April 18, 2020
“Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope for a cure.”Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
Years ago, after a friend of mine had been married for several months, her relatives and friends began asking, “So when are you having a baby?” And the longer time went on without a pregnancy, the more her relatives began muttering, “Oh. Selfish.” My friend teared up as she told me about it. She wanted to scream, “No—we tried and we can’t. Go to hell.”
So who in that story is in truth being “selfish”? If you aren’t sure, we may need to have a talk.
When I think of humans who are “selfish,” inevitably a few names spring to mind.
So here’s what I really want to talk about: Yesterday, over walks and talks and viewings of various programs, I found myself reflecting on the concept of selfishness in the time of pandemic. So I guess what I want, selfishly, is to talk about selfishness and have you, my reader, reflect on it, too.
Your Miss O’, like you and the rest of the world, is living into a new year of an old pandemic; millions of us have perished, or lost loved ones, or endured the illness, or have somehow managed to avoid it, ever-present though it remains. Some who were infected merely “tested positive” and had little more than a loss of taste and smell and maybe sniffles (as with my brother Pat and his family, as well as a few of my friends). More often, people have had high fever, aches, and their breathing almost lethally compromised for weeks (one of my dear cousins is currently hanging on day by day; others I know have recovered; a few friends were touch and go for months; one friend died); or experienced near-lethal dehydration as a result of severe diarrhea (two close friends); others, quite young, died suddenly after throwing a blood clot, including those who had been otherwise asymptomatic. The disease is utterly different in different bodies, and over different amounts of exposure. For nearly half of the United States, the view of the pandemic, whatever the human cost, has shifted from “hoax” to “who cares?” These same Americans view this pandemic in the same way that they excuse war or mass shootings, as nature’s way of “culling the herd.” And these same people don’t bother with masks or social distancing, and not only because of a cavalier attitude toward health. In their view, any restriction on their personal liberty is the greatest evil that any person can experience. Even more evil than a gun massacre, they insist, is the law that would prevent any individual from committing that massacre.
And so it goes. And don’t get us started on vaccinations!
This week, I am getting my second dose of Moderna. I mask up and live every day hoping against hope that I can remain virus free long enough to get fully vaccinated. To many, this is me being selfish. All I want is to see my parents again for the first time in a year and a half; and meet my new baby nephew James, who (if I can make it to the end of May), will be just over 6 months old when I meet him. Have I been selfish to wait this long? Or have I been responsible?
On my 6-sibling text thread, besides enjoying adorable baby pictures, we’ve been reporting our vaccination updates. My sister Sherry works in a retirement home, so she was the first of us to be fully vaccinated. My brother Craig, who is taking care of his and Sherry’s mom, Ann, who has Alzheimer’s, was next—he and Ann both have theirs now; I finally qualified and have one dose down; then brother Jeff, who will get his second dose April 30; and my youngest brother Mike, dad of wee James, had his second dose on Saturday, leaving just his wife to finish hers. There was, however, one notable silence on this thread: My brother Pat.
This does not surprise me.
When Pat texted on Friday that he was going to be visiting my brother Jeff and our parents, I flew into my usual hyper-responsible panic: I texted Jeff and called my parents to advise them to wear masks and keep their distance from Pat; don’t go out with him, etc. My mom called him to query this, and he declared that Covid was nothing (he and his family were hardly sick), that he’s pissed that his wife is getting their son vaccinated just because the school and his sports teams won’t take him back unless he is, that it’s his choice, hardly anyone has really died relative to the world population, etc. My mother told him not to visit if he wasn’t going to be responsible about it. My brother was furious and didn’t visit after all. (No one said who told them, but Pat knows that I know and have challenged his anti-vaxxer views.) Query: Is it selfish or simply freedom not to tell the people you love that you are not vaccinated and never intend to be vaccinated against a deadly virus?
“SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.”Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
First, is it in fact asking too much of one another to wear a mask in public, socially distance, and wash our hands regularly during a time when such actions could prevent mass death?
To me, such a question sounds absurd; even to ask it feels ridiculous. For at least half of America, these simple precautions, requested by leading epidemiologists, are in fact too much to ask. Why?
“It’s almost paradoxical that on the one hand they want to be relieved of the restrictions, but on the other hand they don’t want to get vaccinated. It just almost doesn’t make any sense.”Dr. Anthony Fauci, discussing [the] vaccine hesitant
Second, is it too much to ask all eligible (that is to say, not allergic) Americans to get vaccinated against Covid? After all, polio and smallpox did not eradicate themselves. Children must be vaccinated by law to attend public school. As a society, I thought we had accepted this, and if we don’t, we move to a survivalist compound in Idaho or Texas and spend a life in hiding. Again, why is this request too bitter a pill to swallow?
On this same subject, people claim “reaction” as their reason for refusal; so if your personal child once had a bad reaction to a vaccine, does that mean we should not require vaccinations? Or, because I had a severe allergic reaction to penicillin as a child, should my family have lobbied to have penicillin banned from pharmacies? What if we had, and had won?
Third, is it fair or unfair of national or state governments to require a “vaccination passport” to travel? (My brother, for example, who loves Mexico, would, I think, get vaccinated if Mexico or the US required such a passport.) Or is this too much government in the name of preventing a virus from doing what it was born to do—kill as many of us as possible?
In other words—and not that environmentalism is on the minds of anti-vaxxers—are those of us who would prevent mass suffering and death, including our own—deaths that may in fact save the health of planet Earth—really the selfish ones?
