Finding Certainty In My Uncertainty*

Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous in risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ’til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something you have to keep on living with, real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch your consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.”

– Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

As my kids say, I’ve been feeling some big feelings recently. Since April our family has been counting down to August 9th. That would be the day when all three boys could go out into the world to make friends and to learn and to be kids. They are heading into the wonderful life that is grade four and grade two and pre-school. At this point on the calendar I could start to think about and work on what’s next in my professional life. It was an exciting time full of potential. But as July slammed its door without even saying goodbye, I realized that the combination of Delta variant and our nation’s anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers were going to run interference with our plans. I spent the last week of July scouring reviews and ordering children’s’ masks. The boys could still go to school, I thought, we’d just have another year of masking and distancing and being careful. This would be most difficult for our two year old, but okay we’d still see it through.

As August 9th approached it became apparent that Delta was hitting different. We knew this from India’s experience, but we failed to prepare for it. Unless there was a local school mask mandate, our elementary classrooms would be petri dishes for a variant that was no longer sparing children the worst of its effects. Six days into the school year (with only about 50% of kids at school masking) we pulled everyone out again for a another semester of homeschooling. As I write this nearly 40% of Tennessee’s almost nation-leading infections are children. Like their grown-up counterparts, pediatric ICUs for 300 miles in every direction are at a breaking point. It’s a devastating turn of events, not because our kids can’t go to school and I can’t go back to work, but because this level and intensity of suffering was mostly avoidable had people done something that isn’t that radical (but certainly feels so these days). Rather than doubling down on personal freedom mantras, if people had bet on uncertainty, on not knowing, on listening… Well maybe we’d be in a different place. As it stands, we are back in lock down. No restaurants, no grocery stores, no large gatherings for the kids. Yes it’s hard, but it’s not as hard as having our kids intubated or dying. So here we are, feeling grateful that we can shelter in place until this storm passes again.

Over the last two hundred years there has been a great improvement in personal and public hygiene and cleanliness; and this was largely brought about by persuading people that the results of being dirty and apathetic in the face of disease were not acts of God, but preventable acts of nature; not sheer misery in things, but the controllable mechanisms of life. We have had the first, the physical, phase of the hygienic revolution; it is time we went to the barricades for the second, the mental. Not doing good when you usefully could is not immoral; it is going about with excrement on your hands.”

John Fowles, The Aristos

So this is how it happened that I got into several heated discussions almost simultaneously with friends and family on social media. Turns out that anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers didn’t like it when I called them selfish. But here’s the thing, the way I see it, they’re wanting to ride the society bus for free. They will refuse the vaccine but some will still take up a bed and professional medical care in an ICU. Here in the south they are already squeezing the last of the precious resources from car accident, hurricane and flooding victims. They will also benefit from herd immunity (whether they like it or not) and they don’t have to do anything to enjoy that advantage. I took a risk in getting that shot (we all did, there’s nothing in this life that is entirely without risk). Don’t get me wrong, it was a tiny risk, like one so small I can’t even explain the mathematical probability of it being a risk, but it was still a risk. Keep in mind, I’m a fairly risk-averse guy, but this was the price of admission and it was worth it to protect other people, even if I didn’t know them. I did my part to help society fight this thing. I thought of it like this, I don’t particularly like paying taxes either, but I still do because we all benefit from roads and bridges and fire departments and libraries and schools even if we can’t see those advantages directly. These anti-Americans who only want to watch rather than participate are trying to take advantage of the work and knowledge without wanting to contribute in the building process. I call that selfish. They think I’m being mean.

I wonder what it is it like to be that self-unaware. Truly, I do.

Here’s my thing… I think this world has little use for those who choose to stand aside but who also will try to issue instructions for how to live in it. I kinda feel like if you don’t play the game, you can’t be in charge of making the rules. If you can’t find a way to aid in the progress of humanity, then know that smirking cynicism is a form of sickness much worse than COVID. There are carriers of death among us who are not themselves sick. Strong words? Yes, and deeply felt. Along with a borderline narcissistic personality disorder, some of these people have the shallowest view of history. They want this free ride, one in which they aren’t expected to contribute to the cost of the journey, but they don’t respect the fact that somebody else paid the price to build the vehicle of the civilization they inherited. They aren’t being asked to pave the road or to even to drive the bus. So many people before us paid for that. They paid it forward for us. Now it’s our turn. We owe it to others to risk a little something for a better tomorrow. Jesus, M.L.K., Ted Lasso, all believed that there is a moral obligation to participate in the work of society. Well, I’m telling you the moral crisis of our time is unrelenting.

