue to be masked faces, either our own or those around us or both. I will not here in any way take up the issue itself of a need to wear masks. I want however to offer a thought—of course I am not the first to raise this—concerning how all of us might respond to this challenge of dealing with masked faces. First, we must recognize a significant aspect of the challenge, apart from any other issues.

Covering the human smile is itself a serious problem; we could say a crisis. Again, this point can and should be considered in itself, without prejudice to the issue of a medical need for masks. If for any reason we cover the smile—or more precisely the bottom half of the face that smiles—then, it seems to me, it is incumbent on us to take significant steps to counter or minimize the necessarily negative effects.

The most obvious means is that when we wear a mask, we can be intentional about being more communicative with our eyes. Indeed, it is fortunate that a broad smile includes and is perceptible through the eyes. We can act to accentuate this. Another means is by increasing verbal communication, beginning with greetings and other pleasant or polite exchanges of words. As these profoundly human practices had already tended to fall by the wayside, their restoration now becomes all the more urgent.

On the other side—and I think this is often overlooked—those not wearing masks can likewise do much, in the same ways just mentioned: being more intentional about positive facial cues and words. Again, the fact is that social interaction is being undermined. To a real extent it doesn’t matter whose ‘fault’ it is or which ‘side’ one is on. We are all in this together, and we all can do our part to address it.

Yes, in appropriate forums the discussion of whether to wear masks must continue—for it must be addressed. But I suggest that our daily interactions with others are not such a forum. There, we would all greatly benefit from not assuming a judgmental or adversarial attitude—as this can terribly exacerbate an already challenging situation.

Whether we are wearing a mask or not at various times and places, each and every one of us can be part of addressing an under-considered aspect of the present threat to human life and community.

Thomas Aquinas suggests something that dovetails with R. L. Stevenson’s musing on the unique power of ‘happy eyes.’ He says that shared human life consists especially in ‘seeing and being seen.’

Both how we see and how we are seen, in the daily course of life, is very much in our power. It remains largely a matter of choice, even and especially in trying times.

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