A few months ago, I wrote about the feelings I had after my husband worked his first night in a COVID-19 unit. This was when we, as a nation, were first beginning to seriously hunker down and self-isolate in our homes. Things all around us were shutting down, schools were closing, jobs were beginning to be furloughed or lost, and most people were taking precautions very seriously. I think we were all walking around in a bit of a trauma confusion fog. You can read that HERE

Christian Baxter, the author’s husband, preparing to receive a Covid-19 patient

Fast forward a few very long months later, and here we are trying to figure out how to safely reengage with the world. In Arkansas, we are beginning to enter into phase 2 of reopening our state. Meanwhile, our Governor, Asa Hutchinson reported we’ve seen the largest one-day increase in positive tests since the pandemic began in March. Making the total active cases at 4,880 as of June 22. Hutchinson said, “We’re not going to give a directive that everyone in Arkansas has to put a mask on out in public. Not enforceable, not realistic, but it is important that we wear masks.”

Depending on our personalities (and quite frankly, our political leanings) we may either be feeling relief, like everything is going to be back to “normal” soon, or we may be feeling like everything is about to blow up in our faces. 

Or maybe you’re like me and you find yourself nestled smack dab in the middle of those two sentiments. 

There is so much information and opinions out there, it’s difficult to interpret it all. My husband, my parents, and my sisters (a group consisting of a surgeon, nurse practitioner and three registered nurses) may all have somewhat differing opinions on many things…  but they all agree on one thing: We still need to be cautious. This thing is not over yet. 

Last week I was sitting in my car, podcast in the background and coconut milk latte in hand. My husband, Christian, was finally off of work. He is a critical care nurse in an ICU and had worked the last three nights, one of which was in the COVID unit. As soon as he had a nap, I escaped confinement with three kids to be by myself for a bit. I needed a few things from the store that weren’t available in my pickup order, and truth be told… mama needed a minute. 

Mask wearing is inconvenient and annoying but can make a difference.

In this mid-pandemic world, I was sure to have my cute, (apparently masks can be cute now) washable cloth mask stored in my car so I wouldn’t forget it when going out. Then my clumsy self spilled that latte all over my mask. 

I put it on anyway, like a real hero, and decided to try and make it work. But listen, a mask over your face covered in coffee doesn’t work. 

So I went into Walmart mask-less. What a weird sentence. 

I felt guilty and, even though more than half of the people around me were also not wearing masks, I desperately wanted to let everyone know that my mask was incapacitated, and I hadn’t forgotten it. I’m a really good citizen and rule follower, I swear! 

Truth be told, I was more concerned about being shamed for not wearing a mask than I was about any actual benefit of the mask. The worst is behind us, right? 

I went home and asked Christian to please break it down for me and tell me it was ok for me to not wear one ever again or convince me it was necessary. 

“Masks are an important part of infection prevention. The data shows us that COVID-19 is likely spread through droplets in our speech, coughing, and possibly even breathing. It makes sense to wear the mask. It makes even better sense if everyone wore a mask in public, considering that there is not yet a long-term studied treatment or vaccination available. A mask won’t totally prevent the transmission of the virus, however it plays a helpful role in the original plan: To “bend the curve” and not overwhelm our healthcare systems. Mask wearing is inconvenient and annoying but can make a difference.” 

Then, as any former pastor would do, he considered humanity and said: 

“Even with all the data and guidelines, you have to take into account the fact that people will be people. Not everyone trusts the medical system. Not everyone will wear it consistently. Not everyone has access to masks. There’s a human factor here.”

Sigh. I guess I’ll wash my mask. 

Later that week, the all-knowing Apple TV suggested that I watch “Miracle Landing On The Hudson,” a National Geographic documentary. This was the account of US Airways Flight 1549 that made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City in 2009, after hitting a flight of birds that completely destroyed both engines. All… ALL 155 souls on board survived. 

“Miracle on the Hudson” Photo via Associated Press

This led me down a rabbit hole of research about this flight. I told Christian about it the next day and he said, “Oh yeah, Sully… there’s a movie with Tom Hanks about that!”

