Quantifying Comfort Levels

Over the last couple of days, I’ve tried to establish that our decision-making processes — and the tone we use to discuss our decisions — are important. I’ve also attempted to make a biblical case for why Christians should lead the way in accommodating differences. I’m prepared to listen to other perspectives, but I’m not ambivalent in these discussions. I sincerely believe that followers of Jesus must voluntarily and graciously submit to the needs of others.

But how do we talk about our needs in a meaningful way? How can we establish what the least common denominators in our various comfort levels might actually be?

I am not a mathematician or public health official, but I’ve been playing with some metrics for establishing these least common denominators for reintegrating society in the wake of COVID-19. My suggestion assumes the possibility that we may all be asymptomatic carriers. (At least I would hope we could all agree that a person who’s clearly symptomatic should intentionally remove himself from the public sphere).

Asymptomatic Mitigation Strategies

Anyway, my concept for conversation about differences is based on varying levels of compliance to the three most common mitigation strategies that we’ve been hearing about:

  1. Keeping Six Feet of Separation between people
  2. Opting to interact Outdoors as much as possible, to allow for increased air-flow during time together with other people
  3. Wearing Masks over our noses and mouths to block the spray of droplets projecting from our faces to others’

What if we assigned a point value, or percentage, to each of these three main mitigation strategies? I suggest a 100 point scale, with 33 points assigned to each of the three precautionary measures listed above. One bonus point can be assigned wherever an individual would choose to add it (for emphasis, for fun, or to add an extra request). It’s subjective, of course, but that’s kind of the whole idea. It’s supposed to give us a way to talk about our varying comfort levels.

The hope is that each individual could establish his or her own “SOM sum.” S = Six Feet of Separation. O = Opting to interact Outdoors. M = Mask Usage. And then we can talk about things — not to argue why any individual’s number is the “right number,” but to understand and accommodate each other as best as possible. Here are some examples of how I see these sorts of conversations playing out:

What’s your SOM sum?

Remember: this whole thing must be others-oriented. Our default must be a SOM sum of 100. But when we’re getting back in touch with friends and considering face-to-face interaction again, after months of being apart, it seems wise to check in by asking the other person to share his or her comfort level.

The “S” variable can be a sliding scale, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Six feet (or more) of separation at all times = 33 points. But if that gap occasionally shrinks to three feet, and that’s tolerable, I’d say S = 16 points. I’d imagine that person-to-person contact = zero points. But maybe there are other strategies for managing that variable. Like a handshake immediately followed by an application of hand sanitizer, which feels like about 5 points to me. I don’t know. It’s subjective by design. But it provides a reference point.

The “O” variable can also be a sliding scale, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Standing out in the middle of a grassy meadow = 33 points. But maybe hanging out in a picnic pavilion = 20 points. I feel like staying inside with the windows open to facilitate a cross-breeze = about 10 points. Does that make sense?

The “M” variable feels less variable to me. Either you’re willing to wear a mask to keep your droplets to yourself, and M = 33. Or you’re not willing to wear a mask, and M = 0. But maybe there are arguments to be made for surgical-grade N95 masks (M = 33) versus homemade cloth masks (M = 25?). I don’t know. My main goal in suggesting this system for quantifying comfort levels is to just get us talking about our differences.

Put it all together, and what have you got?

After thinking through the variables listed above, add the numbers together to create a SOM sum. This provides a snapshot of your comfort levels (which can be re-evaluated from time to time). I’ve been testing this out for the last few days, and I think the SOM sum works surprisingly well.

For example, my current SOM sum is 60.

As much as possible, I’m trying to keep my “O” variable at 33. Especially now that the weather has gotten warmer. It just seems to be the most pleasant mitigation strategy, so I think it’s an easy 33 points. But I’m more flexible when it comes to the other two mitigation strategies. If I can stay 5-6 feet away from others — while also being outdoors — that’s probably my preferred way to get up to or above that 60 point SOM sum total. But there are other ways to mix and match, to get to my preferred 60 points.

Back in the Office for H2O’s Seniors

For instance, some colleagues and I had to prepare special care packages for H2O’s graduating seniors. We needed to stay inside (O = 0). But we were all willing to wear masks (M = 33). And we made it a point to stay six feet apart from each other as much as possible. We agreed to rigorous hand sanitation before, during, and after to make up for the moments where we had to get closer (S = 25). The SOM sum of 58 was just a little bit outside of my comfort zone. But I was willing to live with that.

Realistically, we all have ranges of comfort — not just a single number. But still, we need a way to talk about these things.

To provide another example, my SOM sum of 60 is why I wear a mask to the grocery store and keep my head on a swivel to stay six feet apart from others in the aisles. Grocery shopping is an indoor activity (O = 0), so I have to use other strategies to get back to my comfort range. But again, it’s not just about me. There’s a decent chance I’ve already had the virus and developed antibodies against it. And even if I get sick, there’s good reason to think that my immune system should be able to fight it off. I really don’t love the mask. But I want to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I’m wearing it for the sake of others.

This SOM sum thing may still need some work. I’d actually love suggestions, if you have ideas to make it better. In the meantime, though, I’m going to keep looking out for others, trying to accept people with differences, and praying for an end to this pandemic.

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