Masks and Circles

A mask has become a statement. It says I care about my health and yours. Or it says you have surrendered your liberty. I think a mast is even deeper than that.

You see, I see us all as the enlightenment’s willing adherents. It began when a number of 17th-century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently, and with variations on a theme, argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion of linear progress was perfectly fine until challenged by the bloody trenches of the First World War, the extermination camps of the Second, and now COVID’s costs. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line after all. Perhaps Indigenous spirituality was on to a more fundamental and enduring truth long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and their buddies insisted they were wrong. Maybe it’s not about lines but circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Indigenous North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in many circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

(Photo by Jeff Dean via Getty Images)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We are into our second year of the pandemic and people are tired of how it has disturbed their lives. I bet people grew tired of the sacrifices demanded during the world wars too. Progress no longer seems linear. The air has become smudged with attacks and broken promises. New facts are dismissed as proof of old lies. Because we can’t trust everything we are told to trust nothing.

Amid the screaming on cable news, social media, and street protests we can see frustration that the enlightenment’s version of linear progress may not be true. More than that, if we look carefully, we see circles asserting themselves.

Some want their circles to be small. They say we should be loyal to and responsible for only ourselves and immediate families. Everyone of a different class, race, religion, or region be damned. Others allow a little broader circle of compassion and argue that we should also feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country. Those outside our locked borders should be left to themselves. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kick down the ladder. Still others, however, expand their circle further. They argue that we are all human beings and so we should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all.

When boiled to its essence, our thoughts regarding staying home, wearing masks, and sharing vaccines are all about whether we believe enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that Indigenous spirituality is right. Is it really all about circles – our societal and personal circles. It is about how we interpret progress and how broadly we draw our circle of loyalty and responsibility. Who knew a small piece of cloth could be so deeply powerful?

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