“Character defects are just assets out of proportion.” – A.A.

I’ve worked in the field of addiction for over 45 years, during which time I’ve come to believe that the most difficult symptom of the disease to overcome is denial (in both the alcoholic or addict and the people closest to them).

Denial as evidenced in behaviors like avoiding the issue, blaming others, making empty promises, rationalizing ongoing abuse, ignoring loved ones’ concerns, and outright denial that a problem even exists.

It’s a natural human instinct – an asset at times; refusing to face facts gives our mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won’t send us into a psychological tailspin.

But prolonged denial prevents us from taking appropriate action (such as setting clear boundaries or seeking treatment) and thereby changes from an asset to a defect.

Most times the only way to break through this denial is through some kind of intervention or boundary setting. Maybe family and friends gather to tell the addicted person how their behavior is negatively affecting them and ask them to seek help.

Other interventions follow an arrest for DUI or drug offenses; a wife moving out with the kids and filing for divorce; or the boss at work saying clean up or you’re fired.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about denial in the time of coronavirus – how we as a town, county, state, and country are dealing with reality.

Here in Crawford County (where our per capita rate of infection is higher than either Johnson or Jackson counties) there are people who are still deeply in denial (as evidenced in the refusal to wear a mask – or wear it with their nose exposed), but increasing numbers are moving on into acceptance of the CDC’s finding that not wearing one puts them and the people around them at increasing risk to get the virus … and die.

It was put very succinctly put in an email from a friend last week - “Mask it … or Casket.”

Thank God for the denial intervention efforts of Governor Kelly — most recently in requiring residents to wear masks when out in public — and Crawford County officials in supporting her.

Of course, there are always those who will balk. Some because they heard on TV or the Internet that masks “do no good.” Some because they believe it to be “God’s will” for them to breathe and by being “ordered” to wear a mask, they are taking away their God given rights. Then there’s the woman who Tweeted, “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear. Things gotta’ breathe.”

Don’t get me wrong, I was raised in the Republic of Frontenac on “belligerent independence,” and trained to question the power structure, but that’s different than being so anti-authoritarian that you’re willing to die – and put others at risk – for no other reason than to prove your individual freedom.

It certainly doesn’t help that our Tweeter in Chief models selfish, unhealthy behavior by refusing to wear a mask and repeatedly inviting people to rallies with no masking requirements. Or makes childish statements like some Americans wear masks to “signal disapproval of him.”

You might think with all my experience and knowledge about human behavior I’d be more accepting of the incremental process of people breaking through denial about the consequences of not masking up.

Not so. I have to start my deep breathing exercises and repeat The Serenity Prayer before I even get out of the car to enter a store so I can hold back the incredulous dialogue in my head and don’t go into an emotional rant.

Anyone not wearing a mask in public raises my blood pressure. But I get REALLY TORQUED when I see someone wearing one with his or her nose exposed. It’s like, “What the ….?”

Last Wednesday at a local store, when I told a woman I was “puzzled” by her being able to work with her mask hanging below her nose, she responded indignantly, “It fogs my glasses and I can’t see the register!” Then she proceeded to wipe her exposed nose and slide my item over to me on the counter!

Lucky for us both, I was dumbstruck; baffled to the point of speechlessness. Holy Moley! I said to myself as I considered the vulnerable walkup customers (who might be ill or immune depressed) that were being put at risk.

After some prolonged deep breathing in the parking lot, I regained my faculties enough to phone the store manager who, after hearing my story said, “We’re doing the best we can.” At which point I responded as calmly as I could with, “No … I honestly don’t believe you are.”

I daily pray about this, asking guidance on how to mindfully address the issue in the most gentle – but direct – way possible. It seems to be working. So far I haven’t gone into a full-blown tirade and no one’s taken a swing at me. And I’ve found that saying "thank you" to the workers who are wearing masks properly calms me some ... and brings twinkling eyes of gratitude in response. Regardless, it continues to mess with my serenity.

But I can’t stop. Because, alongside individuality, I was raised with a strong sense of community responsibility; ethical duty to my neighbors. We’re in moral crises here. People are dying. Neutrality is not an option.

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net.