Now that Oregon Governor Kate Brown has cruelly mandated that healthy people wear masks when visiting indoor public spaces, and has engaged in an ugly hate and shaming campaign, the difficulty for people not wearing a mask has been amplified.
Oregonians are not alone in this. Across the world the maskless have endured increasing abuse, assaults, fines, and hatred, piling yet more pain on top of the distress we’re all under. Already at the breaking point, some folks just can’t take another lash of cruelty, leading to public incidents.
So far, my personal sense of outrage has been eclipsed by my ability to keep my temper but the armor weakens some days. We all have every justification to be screaming mad right now, maskless or otherwise. This entire situation, to be blunt, is bullshit.
Yet in public I hold my tongue and smile. I prefer peace and so I keep it. I treat people exactly how I wish to be treated: friendly, benign, nonjudgmental, and helpful if possible. I exhibit or model the behavior I expect from others around me. Yes, I know that makes me an asshole. No, I don’t care.
Before the indoors mask edict in Oregon went into effect July 1, I hadn’t gone anywhere in a while, and my stores were getting low. A week later I finally had no choice but to attempt to go shopping. There just wasn’t any other option.
So I loaded up and headed out, hoping it wouldn’t be a horror show. Would I even get in? If not, what would I do? Would I be the next viral video of a public mask shaming? These worries weighed on me as I nervously drove to my destiny with a department store.
It was an incredibly humbling experience.
When I found myself leaning on a shopping cart aiming toward the store’s entry door, I was sweating with anxiety. I knew the medical exemption for indoor mask wearing was meant for people like me. And I had already contacted the store ahead of time to make sure there wouldn’t be an issue; out of courtesy I didn’t want to blindside them any more than I wanted to be blindsided with being denied entry.
Yet the meanness and simmering hatred Governor Brown openly exhibits when talking about those not wearing a mask echoed firmly in my head. How many of the people I was about to encounter consumed and believed her propaganda? How many would follow her example and abuse or harass me?
I went right in unimpeded and no one bothered me. An employee crossed paths with me as I turned into an aisle, and simply apologized for walking in my way. No hassling. A few other customers were unmasked and everyone went about their shopping.
I made it probably 1/3 of the store perimeter before breath issues slowed me, and not long after I was panting and dizzy. I endured, knowing I ought to make it as long as I took it slow.
I stopped to look at coffee (first coffee in two weeks) and the masked employee stocking the shelf offered some ideas as to which of the brands on sale I should try. She was friendly, and smelled some different roasts with me. She said not one word about my bare face, which is right– if I was in the store, I’d already been cleared for entry maskless.
Even just talking coffee I was out of breath and I was leaning against the shelf for support. Immediately concerned, the clerk offered me a chair.
I protested but before I could stagger away leaning on my cart she produced a camping chair from a display and sat it right in the aisle for me. I gratefully fell into it and we lightly chatted about the suffocation of masks while I recovered.
Once I’d caught my breath, she actually took the time to walk with me and help track down the rest of my items in case I needed to sit down again. With a fair amount of effort and a helpful companion, I managed to not end up on the floor and made it to the checkout.
I thanked her profusely, made sure to note her name, and offered a “symbolic” hug since I know real ones are not allowed for employees. From the moment we met and until we parted, she was kind, helpful, nice, and openly caring.
Such unconditional good treatment towards a stranger, who is, by the estimation of so many politicians and commentators a “loaded gun” or a “drunk driver” or an outright “murderer,” was one of the most humbling things that has happened to me since this whole coronavirus debacle started.
No stranger has been so nice to me, not once, not in months.
That simple act of kindness was a perfect example of how we all should behave. No judgment, no impatience, no anger. Just friendliness, honesty, and being unashamed to openly express care for another person.
The impact of that moment has not faded. If there is one good person like her, then surely there are more. But perhaps it is her rarity that makes her so valuable.
The world’s media, elected officials, influencers and celebrities are all joining forces to create a “new normal” where healthy people paradoxically wear masks and those not wearing them, regardless of the reason, are treated as badly as conceivably possible. This lack of compassion today, I fear, is what their “new normal” will feature tomorrow.
Yet that day in that store, a simple act of true compassion and caring set the standard for how we all should proceed from here.
If the aim is to create a new normal then why must it be one of lockdowns, masks, shutdowns, closures, restrictions, layoffs and depression? Why must it involve violence, hatred, shame, and anger?
Why can’t it be one where we care about each other even if we aren’t “following the rules,” where we won’t be publicly shamed by our own leaders or heroes for simply trying to survive?
One where if you see a person out of breath in a store you don’t harass them about a mask but rather offer a chair so they can rest. One where people keep an eye on each other not to tattle or report or shame or doxx but to make sure we’re all okay, to see if we need help, or simply just some friendly company.
It can exist. It existed for two people that day, for just a few precious minutes, wherein a complete stranger did the right thing, the best thing. It cost her nothing but gave both of us so very much.
That is the best “new normal” we can aim for. But it’s not new, rather it’s something we used to simply call “normal.”
If a store clerk in a small city and a nobody like me can do it so effortlessly, so unconditionally, so happily, then all of us can, in Oregon– and beyond.