Is virtue its own reward, or do nice guys finish last?

Yesterday afternoon I stopped at the bank on my way home from work. I put on my mask and got out of my car. A man who arrived in the parking lot just before me was getting out of his car; when he saw my mask, he realized he also needed to wear a mask and returned to his car. Closer to the door, I walked past a frail-looking white-haired woman with a cane. She was fumbling to get her mask adjusted. I could have gotten inside ahead of her. Instead, I waited at the door and held it open for her.

Two tellers were at their windows and there was no line. But one of the tellers was doing bank business on the computer and was not ready to work with customers. The woman I had allowed in front of me went to the other teller, and I waited in line on the red box, as the bank requires these days.

And I waited, and waited some more. The woman merely wanted to withdraw some cash from her checking account and also verify the balance in that account. But every step of this simple process took extra time, starting with finding her card and putting it into the banks machine. She had to take off her sunglasses, find her other glasses in her purse, and put them on. When the teller verified her balance, she asked also to confirm that another payment had already been processed. Even when she had gotten all the information she wanted and had received her cash, she continued to visit with the teller (who gently pointed out to her that other people were waiting in line). Still, she had to take the time to put her glasses back in her purse and put on her sunglasses before she left the spot in front of the teller.

I’m not complaining. I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt sorrier for the man who could have been in front of both of us, instead of fourth in line. (Another woman entered the bank behind me before he arrived with his mask.) But I did reflect on the choice I had made, holding the door open for a frail white-haired woman when I could have been first in line instead of having to wait. It further happened that, the instant the woman left and I took her place with the one teller, the other teller finished his task and called for the next customer.

“Virtue is its own reward” came to my mind. In a fairer universe, some privilege or blessing would have come my way because I held the door for the woman and let her enter the bank first. My courtesy was not rewarded; my time was wasted standing in line at the bank because of my choice to let her go first. A second phrase later occurred to me: “nice guys finish last.” Remembering that saying produced another rabbit hole to explore.

The saying is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher. I remember Durocher as manager of the Chicago Cubs, who for many years deserved their nickname of “America’s Lovable Losers.” Checking the Internet to see if Durocher indeed said, “nice guys finish last,” I discovered several boring and pointless facts. First, the saying is a brief summary of a longer statement he made about nice guys playing baseball and how they rank in the standings. Second, he did not say it about the Cubs; he said it about the New York Giants while Durocher was managing the Dodgers in 1946. Third, the expression “nice guys finish last” is linked to copious literature about human relationships and dating, including many scientific studies seeking to prove or disprove the adage that “nice guys finish last.” Connected to the saying and to the studies are observations that “nice guys” may be overlooked in the dating game, that “nice guys” often seem less assertive and confident and masculine than other guys, and that many men think they are “nice guys” when they are merely losers.

Not that any of this matters. More than anything else, I am flailing about, hunting for something to say on my blog, at a time when creative juices seem to have run dry. Not wanting to address the topics that preoccupy most of our minds (mine included) leaves me stuck in neutral, revving my engine at the red light, losing readers by my inactivity.

How is your day going? J.

Masquerade

Since early times, masks have been used by human groups for various purposes. Indigenous groups have used masks in dramatic portrayals, often of a religious significance. Hollywood perpetuates a myth that masked priests portrayed gods to fool their audiences. Rather, indigenous audiences know that the masked performers merely represent supernatural beings; however, those beings are often thought to be present in a mystical way while they are being portrayed by their priests.

In the Middle Ages and into modern times, Christians have continued to produce Passion Plays, lives of the saints, and other dramatic presentations of religious significance. Rarely, though, do Christian performances rely on masks or assume a mystical presence of Christ and the saints. Instead, masks have been diverted among Europeans and North Americans to entertainment. Partygoers assume masks and costumes as part of their revelry. European traditions associate masks and costumes with Carnival, a pre-Lenten celebration also called Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday. Carnival is represented in such productions as An American in Paris and Phantom of the Opera. In North America, masks and costumes are associated more with Halloween, a time when children go door-to-door wearing masks and costumes and asking for treats, while adults frequent holiday parties in similar outfits of masks and costumes.

Aside from holiday parties, masks are largely associated with crimes and with crimefighters. In the movies (and sometimes in real life), robbers wear masks to disguise their identity while robbing banks, stores, stagecoaches, and homes. But many famous crimefighters, from the Lone Ranger to Batman, also wear masks to hide their identity. Their success capturing criminals and foiling crimes somehow depends upon remaining disguised, hiding their true identity behind their masks.

Meanwhile, in the nineteenth century scientists began to understand the role of one-celled creatures (bacteria, or germs) in causing illnesses, including infections, in humans, other animals, and plants. Washing hands and wearing gloves and masks became increasingly common in medical circles to reduce the chance of infection. Similar precautions have proved effective against viruses, which are even smaller than bacteria, but which often travel in drops of moisture produced by bodily fluids. Masks and gloves are familiar in hospitals and other medical facilities. Early in the twenty-first century, medical masks appeared more on city streets in east Asian cities as an attempt to curb various infectious diseases that had appeared in Asian populations.

This year masks have been recommended in the United States and most other countries to combat the spread of COVID-19. More than any other preventative measure, masks have become an emotional symbol of the virus crisis, of attempts to combat the virus, and of government overreach into the lives of citizens. Several months ago, wearing masks in certain situations was one strategy to battle the disease—others were washing hands frequently and thoroughly, avoiding or preventing large gatherings of people, remaining home as much as possible, and refraining from touching one’s face, especially eyes and nose and mouth, with one’s hands.

