In To Pause at the Threshold: Reflections on Living on the Border, Esther de Waal (2001) writes of the Celtic practice of bringing the self to conscious attention when crossing into a sacred space such as a church, a point in time she calls a threshold moment. Such an individual creates a moment of stillness that allows him or her “to enter into that space kept empty in the heart for the Word of God” (2-3). Such a crossing is both literal and metaphorical, similar, she says, to the way in which one understands both the literal nature of and the symbolic value of a river (5), both a natural formation and a signifier of depth and breadth, fertility and movement. De Waal points as well toward the Japanese practice of “stand[ing] on the lintel in order to remove the shoes worn outside in the street” (2). This approach to entering the home “forces a very deliberate and conscious way of standing still, even if for only a moment, in order to show respect for the difference between two spaces, the outer and the inner; the preparation for the encounter with another person, another household” (2). Stacia Keogh, performer and teacher, defines a threshold moment as a turning point, a moment when a person has “faced a difficult decision or life event” or has stood in the midst of a “surprising pivot which changed [his or her] life forever” (https://www.storyprez.co.uk/threshold-moments-where-the-best-stories-are-found/).
Threshold moments allow for something new to come into being–perhaps something so seemingly simple as a moment of peace. We mask at my university. I have been and will continue to follow our masking mandate until the committee charged with making Covid-related decisions decides otherwise. They’re good people who are basing their decisions on the best available evidence. I don’t envy them their job. But people, many of them our students, some of them staff or faculty, are getting restless. I understand that restlessness. Nonetheless, as students and staff at our university, they know, as do I, that they are to follow the mandate until it’s lifted. At this point, though, I am seeing, feeling, and at times engaging with their anger, an anger that’s going to go unresolved, it would seem, until the committee making the tough decisions decides that we can all stuff our masks in our desk drawers.
Here’s what I have observed: Because those opposed to masking have not surrendered to the moment, they find it difficult to attend to other parts of their lives. If a student sits in my classroom, angry throughout the entire class period that they are having to follow a rule with which they disagree, they’re not focused on the lecture, their peers’ questions, or the discussion. The same might be said, I suppose, about someone whose focus becomes concentrated on the person two rows ahead who isn’t bothering to mask properly. Once it’s been jumpstarted, the anger commands an outsized portion of the individual’s capacity to focus. Everything becomes secondary to the matter of masking/not masking, and the point of their being in the classroom is ceded to the anger. Anger isn’t always a bad thing. It can, at times, compel us to act on behalf of a good cause. But right now, in this moment, during this pandemic, it seems to be a catalyst for nothing but more and greater anxiety.
I’m as capable as the next person of obsessing about things I don’t like or agree with, but I simultaneously know that to obsess is to cede my emotional wellbeing to, more often than not, things that aren’t–and never will be–all that important to me. If we want to increase our attentional capacity, we need to find a way to focus on what’s important, to think about how we’re employing–or not–our human capacity to be mindful and attentive. The issue of masking is wreaking havoc with our ability to pay attention to the myriad moments that make up our days. The mask has become a threshold of its own, a metaphor for choice, a portal to one way of being or another.
We could come, or should, to the places we inhabit on any given day in much the same way that we enter a church or settle into watching the sun drop below the horizon. As we open a book, walk into a classroom, sit down in front of our desk, we should mark the moment of transition, empty ourselves of noise, make room for possibility. We can set distractions aside and choose mindfulness.