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Masking Our Emotions

How Coronavirus Changed the Way We Communicate

eyes of young girl child with medical mask wearing, protection against covid 19

Getty/lakshmiprasad S

“Our hearts convey the most poignant picture through the eyes. It is not merely a window, but a reflection of our state of mind.” —Jeffrey Benjamin, MD

“The eyes are the window to your soul.”

It’s a phrase attributed to myriad sources ranging from da Vinci to Shakespeare, but never has this been more fitting and applicable than now with a (coronavirus) new world order of wearing masks everywhere: parks, grocery stores, hospitals and doctors’ offices—even, for some, at home with loved ones.

While facial expressions use the full face, we are now missing two-thirds. Suddenly, we are left with only their eyes to convey and interpret one’s feelings.

Masked Emotions
In media coverage, we see people wearing face coverings, and we naturally look to the eyes to gauge their emotions. We see anger and rage in the wide eyes and furrowed brows of lockdown protesters; fear in hospital patients; worry and care in healthcare workers; and love in the eyes of mask-clad couples getting married in Love in the Time of Coronavirus.

Images of healthcare workers show full PPE. Many patients—frightened already—have reported being terrified at seeing doctors and nurses who look like something out of a sci-fi movie, especially true in patients experiencing the symptoms of disorientation and confusion that can come with this coronavirus. A New York police officer hospitalized for the virus who was experiencing psychosis thought Nazis were running the hospital. He escaped from the hospital and later collapsed and died on a median outside.

In our own lives, wherever we go, we can also see the fear, anger, love, and more in peoples’ eyes—from our loved ones to neighbors to people at the grocery store. I had a telehealth doctor’s appointment yesterday and tuned in unmasked to see my doctor wearing a surgical mask. I worriedly told her I was having mild symptoms similar to those of COVID-19. Fortunately, her smiling eyes reassured me I was okay, and I was reminded of the Hebrew greeting Shalom Aleichem (When the heart is full, the eyes overflow).

On Facebook, a COVID-19 Physicians Memorial group page features pictures and stories of doctors who have lost their lives to coronavirus. One image is of Dr. Li WenLiang, the physician whistleblower in China, in a hospital bed with a mask on. A Facebook group member commented on his masked face: “Poor soul. Look at his terrified eyes.” In his eyes, we can see that fear—we can everything we need to know.

 “Almost nothing needs to be said when you have eyes.” —Tarjei Vesaas, Norwegian poet

Soul Reflection
In the Bible, Matthew 6:22 says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are unhealthy, your body will be full of darkness.”

One charity that has sprung up, Goggles for Docs, asks professional and regular skiers to donate goggles to hospitals for doctors. While this is a good organization for which doctors are thankful, many of the goggles donated are tinted or mirrored, making doctors’ eyes difficult to read. This concerns me, as this leaves them basically void of visible emotion—and humanity. We need the eyes to tell us what the rest of our faces can’t.

Equally important, a masked or ventilated patient’s eyes can tell a healthcare worker how they are feeling emotionally in regard to their illness on any given day. Redness and yellowness are a sign of sickness and infection. Pinpoint pupils may be a symptom of a brain bleed, high blood pressure, or opiate overdose. Dilated pupils can indicate delirium, confusion, or a lack of consciousness. 

We’ve all read about failing coronavirus patients needing to say goodbye to their loved ones via video chats. While family members may be unmasked at home, the patient’s ventilator-covered face leaves only see their eyes visible. And though the patients on ventilators may not be able to talk back to the family members, they can still take solace. 

Said surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Benjamin: “Our hearts convey the most poignant picture through the eyes. It is not merely a window, but a reflection of our state of mind.” 

Eyes Wide Open
In the words of Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas: “Almost nothing needs to be said when you have eyes.”

One of the strongest indicators of emotion through our eyes is tears: sadness, grief, exhaustion, relief—or joy as people reunite after quarantine.

As we move forward and begin to heal—not only from the virus, but in our humanity at large—we may have to adjust to seeing strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family members wearing masks. We may have to get used to having only their eyes to tell us what the rest of their faces cannot. But perhaps this is enough.

As Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coelho said, “No one can lie, no one can hide anything, when he looks directly into someone’s eyes.”  

Read more about how your eyes reveal your personality.


About the Author

Catherine Lieuwen is an Emmy-nominated television writer, published essayist, and former mental health counselor who has written for over 35 children’s shows and served as a consultant for the national Stop Bullying campaign. She won the Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States for raising public awareness about animal rights and continues to fight for animal and human rights. She divides her time between Los Angeles and Albuquerque.

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