Washing hands frequently and not touching one’s face have always been recommended to reduce the spread of colds, influenza, and other diseases. Arguably, effective pursuit of these two practices could make other hygienic practices, including masks, redundant and unneeded. Instead, masks have become the focal point of discussions (often heated) about disease prevention. Closely related to the practice of wearing masks to prevent disease are questions about the government’s role in keeping citizens safe from harm—questions that have focused, in the past, on seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, sneeze guards over salad bars, and the like. Each episode reflects are larger social and political debate about freedom and safety, about individual choices and compassion for one’s neighbors.

At one extreme, some people are convinced that “masks save lives,” that refusing to wear masks demonstrates callous unconcern for other people, and that the government should require all citizens to wear masks and should punish all citizens who refuse to wear masks. At the other extreme, some people view mask requirements as the government’s greatest experiment in controlling the thinking of a population since we were all persuaded to change our clocks twice a year to “save daylight.” Many people fall into a middle category: they are willing to wear masks when required by an employer or a host (including restaurant managers, store owners, and congregations) but do not wear masks at home, in the car, or when walking outdoors.

Some stores post signs saying that they require masks but take no action to enforce that requirement. Others have their employees to ask people to leave if they are not wearing masks. Some restaurants require customers to wear masks while walking to their tables but allow them to remove their masks at their tables. Others have seating spaced widely enough that masks are not needed in the building. Some congregations ask all worshipers to wear masks, others make masks optional, and still others have some services when masks are requested of all and others when masks are optional. Businesses and churches seek ways to meet the needs of the largest number of people while offending or inconveniencing the smallest number of people possible.

As a few people are disturbed by seeing spiders or snakes or clowns, so a few people are disturbed by seeing masks—especially by seeing groups of people wearing masks. Little has been done to respond to these people’s concerns. A search on a popular search engine for “fear of masks” led to articles about helping children not fear wearing masks, but no acknowledgement that adults may also fear masks. Likewise, searching for articles (and they have been published) indicating that masks are not helpful and may even be harmful in overcoming the virus crisis leads only to articles attacking opponents of masks and offering arguments in defense of masks and of requirements to wear masks.

I’m in the middle position, willing to wear a mask if it makes someone else feel safe, happy to go without a mask if no one else expects me to wear one. I am concerned, though, that our trusted sources of information are leaning toward one extreme and away from the other. The more the opinion-shapers of our land promote the wearing of masks and disparage those who disagree, the more I wonder what other goals these opinion-makers are pursuing: perpetuating a climate of fear and worry, separating people from one another by encouraging us all to hide our faces from each other, giving us a petty reason to argue and disagree and fight while more important issues are swept under the rug. More than health and the control of disease may be at work when it comes to masks. If that is the case, the year 2020 may be an even larger watershed than we have already noticed. J.

Sometimes you just do not know

Picture an office filled with men, each doing his own job, each living his own life. None of them really knows any of the others. (I have made all the workers men just for the ease of using the same pronoun. Any of these people could easily be a woman. The personalities and situations are not gender-specific.)

A is grouchy and surly when he comes to work. He says he is not a morning person. He does not mention his routine of three drinks every evening, with the standard hangover each day that does not disappear until lunchtime.

B is also grouchy and surly when he comes to work. He never mentions his digestive tract problems which cause pain and discomfort throughout the day but which are worse in the morning.

C is grouchy and surly but blames it on the traffic. He does not know that he has an anxiety disorder which causes him to overreact to incidents on the highway.

D is generally in a good mood when he arrives at work. He is in good health, is involved in a strong relationship, and is in decent financial shape.

E is also generally in a good mood when he arrives at work. He is in a poor financial situation and has no strong relationships, but he is either too deep or too shallow to let these things shape his mood at work.

F seems generally in a good mood at work. He is compensating for ongoing depression, coping with life by pretending to have no problems or concerns.

G arrives at work a few minutes late. He and his wife started the day with a romantic encounter, but that information is far too private to share with his coworkers.

H also arrives at work a few minutes late. He and his wife had an argument over breakfast about the family budget, but that information is far too private to share with his coworkers.

J is generally quiet at work. He is an introvert and is most comfortable working on his computer, not relating directly to other people.

K is generally quiet at work. He is developing a short story in his head and is absorbed in the characters and the plot.

L is generally quiet at work. He is planning a terrorist attack in the coming days and wants to be sure that he does not reveal his plans to anyone.

M is generally quiet at work. He hates his job and has been filling out job applications for every opening he can find.

And so it goes. None of these men really knows any of the others. They never discuss religion or politics–no one knows who in the office is a Christian, who is atheist, or who is agnostic. No one knows who voted for Hillary Clinton, who voted for Donald Trump, who voted for a third party candidate, and who did not vote. The supervisor evaluates their work without knowing which of his employees are exerting themselves in extraordinary ways to overcome problems and which are lazy and are capable of doing far more than they accomplish. When they form a team to finish a project, no one knows who is excited about the project, who is frightened by the project, and who is bored with the project.

Life is like this sometimes. We wear our masks, play our roles, and hide our identities so deeply that some of us even forget who we are. Some go home to families where they can be themselves; others must continue to play a role at home. Some have friends who accept them as they are; others perform for their friends and hide their real selves. Some can be themselves at church, while others put on an act before their brothers and sisters in the faith. Some are genuine in the face of the one true God; others try to perform even for Him.

God knows each of us–our problems, our blessings, our thoughts, even the number of hairs on our heads. He made us, and He is constantly aware of each of us. No matter who you and I pretend to be at work, at home, or out in the world, we can never fool God, and we never should try. Each of us is a sinner who desperately needs a Savior. Each of us is rescued, forgiven, and claimed for the Kingdom of God by the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. We have different resources, different abilities, and different opportunities, just as the human body consists of eyes and ears and hands and feet and many other parts. God loves all of us and can support each of us in any difficulty. J.