On Feeling Safe
I was recently accosted by a woman in the vestibule of my parish church for unsafe masking behavior while lectoring at a weekend Mass. I was taken aback at first, as I knew the woman only by sight. Then I remembered that the scolding of perfect strangers was enjoying a vogue in these masked and distanced days. The woman was quite intense and clearly angry. She said I had endangered the entire congregation. She said I made her feel unsafe.
I offer the following in my defense: I was seated in the front row of a small set of pews roughly adjacent to the altar platform, separated from the congregation proper by the transept aisle, a good nine or ten feet. My accuser was seated in the back row of a similar set of pews on the opposite side of the platform — that is, across the church — nearly 40 feet away. I was masked throughout the liturgy, except for the 15 minutes or so from the First Reading to the Prayers of the Faithful. I was not coughing; I was not sneezing. I was, I admit, breathing.
But the woman would brook no explanation, and, sensing that she was tending toward escalation rather than reconciliation, I ended the encounter as politely as I could.
As I was praying for her the next day, I prayed that she might be relieved of her fear. But, in one of those excursuses that too frequently mark my prayer, I also suddenly wondered where she got the idea that she was supposed to feel safe. I understand, of course, the basic human desire to feel safe, but I also recognize that actual human safety is a myth. Like many people, I look back on my childhood as marked by a sense of safety, and to a good degree it was. I was raised in the heart of a loving family, lived in a good neighborhood, and attended a good school. But I also remember a yellowing sheet of paper taped to the door of the laundry room in the basement. It was from the city’s Department of Civil Defense: a map of Milwaukee with concentric bands arcing from downtown to the outer suburbs, each band delineating the degree of damage relative to a direct hit by an atomic bomb. My family lived in the Heavy Damage Zone, our nearest escape route a couple miles from the house. I remember a birthday when, just cutting into the cake, tornado sirens went off.
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