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must… undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”

– Thomas Paine (my favorite radical, drunken, atheist)

But it wasn’t these anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers take on freedom (without responsibility) that bothered me so much. I’ve learned to live with (not accept, but live with) the myth of America propagated by Toby Keith and Tucker Carlson since my days in undergrad. No, the part about this nightmare that gets into my bones and makes me openly hostile with my words is their god-damned certainty. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand the mRNA technology. I don’t understand my microwave or Bluetooth headphones or bitcoin either. Not fully. Enough to be dangerous mostly. I have a working knowledge, not an expertise, on many things. The world is much too vast, much too complex to be an expert in even one area. But I stay sane by keeping in mind one simple mantra, “I could be wrong.”

I’ve been wrong a lot more in this life than I’ve been right, as tough as that is for me to admit, it’s true. I’m wrong all the effin’ time. Ask my wife. Ask my family. And I’m wrong regarding just about everything, even things I’m supposedly knowledgeable about. I oversimplify. I create heuristics. I repeat what I hear others say (the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell). But here’s the catch. I know that I don’t actually know this stuff beyond a surface level understanding. So I’m curious and open minded and skeptical of my experiences and depth of insight. Knowing that I’m so often wrong allows me put a tiny asterisk on my beliefs, on my knowledge, on my position. Knowing that I’m probably working with incomplete information allows me to hedge my bets. It allows me to keep the door open for improving my position when I’m presented with more or better data. My faith in being right has room for doubt. Faith is not a rock solid tangible. It is a fluid and like the properties of a fluid it is subject to change shape depending on conditions and the container it is in. My faith in science and medicine and government has room for doubt. Do the institutions that you have faith in have room for a bit of fluid doubt? If your faith doesn’t, is it still faith? If I was as certain in my position as some of these people I’m exchanging words with, my sense of self and of the world would crumble if I was presented with an alternative narrative. I too would fight like heck if I wrapped my self-image and identity and wagered everything on being right. There is no alternative for them. What happens when you put all of your faith into a belief and it disappoints you? That sounds like a fantastic premise for a novel…

If I had painted myself into an anti-vax corner, I too would call masks and mandates tyranny. I too would find a way to blame doctors and local governments and Nancy Pelosi for everything rather than admit I might be wrong. Because admitting that I was wrong would be akin to finding a crack in the foundation of everything I’ve built my world on. In short, these people who I used to like and respect, have left themselves no room to reconsider. Their beliefs are brittle and constructed with unwavering hubris. The deathbed realization of so many anti-vaxxers is both ironic and tragic. It didn’t have to be this way. I am certain of that.

Can you be skeptical about what people tell you to put in your body but also have faith in the power and knowledge of established experts and institutions? I believe so. Yes, a single expert can be wrong, but when 100 or a 1,000 or 10,000 experts from around the world, people who have dedicated their lives to learning (not only YouTubing) put their names and reputations on something, they have my attention. When my distant relative or college roommate writes something counter to those experts, sure, I’ll read it and consider it from their perspective, but in that consideration I will allow space for being wrong. Could the WHO and CDC and the world’s foremost epidemiologists and leading health experts all be in on a big pharma conspiracy trying to sterilize whole populations? Yeah, maybe. But then again could Covid just be a highly infectious virus which happened to be more deadly than the flu before we had a vaccine, which hundreds of millions of vaccine doses have proven to help dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death? Yeah, maybe.

So which do I doubt more? How do you decide where to place faith? Let me frame it another way. Is it more likely that my blood relative in working with the internet super-sleuths has ferreted out a world-wide conspiracy using only Facebook posts? Or that the CDC and thousands of scientists and doctors worldwide just want to help people avoid needless suffering by submitting their work to the rigors of the scientific process and their data and research for peer review? Hmmm, experts who genuinely want to help verses a college buddy who couldn’t write his own freshman composition essays? It’s not really close call when you put it like that, is it? Actually it’s pretty easy to pick a winner and a loser in this instance.

So when these anti-vaxxers ask me if I will vaccinate kids when it comes available?

Yes, I’m certain of it…

… Although with more information, I’m subject to change my mind.

Get your shot. Wear a mask. Keep well and stay in touch.