What is the line between selfish and responsible, and what makes this line so difficult to navigate? I ask that because it seems to me this is the dilemma. Is denial easier to live with? If we don’t attend a church service or a wedding or a funeral or a birthday celebration due to Covid, are we being selfish (not making ourselves physically present to honor others), or are we, in fact, responsibly looking out for the greater good? Or is it both? If we deny them and ourselves a temporal pleasure with the idea of serving a greater longterm goal, is it worth the sacrifice? Or are we being fools?
Perhaps we should consult the healthcare professionals who haven’t seen their own families in a year. And the soldiers who go to war.
The Royal Treatment
Yesterday afternoon, I streamed the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, via the BBC, listening to interesting history but able to fast forward to the essential ceremony, which was beautifully done—intimate, restrained, yet also grand. (Robin Givhan of The Washington Post captures it perfectly. )
It might seem odd to talk about privileged royals at a royal funeral in an essay that concerns selfishness in the time of a pandemic, but the broad sweep of history and the roles of those in power are part of the big story. To be unselfish in the big moments means, for example, sharing your personal grief with the larger world, accepting the condolences and comforts and kindness of the many with grace and gratitude even if you might wish to weep alone. In addition, for those of us who might not understand why a royal relic of a colonial era is deserving of this globally seen ritual, we have to be unselfish enough to try to understand the full picture.
If rituals remind us of how small we are in the scope of history, they can also reassure us that despite all evidence to the contrary, none of us is alone.
So many people have been missing the reassuring powers of rituals these past 13 months — especially the spiritual ones. They have not been able to attend religious services, and when they have, they’ve been reconfigured for safety. Perhaps they’ve been held outdoors. Communion has been transformed into a drive-through event. It has been impossible to extend the hand of fellowship, and there have been so few people in attendance that it hasn’t felt like fellowship at all.
And so Philip’s funeral was a reminder of what these rituals can do. They don’t erase the flaws in the deceased but they afford the public an opportunity to make peace with them. They’re about endings, but also renewal. During a time of emotional upheaval, they’re guardrails to keep people from tumbling over.
~ Robin Givhan, The Washington Post
Learn One, Try One, Teach One (Repeat)
In the end, the events of the past year have reminded me of the importance of our teachers. To take one example: Last night on Turner Classic Movies I watched again (for the first time in years) William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and that prodigy Patty Duke as the prodigious Helen Keller. To help bring to heel the ungovernable and tantrum-prone Helen—who since an illness at 19 months (possibly meningitis) had been blind and deaf—her parents have sent for a teacher; and while wrestling Helen to gain control and be effective, this teacher is doubted and questioned continually by Helen’s parents, “Why can’t you show some pity?” At one point in the film, Helen’s older half-brother (who had been on Anne’s side but sees the whole business to teaching Helen as a hopeless cause) asks Anne, “Why do you care if Helen learns or not?”
Any reasonable person watching this madness, this wrestling match, might easily wonder both of those things: Why fight this poor, wretched creature? and, Why do you care to try?
And I can tell you, as a teacher, that any teacher watching this film will offer in answer to anyone posing those questions, “Well, it’s obvious you aren’t a teacher.” Anne herself says it, that where there is one closed mind that is never opened, that’s a loss to the world, and so of course she must work to open that mind. (She spells into Helen’s hand, T*E*A*C*H*E*R, not ANNE, to introduce herself.) So, how much learning is “enough”? When Helen learns to sit at the table and fold her napkin, for example, instead of roaming the room eating off of everyone’s plates, the family is satisfied. What more is needed? Isn’t it enough that she obeys? Anne, the teacher, knows that obedience is not enough: Where there is only obedience without the knowing why, that’s a loss not only to the person, but also to the world. (As you know, of course, because of Anne Sullivan’s teaching persistence, Helen Keller went on to be one of the most inspirational activists for good that the world has known.) Selfishness may be born of ignorance more than anything else, and that is why education is key.
I’m sometimes messaged by friends on social media, following one of my usual posts on racial injustice, for example, “Why do you care so much about other people?” I don’t know; I never really thought about it. I just always did. I guess that’s why I became a teacher in the first place. What I find odd is that so many people who do not have the vocation to educate or help others, want selfishly to throw up obstacles to prevent the success of those of us who do. See also: voter suppression and climate change denial.
Selfishness, then, causes loss—first for the closed or untapped mind of the “selfish” person, sure; but ultimately, it is that other and more insidious selfish desire for “calm” and “order” without sacrifice or struggle (obedience without knowing why one obeys, nor caring), that makes the world the biggest loser of all. Why should we, as individuals, care about the world? The teacher says, How can you not?
In sum, anyone who claims not to understand why he/ she/ they must “obey” an order to be vaccinated against a deadly and highly contagious disease, or openly rebels against the order fully knowing and denying the consequences, is acting not righteously but selfishly—selfishly because, even with all the information to explain the why, he /she /they has chosen personal and unfounded belief over the greater good. Morally, this is simply wrong. So judgeth Miss O’.
I look back to Ambrose Bierce up there, who hit the mark where too many people today live: the idea that my asking you not to be selfish, makes me the selfish one. Teachers especially are imbued with just that kind of selfishness—the selfish need to unlock closed minds so that all of us may experience life in all its richness and complexity, and grapple with all the points of view so that we ourselves may grow and be more fully of service to those we love.
Ain’t it awful.