Are we immunized?

Immunize (verb) im-yuh-nahyz, ih-myoo-nahyz

  • to make immune
  • to render harmless or ineffective, to neutralize
  • law: to grant immunity (as to a witness)

There is a powerful scene in the HBO series John Adams where Adams’ wife, Abigail, sees the 1775 smallpox epidemic wreaking havoc in her community. Her husband was away serving in the Continental Congress and founding our nation, and she was raising their children and running their farm and everything else on her own. As she worries for the health of herself and her children while watching neighbors succumb to the disease, she makes the courageous but terrifying decision to inoculate her children.

From HBO’s John Adams

This scene graphically illustrates the concept of what it means medically to immunize. A bit of the virus-infected bodily fluid is introduced to a healthy host, so that the body can begin to create antibodies necessary to combat the disease. Anyone who has had allergy testing and treatment with allergy shots understands the concept well. Over a period of time, serum containing small amounts of the actual allergens to which a person reacts is introduced in increasing amounts and eventually, serious allergic reactions are reduced or eliminated.

In other words, over a period of time, the virus or pathogen that could once have caused harm or discomfort is rendered harmless or ineffective in its quest. It’s neutralized.

Vaccinations have nearly eradicated miserable diseases like smallpox, polio, mumps, and measles. Imagine the courage it must have taken in those early days, before the modern-day sterile healthcare environments and exacting, highly regulated clinical testing of today ensured safety and efficacy. But also imagine being so terrified of a disease with a devastating outcome and no cure that you would risk infecting your children in a controlled fashion with the hope that a minor infection would immunize them against a more serious one. Every time I watch the scene above, it causes me to gasp. And yet, I don’t hesitate to get a flu shot every year, and I get boosters as needed for other vaccines as recommended by my physician with no fear or worry. You could say that the fear I might feel if I really thought about the idea of putting even an inactive form of the flu virus in my body has been neutralized because for years, I’ve been vaccinated and that vaccination creates a system of antibodies that render the live flu virus mostly harmless and ineffective to me.

In order for an anti-viral vaccine to create resistance to the spread of certain contagious disease over time within a population, a sufficiently high proportion of individuals must similarly be made immune to the disease by vaccination. This is the concept of “herd immunity.” If everyone is effectively inoculated in a similar fashion, the disease caused by the virus can actually be eradicated because the virus no longer has readily available welcoming hosts to sustain its viability.

But this post isn’t about healthcare, or the science behind vaccines, or the debate around their effectiveness or necessity. This post is about immunization of a different kind. With all the discussion ranging from genuine and well-founded education and concern to the associated media-fueled hysteria and insanity around the coronavirus pandemic, combined with the nonstop barrage of social media hyperventilating and finger-pointing, I’ve started to wonder if we haven’t been immunized against a lot of traits, strengths, and characteristics that we used to be taught as young children. I am starting to wonder if we have been being slowly immunized against the understanding of what community used to mean. Against the concept of sacrifice of our own self-interests in service of others. Against self-reliance. Against Judeo-Christian values. Against personal responsibility. Against intellectual curiosity. Against capitalism.

Against patriotism.

Might I suggest that all of these cultural and social “chromosomes” are the building blocks of our nation’s DNA – community, sacrifice, self-reliance, personal responsibility, Judeo-Christian values, intellectual curiosity, capitalism and patriotism fused together in our nation’s identity since our nation’s birth formed the foundation of a country that has achieved more in its relatively short life than our founders could have possibly imagined. We have saved the world from plague and scourge both physical and military, we have invented electricity, the cotton gin, the automobile, air travel, the telephone, the personal computer. Our research and funding has eradicated disease, brought water to the desert, fed the starving and cared for the sick, freed slaves and unleashed liberty and freedom at home and around the world. We put a man on the moon. All of this, and so much more, in less than 300 years. When taken in consideration of the age of our country relative to the rest of our global neighbors, we are barely entering our adolescence as a nation. If the United States of America were my child, I’d be telling you she was a prodigy. In need of some course correction and capable of some mood swings and temper tantrums, for sure, but a definite prodigy.

Regardless our personal differences, we used to be Americans first. We as a nation were taught that our country was exceptional and had done, was doing, and would continue to do exceptional things. We were taught – as was the rest of the world – that in America, anything was possible. Any person, from any social status, from any religion, race or creed could embrace our collective values and have the freedom and liberty to pursue happiness and success in whatever form that took for the individual.

Over time, while most of us weren’t even paying attention and were trying to be inclusive and welcoming, we have allowed tiny, almost imperceptible bits of the pathogens of self-interest, cynicism, hypocrisy, idolatry and fear to infect these basic foundational beliefs. Our failure to continue to reinforce and embrace what had always been our shared values and proudly celebrate our collective accomplishments as a people instead of individuals has failed to inoculate our youngest citizens and newcomers alike against the scourges of socialism and victimhood. We’ve allowed our country to become infected with a series of social, moral and cultural viruses that threaten to tear our foundation apart and put all of us at risk.

