That mask is your guardian angel

19 September 2020

No-one who ever died of a disease or in a car crash ever died before. I assure you. Many, in fact, died believing that they were being protected by their guardian angel, or by the god they worshiped. So why not take that mask off, or have one last drink before hitting the road? After all, having escaped every close encounter of every kind [so far], clearly it can’t happen to them, not with that guardian or god by their side. 

I assure you also that the cemeteries are full of people who believed this. I won’t get into god, but let me tell you: there are no guardian angels out there. I point to the evidence in those cemeteries. And if there were, how can anyone believe in an angel who looks after some reckless individual while innocent children are starving to death somewhere else? 

In those cemeteries, too, are others taken by these people—got infected by them, or were hit by their car. Look, if you want to express your rugged individuality by flouting some rule or other, go ahead. Just don’t take me, or anyone else, with you. The rules of the road, and of dealing with disease, are there to protect us. They may, in fact, be the closest we will ever get to a guardian angel. So please respect them, or kindly clear out of human society.
We two have been above all this— on a particular day recently, at least literally. We joined a gang of 40 or so hikers, going up a hill, having been assured that everyone would be wearing a mask. But no sooner had we entered the forest, then off came most of those masks. We hiked the trail in single file, one behind the other, into the cumulating consequences of coughs and breaths. We might just as well have been singing in a crowded bar or smoking on a bustling beach.

The two of us kept our masks on. What for? These were designed to protect others, on this day, the very people who were putting us at risk by taking their masks off. Why should we have been protecting them? (And why don’t our governments mandate masks that protect us as well as others?)

This was not a gang of irresponsible teenagers on some beach. We were well-off, well-educated, irresponsible adults in some forest, rendered worse-off by our age that made us more susceptible to serious infection. We trained our children to obey the rules, while here we were, flouting them. Was it just because it can’t happen to us, having escaped so many close encounters over our lifetimes? Or maybe it was because we are social animals, drawn to each other like magnets, and so dumbed down by our own instincts? Include the two of us too: how often has one admonished the other for getting too close to someone in casual conversation, even on this very day? 

“Come-on Cedrick, just one more drink before the bar closes. No harm in that.” Not inside the bar at least, compared with the social stigma of saying no. Not much harm on the road back home either, playing the odds. So far.

Why don’t we get it? What makes smart people dumb? We certainly get it when we see all those irresponsible people on TV doing reckless things. We expect our children to get it. Why not us?

I spoke up. This I should not have done—it was anti-social, in this social setting of all places. Here I was, lecturing about asymptomatic aerosols to happy hikers, standing mask-less in our own close encounter. Raining on our own parade this sunny day.

I speak up again here. It’s time for some instrumental individuality, to speak up every time our herd mentality is putting us at risk, every time being social threatens society, every time our authorities fail to provide adequate masks, or protective schoolrooms, or sage strategies that get past the orthodoxy of opening up our economies and hoping for the best.

We really do need a guardian angel, right now. I guess that will have to be all of us, for each of us. So please do speak up.

© Henry Mintzberg 2020 for a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please see Pollution and the Pandemic.

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