So how is it that wearing a mask during a pandemic has become part of the so-called culture wars? An American citizen referred to God breathing life into Adam, hence a mask being something that might interfere with her breath as a violation of her religious liberty. Come again? And the woman at the mike at the Palm Beach County Town Council meeting who said “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear. Some things gotta breathe.” Ma’am did you consider that this might be just a bit too much information for the rest of us?

While a solid majority of Americans support mask wearing, a vocal minority seems to think a mask is an affront to their dignity, an infringement upon their “rights”. The right to make another person sick, possibly mortally sick? There is a consensus that I don’t have a right to drive drunk and possibly kill someone. I don’t have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded place. I don’t even have the right to ride without a seatbelt and possibly kill myself. Try as I might, I can’t see how mask-wearing – temporarily – is fundamentally different.

Actually, mask-wearing IS kind of un-American. We are the society that prizes individualism above almost all else – and not just individualism – rugged individualism. Our individualism is supposed to be rocky, uneven, and harsh. We are basically brainwashed into thinking that a consideration of a common good will immediately and irreparably diminish our individual capacity. Individualism is seen as being synonymous with freedom. Many of us do not see that freedom without responsibility cannot really be free.

Mandatory seat belts save 15,000 lives per year, and save four times that of serious injuries. But when seat belts were proposed, the idea met with resistance, though mostly from the auto industry that valued profits over people. However, New Hampshire still doesn’t require seat belts for adults. Their motto “Live Free or Die” could only be more appropriate if it were “Live Free and Die”.

Rights are important commodities. But they become grotesque when not balanced with responsibilities. I may have a right to x, y, and z – but not at the expense of a, b, and c concerning someone else. The cult of hyper-individualism that has taken hold in this country encourages us to consider ourselves first and foremost. There’s a time to do that, but it easily morphs into selfish behaviors, and then into narcissistic personality structures. An appreciation of interdependence and a communal approach to living and relating is lost.

The cult of individualism has promoted consumerism and unregulated capitalism. But in separating both individuals and individual groups from one another, it has eroded personal wellbeing and the development of more mature character structures. Can I truly be grown up if I lack empathy?

It seems to me that mask-wearing – during a pandemic no less – has unmasked much of the narcissism that our culture has wrought.