Forgetting what matters

COVID-19 vaccination has a terrible unreported side effect: amnesia. 

Not a medical amnesia, but an amnesia of the heart.

With more than 50% of U.S. adults receiving at least one vaccination dose, it seems everyone is celebrating “going back to normal.” Along with that comes a seemingly willful insistence that “personal freedom” has been inconvenienced enough and any further protections are for wimps. Red state or blue, like Ted Cruz we seem to be “done” with masking in the U.S., at least outdoors. Any effort aiming to limit community spread is draconian. Travel restrictions? Bah! Vacations are the best revenge

We forget that there are barely 20 countries outside the U.S. deemed “OK” for travel.

We forget that 75% of the world’s vaccine supplies have gone to just 10 wealthy countries, creating horrific global inequity.

That India, the world’s largest democracy is less than 10% vaccinated as a result, and is setting a tragic world record with 350,000 new cases a day.

That the new spread of this virus is making COVID a “young person’s disease.”

We forget that vaccinated grandparents aren’t the same as immunized families.

That the politics of race drove decisions to reopen schools for in-person learning over and against preferences of more vulnerable BIPOC and their families. 

That it’s never just been about “living without fear,” or “personal autonomy,” or “self-determination,” or even simply “not dying.” It’s only ever been about slowing the spread of a preventable sickness posing a risk of serious long-term health impacts for anyone who contracts it. And at that, we have failed miserably and with malice aforethought.

As I write this, Washington State is entering its fourth wave of a coronavirus surge, with the formerly rare U.K. variant comprising the majority of cases. Still, our schools rushed to return to in-person learning, driving a spike of new infections among Seattle Public Schools students…

Source: https://www.seattleschools.org/resources/covid-19_dashboard, April 26, 2021

…and, though we’ve seen worse days, in King County where I live, positive cases and hospitalizations are both as high now as they were this same time last year, and by all the measures we’re ignoring, we should be going back a step into Phase 2 lockdown.

Source: https://kingcounty.gov/depts/health/covid-19/data/daily-summary.aspx, April 26, 2021

They say the definition of insanity is to repeat the same mistake, expecting different results. So what does it mean that the risk profile driving our grand “re-opening” is pretty much the same as the one that drove our lockdown? “We” simply stopped caring, because “we” decided having a vaccine means it should all be over now, regardless of what data may say. Anyone not jumping for joy to get “back to normal” is just one of the benighted, un-American “them” still living in fear, to be pitied.

And so, all around me…

  • Neighbors stop wearing masks, and gather in large groups
  • Schools cut short instruction time for everyone so that a (largely white) minority can “socialize” in person
  • Scout troops push for ever larger gatherings, social distancing be damned
  • Churches assert their “freedom” to gather over their calling to promote life
  • Democratic officials push prematurely to ease restrictions, so desperate are they to show their way more effective than Trumpism, while their GOP counterparts double down on anti-democratic measures to pander to their base

Even now, a new far-right caucus in the House of Representatives seeks to redefine conservatism around racial lines, as an expression of “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” GOP legislatures are seeking to preserve that white privilege against constitutional freedoms, making it harder for BIPOC communities to vote and for all Americans to gather in protest. It is no coincidence that these voices align with those most dedicated to downplaying the pandemic and questioning the basics of germ theory to perpetuate their lifestyle. Thirty percent of Americans refuse to vaccinate themselves for political reasons, especially among white, Republican men. These are the family, friends, and neighbors who have taken the rest of us hostage, making it statistically unlikely we can ever interrupt community transmission enough to actually end the pandemic. 

As a person of faith, my only response is disgust.

Life I have come to hate, for what is done under the sun disgusts me, since all is vanity and chasing after the wind.

-Qo 2:17 (RNJB)

Clearly, we learned the wrong lesson from this crisis. Once a generation, we are called to stand up for each other and take painful collective actions to mitigate harm. And when our turn came, I watched my nation cave in to our worse impulses, giving free rein to autocratic leaders – both political and religious – willing to sacrifice objective truth on the altar of ideology, and their responsibility to the common good on the altar of individual entitlement.