So we rented it that night, of course. 

At the climax of the movie, the internal review board had gathered all the evidence to prove that Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was wrong in choosing to land in the Hudson, as he deviated from protocol. The board had run multiple flight simulations to try and prove that he had enough time to turn the plane around and land at an airport. They were accusing him of reckless behavior by landing the plane in the river. 

The evidence presented by the board seemed irrefutable. They had run more than a dozen flight simulations, all with actual pilots. They all showed he would have had time to fly over NYC and land at the airport by simply following standard protocol. Sully and his co-pilot stated that they knew both engines were out, and they surely would have slammed into a high-rise had they not chosen to perform a water landing. 

In response to the review board’s conclusions, Tom Hanks as Captain Sully, gave a beautiful monologue written by Clint Eastwood:

Can we get serious now? We’ve all heard about the computer simulations and now we are watching actual sims, but I still can’t believe we’ve not taken into account the human factor…these pilots (in the simulations) were not behaving like human beings, like people who were experiencing this for the first time… 

 …

No one warned us. No one said, “You are going to lose both engines at a lower altitude than any engine in history. But be cool. Just make a left turn for LaGuardia like you are going back to pick up the milk. This was dual engine loss at 2800 feet followed by immediate water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that. No one… In these simulations you’ve taken all of the humanity out of the cockpit.”

The human factor. 

We can look at charts all day long that will predict how mask wearing and washing of hands and social distancing will help lessen the spreading of this virus. We can write social media posts shaming the random mom we saw in Walmart who dared bring her kids into the store or the multiple people we see not wearing masks in public or the people not keeping their distance. On the flip side, we could mock people who choose to wear masks in public and hail them paranoid. 

We know not a single one of their stories or human experience. Maybe the person wearing a mask and continuing strict social distancing has a family member who is immunocompromised that we know nothing about. Maybe that mom didn’t have a babysitter and needed groceries for her family. Or maybe that one dark-haired 30 something-with way too many roots showing because of COVID closing down all the hair salons– bearing her face to the public world… simply spilled coffee all over her mask in the parking lot. And she will do better next time. 

“Stop blaming. Start listening. Take responsibility for yourself for that is the only person you can control. “

Not to mention that not everyone has the same resources. Some people simply do not have any extra few dollars to spend on masks for their family. 

Charts and data or judgment of anyone who isn’t reacting in a way we view as logical to this pandemic, is forgetting something: the human factor. 

I am an introvert, an empath, a peacemaker, a realist, a creative, a present-oriented person, a “let’s see all sides of this thing and talk it to death before we make any hasty decisions” type of a person. 

My husband is an extrovert, a data reader, a peacekeeper, an intellectual, a dreamer, a future-oriented person, an “oh, I have a great idea, let’s jump in and do it right now!” type of a person. 

We reacted and responded to this pandemic differently in many ways. We butted heads and had disagreements: I thought he was freaking out and he thought I was in denial. We were at odds. And then we remembered the marriage counseling we invested in: Stop blaming. Start listening. Take responsibility for yourself… for that is the only person you can control.  

Christian and Megan Baxter

After considering each other’s emotions and psychology and perspective, we were able to talk about practical things we can do. Currently, the CDC has recommendations that you can read HERE. And we can do these things, even if they are inconvenient. And we can take responsibility for ourselves and our family and our state. While we can educate people, we cannot control or shame them into changing any behavior. Including wearing a mask in public.  

Author Brene’ Brown (Ph.D., LMSW research professor) says:

“Shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive behavior than the cure. Guilt and empathy are the emotions that lead us to question how our actions affect other people…”

If we each decide to look at people as human beings, who are doing their best with what they have, I believe we would make a lot more progress as humans and come out of this as better people. 

As Tom Hanks’s character suggested in the movie, you can have all the data there, but if you remove humanity, it’s unhelpful at best and damaging at worst. 

As we begin to re-engage with society and do the work to protect each other in these uncertain times, perhaps we could also try putting on a new mindset. A mindset that puts humanity back into the equation. 

The Baxter Family