Recently, a medical technician observed that some patients are so frightened of COVID-19, they have lost their ability to respect her humanity. “All that matters,” she said, “is how well you are meeting their demands for safety.”
“They treat me like an object, not a human being,” the technician continued. “Why can’t people respect each other?" she lamented. “We’re Americans; we’re supposed to be tolerant, not intolerant.”
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of intolerance during COVID-19 is the mask issue.
We hear the stories. An “improperly” masked shopper is approached by an angry “properly” masked shopper who moves close, demanding the mask be adjusted. If the improperly masked shopper is such a threat, why would the properly masked shopper get so close as to put themselves in harm’s way?
Engage mask advocates and you’ll notice they are sincerely (and often angrily) bewildered by anyone objecting to the simple act of wearing a mask; an action they are sure saves lives.
To both sides of the mask divide, the other side seems deserving of rebuke, even scorn. If not evil, those on the other side are uninformed.
For those sickened by the division, what can we do?
We can begin by being better observers of our everyday experience. Psychiatrist Robert Rosenthal in his book From Loving One to One Love, asks us to look at how pervasive grievances are in our lives:
Unless you’re born a saint, it is impossible to go through life without at some point holding grievances. These could be about almost anything: the jar with the tight lid that refuses to open, the traffic light that turns red just as you approach, the sports team that humiliates the hometown favorite in the playoffs, traffic backed up on the freeway, the appliance that breaks down at the worst possible moment.
“[T]he grievances that stick with us most are focused on other people,” Rosenthal suggests. “No two people see things exactly the same way.” If you’re not comfortable with that basic fact of life, you are on the road to continual annoyance, even outrage. COVID-19 has exacerbated, not caused, a pre-existing mindset of outrage over differences.
My wife and I were recently hiking on a carriage road; passing hikers had at least a 15 foot wide berth. Yet many hikers masked-up as they passed. Thoughts of irritation entered my mind for the new social norm of masking for momentary outdoor encounters.
Before COVID-19, most people made eye contact and said hello to other hikers in passing. Sometimes a hiker needed trail information or encouragement to continue. Sometimes a brief but enriching conversation began. These days, fewer hikers greet each other; most keep moving as though you are a potential mugger on an urban sidewalk. I miss hiker camaraderie.
I kept my mental complaints to myself, but I had become part of the problem; that day I saw my world as masked vs. unmasked. I had engaged in the tribal thinking I often decry. My choice to give relevance to the masking choices of others was nobody’s fault but my own.
Paraphrasing a Buddhist teaching, Rosenthal shows that the cost of holding grievances is lost peace of mind:
[H]olding a grievance is like thrusting a sword through your midsection in order to the [sic] wound the offender who’s standing behind you. You may succeed, but the consequences will prove more deadly for you than for them.
Another good analogy is that a grievance is like a hot coal that you hurl at the person who wronged you. In order to throw it, you must first grasp it in your own hand.
It is one thing for grievances to arise, but Rosenthal questions why we prefer to hold on to our resentment and “poke at it regularly, turning it over in our minds” again and again, repeatedly harming ourselves. Rosenthal writes, “Grievances truly are double-edged swords, and the edge facing you turns out to be the sharpest.”
Reverse the situation. What is our response when someone holds a grievance towards us? In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius provides the antidote:
Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way.
To be in a state of conflict, Aurelius believed, was to act against our true nature: “We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”
We’re missing the fundamental truth that we are all connected. A hostile mindset is no way to live in peace with others. Significantly, without peace in our heart, we won’t find common ground or change minds.
The way out is realizing our hand is tightly gripping the hot coals. Notice how they burn you, disturbing your peace of mind. Notice how you don’t want to release the coals because your grievance is a righteous one.
In a potential Biden administration, a national mask mandate and other COVID-19 policies you oppose may be implemented. Many of your neighbors and family members will cheer. We can oppose policies with vigor without demonizing others.
Aurelius was clear that our essential nature is the same, “I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.”
If we realize our essential nature is the same, being tolerant of our differences becomes easier. As we release the hot coals we so tightly grip, our voice may be better heard, minds may change, and respect for our common humanity may be restored.