How Schema Theory Can Help Us Understand Each Other During Covid-19

We don’t know who is carrying coronavirus so we have to assume everyone is carrying it. If we are at war, and coronavirus is the enemy then the vehicle of my enemy is my enemy. That makes everyone my enemy. My neighbor is now my enemy. This is a miserable way to live and conduct grocery shopping.

How do we overcome this mindset?

For some, the answer lies in The Mask.

It is a sign that even if my neighbor is unknowingly infected, my neighbor is trying to protect me. Now, my neighbor is not my enemy. My neighbor is my ally.

But what about the one across the aisle not wearing a mask? The one I read about the paper causing bodily harm over the question of The Mask.

Our divided nation is no longer news, but schema theory might offer a possible solution to how we can overcome this deepening and ugly cleft between neighbors during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Schema theory, in layman terms, means perspective. In illustrative terms, it means a lens. In poetic terms, schema might mean wearing rose-colored glasses (or green or dark and murky).

Someone you know says she does not want to wear a mask.

One person thinks, “Another person against masks? Doesn’t she care? Lives are at risk! We should do all we can to protect people?”

Another person thinks, “Good! They are stupid anyway. Just another way to keep people afraid and set against each other.”

How do you see the act of wearing a mask? Is it act of love to protect those around you? Is it an act of defensive protection to help the most vulnerable. The lens through which you interpret the events taking place and motivation of others is your schema.

Surgical masks were already part of my life. I wear one once a week. It comes in a package with sterile gloves as well. My husband and I don our masks, our gloves, mask our four-year-old and begin a sterile medical procedure, every week. But during the everyday medical procedures, we do not wear masks.

While some see masks as a tangible example of the interference of liberty and others see masks as the way to be a neighbor and not an enemy, my perspective came from our experience as caregivers to a child with a complex medical condition.

Medically, there are particular conditions in which a mask is beneficial and other conditions in which is neutral, where no proven physical benefit or harm is apparent. We are however, more than just bodies, and the passion surrounding mask wearing taps into that immaterial part of us.

In “Secret Desires: The Great Dancing Plague of 1518,“ Luke Arthur Burgis describes the intriguing practices that sprang up around the Dancing Plague. The dance associated with the disorder, called the tarantata became, according to the Italian cultural anthropologist and ethno-psychiatrist Ernesto De Martino, “a ‘minor religious ritual’ which had the effect of restoring order from chaos. The ritual functioned to protect the people and their community from an even bigger crisis: it provided a form of catharsis that helped resolve social tension.”

Burgis proposes, “Anytime humanity has been threatened by a plague, the most contagious thing has never been the disease itself. Humans are social creatures. Our anxiety, fears, hopes, and desires are the most contagious.”

While there may not be a reliable body of research to show the benefit of wearing masks in public, the reassurance they provide that my neighbor is my neighbor, or that I am not helpless, I am doing all I can, may be less about the medical aspects and more targeted towards stabilizing the social order and reducing the anxiety of public interactions.

This value or virtue attributed to The Mask, puts a spotlight on those refusing to wear it. For some, The Mask is wrapped up in the destabilization of society that came with mandated state-wide shutdowns. They feel coronavirus is the least of their worries as they struggle to keep their business from folding or to put food on the table. The Mask becomes a sign of one more effort to destroy the livelihood built by these individuals.

These are two different lenses, or schemata

through which the question of face masks, and frankly most of the top-down measures regarding the Covid-19 Pandemic, can take, with individual nuances to boot.

Coronavirus is extremely contagious. But I agree with Burgis on the powerful contagion of our anxiety, fears, hopes, and desires are the most contagious.

This is not to say wear a mask or don’t wear a mask, but rather that something that seems as simple as wearing a mask is more complicated than meets the eye.

What is your lens through which you see the present crisis? And is there a way that you apply this understanding to those who might be thinking or acting differently than you?

That very act of understanding, of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, bridges the gap that turns the unseen enemy to the neighbor I can see.