I am dutiful, and I like to think, a good citizen. I am also prone to pneumonia and bronchial infections, so if Mario Cuomo and Anthony Fauci tell me that wearing a mask outside will prolong my life and those of my fellow New Yorkers, well, then I am not too proud to strap on my blue single-use mask every time I leave my apartment, even if it’s just to retrieve my mail.

But my compliance is not universal. Three masks tell a different story.

Dead masks

The first time I saw one on my daily neighborhood walk, I thought “Hmmm, someone must have dropped it exiting their car or on their way into their house.” But as the number of what I now refer to as “dead masks” significantly increased on the lawns, sidewalks, and berms, another image came to mind.

At best, the masks were, in their semi-crushed and twisted state, “Take that!” masks – dropped or thrown in mild anger by their owner at the inconvenience of having to wear them. At worst, they were “F/U!” masks – a middle finger raised to the coronavirus disease itself, our local government leaders, and compliant do-gooders like me.

It doesn’t matter. Those masks are destined to live out their single-use life outside in the elements as the lowest level of the caste system of outerwear. Even the squirrels and pigeons avoid them.

Chin-strap masks

The other visible masks are those worn at their chin or around their neck by their begrudging owner. At the sight of me, the masks are usually pulled up, but not always. If not, I make my way into the street before the magic of six-feet social distancing evaporates between us. I imagine their owners wearing a t-shirt or headband with the words “Only If I Have To” printed on it.

Masks of Invincibility

And finally, we have masks of invincibility worn by those who refuse to wear actual masks, not just outside, but inside stores whose doors or windows carry the clear warning: “No mask, no entry.” You may have seen the videos. I believe there are a couple of reasons for this behavior.

One, their owner wears the mask of invincibility, honestly believing they are abiding by the latter part of the mandate that “Masks must be worn outside if social distancing can’t be observed.” In their mind, they are socially distanced from the next person, which is often me, so no mask is needed. Voila! That’s some catch, that Catch 22.

Psychologists have a nice-sounding name for this behavior: “optimism bias” aka “It can’t happen to me.”

And two, there are the “No-one-is-going-to-tell-me-what-I-can-or-can’t-do” red-blooded ’mericans. At recent counter-protests, they are members of the “Don’t let your fear take away my freedom” placard-waving crowd. Roll my memory of the young man who sauntered across the street in front of me, fists clenched – I swear – who at the last second turned his head toward me to glare his best Clint Eastwood glare: “Go ahead. Make my day.” Rising red lines on the graph representing confirmed COVID cases and deaths are, well, just red lines.

The corollary to #2 are those who don’t believe that wearing a mask is about freedom. It’s simply about COVID being a “hoax.” That’s what the young Texas man of 30 who had attended a “COVID Party” told his nurse shortly before he died. “I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.”

Hey, on good days, my home is a safety net. I love to hear the “click” of the lock when my wife and I are safely inside, Lysoling the doorknob and our shoes. But on some days, my psyche is as frayed as the next person’s. When I can’t help but hear the near-incessant honking of car horns outside our NYC Queens apartment – their blazing impatience borne of their owners’ weeks of sheltering-in-place and because no cars are moving a flipping nano-second after the traffic light changed to green – well, our abode can feel prison-like.

We had plans like everyone else had plans. “Canceled,” “Refund,” and “Closed” will be the new words on next year’s “365 Word-a-Day” desk calendar. No one is a fan of “vita interruptus.”

But I keep telling myself that in the billion-year history of the universe – even just in the history of America – we’re living in a fraction of time. Months! This disease won’t be able to wrestle us to the ground forever. Our situation will improve if we can just be smart.

“We”? In my dark moments, I retreat, because we are increasingly a nation of “them” and “they” and “mine” over “yours” – anything but “we” and “us.” And in terms of our history, we are generally woefully ignorant of our dark side, and when we’re not, we choose to look the other way. This is not our first rodeo with a virus, and it turns out, we didn’t behave much differently back then. 675,000 deaths will attest to that.

But hey, I can always clutch the flag to make myself feel better. Or I can stare longingly at monuments. Or at the promissory words “We the people…” written on parchment, lying in honor under bullet-proof glass.

Or I can just strap on my mask.

Oh, but ain’t that America
For you and me
Ain’t that America
Something to see, baby
Ain’t that America
Home of the free, yeah
Little pink houses
For you and me


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. Great piece, Jeff. It boggles my mind how masks have become a political statement. It boggles my mind that some people would rather blame misinformation on conspiracy rather than the novel aspect of the virus.

    The lessons we’ll learn after this pandemic will hopefully last throughout history, but thinking of the pandemics past, it may seem a portion of our population might be unteachable.

    Maybe Darwin was right?

    • Thanks for your read and comment, JoAnna. I’m trying to think of something that can’t be politicized or made conspiratorial these days.

      I want to agree with you on the lessons of history, but as you note, we’re not a nation that fully understands its (checkered) history. Not everyone wants the real story told or is “teachable.”

  2. Great article Jeff. All the reasons/ sides covered. So many in the conundrum of “ To mask or not to mask” ( title of something I wrote a bit ago…)
    I’ll do my part to protect others as best as I can. We here in some parts of Ontario now have mandatory wearing of masks in public places… seems a bit late but at least it’s not a never now.
    And like the John Cougar Melancamp lyrics! 🙏. Cheers my friend!

  3. Jeff, Grandpa O’Brien loved to say, in celebration of our differences: “That’s what makes horse racing.” But it’s hard to celebrate the differences between people who, in their own devil-may-care approaches to their own health, fail to consider the affects of their choices on the health of others. You might be hard-pressed to find anyone who dislikes wearing a mask as much as I do. But I wear one religiously when I leave the house to interact or to just be around other people.

    I know this is stupid, but in some way I feel about the coronavirus the same way I feel about being hypnotized: It can’t happen to me. And I may even be stupid enough to take rash risks with my own health. But I’m taking no risks with the health of anyone else.

    I prefer the freedom to be courteous over the freedom to be thoughtless.

    Thank you for another great read.

    • Thanks, Mark. Please don’t take risks with your own health! And hey, if you’re game – although I don’t know if it can be done remotely – Kirsten is a certified hypnotist.