The faces behind the masks
I started Rehab some six months ago working to strengthen the muscles around my knee and hip. The primary goal was to delay eventual knee and hip replacements due to arthritis. The secondary goal was to be able to interact more with my grandchildren. Who ever knew that getting up off the floor could be such a challenge?
The personal trainer at my gym made the initial connections with the rehabilitation team and within a week I was making my first visit. The facility was clean and bright with all the latest equipment. The physical therapists, interns and assistants were all young, athletic, and encouraging. I instantly liked them all.
I went to Total Rehab Solutions twice a week for several months, before slowing down to one day a week. During the first four months the workouts were pretty intense. You talk with the staff during each visit, usually lasting over an hour. You cover a broad range of subjects when you are having that many personal interactions with the same people.
I learned their voices. I could recognize who was who from behind. I learned their own individual laughs, their sense of humor, and what type of food they preferred. The only thing I did not really know, was what their face looked like. You see, I never saw them without their masks.
In the absence of a face, I made up one for each of them in my mind. It was influenced by their hair, the shape of their head, the lines around their eyes when they smiled or frowned. Their imaginary face developed over months of repeated interactions and became as real to me as their name or the color of their hair.
I missed the mark on most of them when the masks finally came off a couple of months ago. It is not about whether their face is more or less attractive than I imagined, rather than it is just different. Even today, almost ten weeks later, I hear one of them speak and turn to look at them only to be confronted with someone I did not know.
More than I ever imagined, our face is our signature. It is the gateway to how the world views us and the way we show our emotions to friend and foe alike. The face and its smile or frown display our feelings. They indicate how we react to things. It is our main connection to other people, even those we have known for months.
In particular, the way our eyes and mouth interact give visual cues to others about how we feel and even what our intentions may be. It is this interaction between people that allows trust to begin to develop. Masks do not just obscure the visual part of verbal communication; it also hides much of the non-verbal ways in which we communicate.
Quite a bit of research has been done on the impact of masking, particularly between healthcare providers and patients, during the Covid pandemic. Other research has been done studying the ways masks have affected school age children and their teachers.
My research is much simpler and more anecdotal. Over the space of three or four months I came to know a half dozen people very well, though I never saw their face. When I finally saw their face, I realized that I did not know them at all, at least not the way I might judge my relationships with other people. Yet, every meaningful part of our relationship was intact, true and honest.
Nothing had changed at all, except each of them had a new face, replacing the one that my mind had manufactured for them as I got to know them in other ways. The transition to my recognition of their “new face” has taken longer than I would have expected. That may be due to the fact that I only see them one day a week now.
Nature is a powerful force. The evolutionary paths that have influenced how humans interact with each other are complicated and difficult to understand. I am just happy to have captured a glimpse of how our mind works in this area. It has been fascinating to begin to understand just this little bit of my own unexpected experiment.
To these people who have worked tirelessly to make me better, and have become my friends, I am delighted to finally see the faces behind their masks.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org