I’ve watched people I love give themselves over to Trumpist nativism, conspiracy-mongering, and vaccine denial at the expense of our common lives together. The Church that should have kept my spirit alive with its timeless social doctrine instead legitimized baseless claims of election fraud by opening a bishops’ working group on President Biden, giving ideological cover to the subsequent armed rebellion of January 6. Even the virtual relationships of like-minded people I’ve come to enjoy on Twitter only fed the contagion, with our endless stream of outrage at our local, national, and religious leaders. 

The personal and societal casualty of all this isn’t “brain fog.” It’s trust.

The last four years convinced me of a grievous and inconvenient truth: half of voting Americans are perfectly comfortable choosing autocracy, even when it doesn’t benefit them. All it has to offer is the vicarious pleasure of making someone else hurt more than they do. That was an exquisitely painful but valuable lesson: it can happen here. And now, thanks to that realization, I expect it will. I expect to see the end of a democratic United States within my lifetime. Only this time, secession will come in the halls of legislatures rather than on fields of battle, as one state after another falls in line to legislate “red” values restricting the electorate and consolidating capital, while other “blue” holdouts strive for policies investing in a common good. Where once I had possible neighbors, now there are only potential enemies, waiting to be revealed so I can keep them at arm’s length. 

So, thank you America. You’ve taught me not to trust, and I’m all the wiser for it.

While all around me gear up for their imaginary post-COVID return to form, like the “Desert Fathers” of early Egyptian Christianity I am setting out for the social desert instead. In their many sayings preserved from the second century, I can actually find kindred spirits in my own faith:

Evagrius said, ‘Cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind from being dispersed and your stillness lost… Shrink from the vanity of the world outside. Be retiring, and be careful to keep your vow of quiet, and you will not weaken.’

In Scetis a brother went to Moses to ask for advice. He said to him, ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’

Moses said, ‘One who avoids others is like a ripe grape. One who stays in company is like a sour grape.’

Source: The Desert Fathers – Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

They see something clearly I can’t find among most people and bodies calling themselves Christian now: that only fools love the world and what it contains, that the world is nothing more than God’s good gift to destroy every vain thing a believer desires so they discover what to love instead and where it may be found. While my desire for solitude may not be motivated by their belief in the imminent return of Christ, their wisdom still translates: live as an outsider by your own handiwork, pray for a broken world you cannot save, and eschew human connection as the distraction it is, bearing only sour grapes.

Since no one needs any more sour grapes, I’m doing what I can to disappear. Consider it social distancing, retiring to my cell, living my life hidden, going – and likely staying – on retreat.

After 13 years, and more than 44,000 tweets I’m retiring from social media and I encourage you to, as well. Thank you for all who’ve connected with me kindly over the years. I wish the free exchange of the Internet really had resulted in the better world we imagined. I’ve learned my lesson. It’s only a mirror of our worst selves.

My life of socially engaged faith belongs to God, and remains my own. From now on, I’m treating it as such, practicing it “from my cell,” blessing the place where I live as best I can.

As for poetry, it’s hard for me even to put pen to paper anymore.

I hope someday I’ll have something worth saying again. 

More than that, I hope it will be worth the saying.

In closing, I urge you to pay attention. Our “recovery” confirms what our lock-downs revealed: we have selective amnesia. As a culture, we forgot that other people deserve their lives, and punish them for posing an inconvenience. We couldn’t be more wrong.

“Back to normal” isn’t the cure for this pandemic.

It was the cause all along.

3 thoughts on “Forgetting what matters

  1. RichBuckley

    Some of us are doing this healing exercise for Earth on a daily basis.

    One Deep Breath beginning each series, then Breath normally:

    Heart Beat
    Count.
    5 – heart beats
    10 – heart beats
    20 – heart beats
    30 – heart beats
    40 – heart beats
    50 – heart beats
    60 – heart beats
    70 – heart beats
    80 – heart beats
    90 – heart beats
    100- heart beats

    Like

  2. RichBuckley

    Fr. Richard Rohr, Franciscan trained, I think offers a guidance for us at this juncture,

    “Our best response is to end our fight with reality-as-it-is. We will benefit from anything that approaches a welcoming prayer—diving into the change positively, preemptively, saying, “Come, what is; teach me your good lessons.” Saying yes to “What is” ironically sets us up for “What if?” Otherwise, we get trapped in the negative past.”

    https://email.cac.org/t/d-e-qttkhtt-tlkrthtdf-v/

    Liked by 1 person

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