I’ve learned a few things about myself in the past week since my January 26 post about my personal process around immunization was picked up by the Washington Post and printed in a shorter version as a Sunday Op-Ed.
I’ve learned that I am courageous. I don’t mean that in a boastful way, but I think we
spend waste a lot of time doubting our own courage, keeping ourselves quiet. And we are often courageous in small and unexpected ways that are important to recognize. I’ve done plenty of that – keeping myself smaller than I know I can be.
I’ve learned that I have a voice and that I should use it. A sincere voice that speaks to more than my family and friends, but also to people I don’t know. Several older and wiser people in my life have told me that your forties are the best decade because you’ve released many of the insecurities of your previous decades, you know who you are, you have less tolerance for bullshit, and you’re not afraid to speak up. I accept their wisdom as permission to believe I know a few things and should make use of what I know.
I’ve learned that I am a peacemaker, that I take seriously the desire not to offend, not to condemn, not to alienate, not to preach. I’ve learned that I am sensitive to criticism. (Is there anybody out there who’s not?) I’ve learned that when your piece appears in the Washington Post and generates 557 comments (or comments to comments), it’s a good idea to stop reading those comments after about 50. I’ve learned that some people love a soapbox from which to
speak preach rant and attack, and that it takes very little courage to do so from an anonymous ID in the comments section of a major newspaper. I’ve learned that fear (and prejudice) can sometimes lead people to be really nasty to each other.
A piece by David Brooks on Conflict and Ego in last Friday’s New York Times was helpful.
I’ve learned that it takes great courage to share a very personal story in such a public way; and that it’s much easier to criticize or dismiss someone’s personal journey, and to project your own fears, judgments and beliefs onto them. Reading what some of my commenters – critics and supporters – projected onto me when they read about my experience was shocking, in a way, and I had to remember that their words spoke more about them than they did about me. It took turning off the computer, putting down my phone and going outside to garden and play with my children to remind myself of who I truly am at my core. To remind myself of where my heart is. I don’t think I will ever read a personal essay in quite the same way again. We are capable of being so deeply moved by a piece that, in the best of circumstances, we connect and feel understood; and in the worst of circumstances, we manipulate what we read to simply prove our biases, prejudices and fears.
There is so much fear around this conversation about immunizations. I won’t even point out that the fear is on “both sides” of the conversation (which I think is obvious to anyone who is reading anything about it) because I think the fact that the story is being told as “this side vs. that side” is a symptom of fear. We fear what we don’t understand, and we don’t seek to understand what we fear. It can be easier to place ourselves in contrast to the other, to see ourselves on one side while “they” are on the other side. The problem with that simple equation, though, is that there are never just two sides. If you see it as a debate, it is two-sided. But I see it as a conversation, one that we are all a part of.
In an interview with Vox last Friday, On Immunity author Eula Biss spoke to how this conversation, the responsibility we have to protect each other, involves all of us. Even those of us who are not parents making vaccine decisions for our children. She spoke about the “complicated backstories” that lead each of us to make very personal and often complicated decisions, and how in the case of vaccines our decisions go beyond ourselves. That, right there, is what I think makes this whole discussion incredibly complicated (and fascinating) – it’s messy; like debates about abortion or circumcision, the personal becomes political. But unlike abortion and circumcision, we immunize ourselves not just for our bodies but also for others.
“We live in at least, I, live and participate in a parenting culture, an upper middle class, usually white, well-educated parenting culture, that really encourages and supports fear and fearfulness. Fear is understood as a sort of intelligence in this culture. Promoting fear in another parent or mother is seen as a kind of favor. If you don’t think somebody’s feeling afraid enough, your job is to scare them. I think the other way into empathy is to look at how scared people are, and to think about why they’re scared, and what’s happening culturally to support and encourage that fear.”
That’s Eula Biss in the Vox article. I spent most of my Monday following the Washington Post Sunday publication hyper aware of my own fears. I poured out the remaining contents of a bottle of mouthwash because its neon blue color had been haunting me, as if screaming out, “I am filled with chemicals and they are getting into your body and you don’t know what they might do!” I chewed on a piece of gum my daughter gave me, then spit it out about 3 minutes later because I worried what artificial ingredients were responsible for making a piece of chewy stuff red and cinnamon flavored. I questioned whether I had sold out my belief in all things natural, beliefs I never questioned very much until recently. I don’t question those beliefs because all of a sudden I think chemicals are better for me than natural ingredients – all the cleaning and beauty products in our home (except for the blue mouthwash) are still free of that long list of offensive ingredients you see everywhere these days. But I take medication daily and weekly for my auto-immune condition; I have to prioritize what is most important in terms of organic and grass-fed when I buy groceries because I don’t make $1 million a year; I drive a 12 year old car that isn’t electric or hybrid; and I’m not going to keep my kids from eating pizza and cake at a birthday party because the cheese contains hormones and the frosting is made of partially hydrogenated oils.
I think we do what we can to make the best decisions possible – decisions that have to feel right not just in our heads but also in our hearts. We make choices based on what we know in one moment, and cannot blame ourselves later for what we didn’t know then that we do now. Sometimes our decisions change, and to me that is a good thing. One of those same elders in my life once told me when I was in my late twenties, “Consistency is overrated.” There is no medal given to the person who succeeds in holding the same beliefs their entire life. We are here to grow. Our thoughts and understandings evolve, and sometimes we surprise ourselves with where we arrive. And then when we think we’re done because we have arrived, we continue to change.
That takes courage, and courage is defined as “a quality of spirit that enables you to face danger or pain without showing fear.”