Rather than focus on our commonality, on our identity as Americans and neighbors first, we’ve allowed seeds of division to take root. Instead of focusing on our common denominator, somewhere along the line we started to pay more attention to the numerators. We created fractions of a community where a whole one used to be. By failing to celebrate what we have in common, we’ve begun to focus on what makes us different from one another. If you’re in this club, then you can’t be in that one. If you vote like this, you can’t be part of that. If you don’t believe this, then you can’t expect to be invited to join the other thing. If you live here, you’re not as important or smart as the people who live over there.

It wasn’t so long ago that we were all, quite simply, Americans. That unifying element was something just woven into our fabric as a nation and as a society. American was something we learned to be and were from our first memories. It was ingrained in our psyche with the daily Pledge of Allegiance, and Scouts, and school assemblies and band concerts and Fourth of July parades. Coffee and doughnuts after church on Sundays or Knights of Columbus spaghetti suppers and fish fries weren’t just excuses to eat. They were the figurative bricks and mortar that made us part of a community, a community that we could be certain would be there for us as we would be there for our fellow neighbors. A community that allowed us to do bold things. A community that came together in crisis and helped us overcome anything that came our way either individually in case of death, illness, or other personal tragedy or as a community, like after a terrible storm or other awful event, like hijacked airplanes full of our neighbors flying into our skyscrapers and killing even more of our neighbors, and threatening our very way of life.

Sure, there have been and always will be protests, disagreements and arguments amongst us. Important changes have been brought about in our country by ordinary citizens exercising their first amendment rights. I don’t think things would be better if everyone agreed on everything – I think they’d be boring at best and quite dangerous, at worst. The right to protest peacefully and speak our minds is the eternal gift of the First Amendment. As we used to be taught in school, freedom of speech is the first amendment because our founding fathers knew that without it, the Republic they’d fought so hard for would be doomed.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That’s the text of the First Amendment, in its entirety.

Which is why, for as long as our nation has existed, there has always been talk of making changes to our foundational beliefs. Some have posed serious threats to our society (like McCarthyism, or radical religious fanaticism, or dangerous child labor and working conditions.) With very few and very limited exceptions (like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater) we are allowed to speak our mind and say what we think without fear of imprisonment. Because we as a nation had been effectively inoculated against those threatening ideas, we were able to eventually render them ineffective because we as a whole largely rejected them and clung to the health of our nation as a whole to sustain us.

Over time, our country’s greatest attributes have been allowed to be exploited and mutated into something new and different. These exploitations and mutations have, in some cases, happened so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible. We stopped inoculating ourselves against these threats by slowly eroding the very key elements of our national social vaccination. Over time, the concept of saying our Pledge of Allegiance has been rendered old-fashioned at best and offensive at worst. Our welcoming nature as a nation founded by immigrants ourselves has been exploited and morphed into a system that allows new neighbors all of the fruits of our nation’s hard labor without expecting them to participate in our community or adopt even our most basic, foundational values. The Scouting programs which historically did so much to help our communities instill and strengthen the values of self-sufficiency, sacrifice for service to others, and personal responsibility have been plagued by scandal and their impact has been diluted and neutralized. The same is true for organized religion. Because the leadership of these religions is comprised of imperfect humans behaving imperfectly, cynicism and hypocrisy have crept into our nation’s psyche with a ravaging effect to our sense of believing in something bigger than ourselves.

Slowly but surely, I fear we have allowed ourselves to become vulnerable to the pathogens that attack our foundation of self-reliance, community service, self-sacrifice and shared experience. Instead of self-reliance, we look to some nebulous “other” to fix things for us and “save” us from inconvenience or discomfort. Instead of community service allowing us to feel part of something inclusive and bigger than ourselves, we now seek communities, whether consciously or subconciously, of those who think most like us. That way, we aren’t required to examine or debate our differences and overcome them so that we can knit together and be in service of a greater good as one. We are fractured into factions that have become so comfortable we don’t care to go to the trouble of understanding anyone who doesn’t think like we do. It’s not enough to feel like “we” are doing good. We have to point out to others that “they” are not doing enough. Instead of taking only what we need, we are fighting in line to make sure we have more than enough of basic goods at the expense of our neighbors. Instead of a national shared experience of which we should be rightly proud and unafraid to proclaim, we have allowed those who aren’t interested in celebrating our collective accomplishments to turn the focus to all the ways we’ve failed to be perfect. We’ve isolated, silenced and neutralized our very sense of patriotism that always allowed the feeling of “we can handle anything as long as we are working together.” And now, we cower in fear and feed our misery and panic and outrage addiction by nonstop pontificating and fear-mongering from the news channel of our choice and social media communities that inflame our sensibilities. We say things to one another online that we would not have the courage or good sense to say face to face.

These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or in the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by the scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.

Abigail Adams, in a letter to her son, John Quincy Adams, January 1780.

As terrible as this current crisis seems, it also presents incredible opportunities, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. How? I have some ideas, and I’d love to hear yours. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, wash your hands. Turn off the television. Get outside. Listen to music. Watch John Adams. And God Bless America (all of it) and Americans, (all of us.) And, I still choose to believe that we can handle anything as long as we are working together.

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