Nobody's Safe Until We All Are
On Vaccines and Freedom
I’m taking a break from Monday Seven to share an essay that’s important to me.
Nobody's Safe Until We All Are: On Vaccines and Freedom
This week I learned that at least two family members are not planning to get vaccinated. I’m devastated. I’m also surprised. I never considered the possibility that anyone I know would choose not to get a vaccine. At least not after a year of restrictions, lockdowns, and a global pandemic that continues to devastate the world.
In speaking with friends, I learned that I’m not alone. Most of us seem to know someone who is eligible for a vaccine and choosing not to get one. I found myself thinking about individual freedom in the context of collective responsibility.
I tend to have a more laissez-faire attitude towards people’s individual choices. When it comes to politics or non-partisan topics that are increasingly politicized, I tend to stand back. I never viewed the personal consequences as severe enough to warrant getting into heated debates. For better or worse, I hold back comments on touchy subjects such as gun laws, climate change, abortion, police brutality, #metoo, and many more. It’s not that I don’t give a damn; I have strong opinions on each of these topics, just none strong enough to break the ties that bind.
That is until now.
I have a responsibility to speak up when it comes to vaccination. I am willing to risk fracturing the ties that bind. They will not matter if any of us wind up dead.
We have the freedom to choose to get vaccinated, but we also have a responsibility towards society.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl writes: “Freedom is only part of the story and half the truth.”
It got me thinking about the freedom of choice and how we express such freedom. One family member told me earlier this week, “I’m going to hold out for a year”. What I heard is that they are going to avoid taking the risk of a vaccine while benefiting from the herd immunity that comes from the majority of the population getting vaccinated.
They are choosing to exercise freedom without taking responsibility.
Frankl continues: “Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”
Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness.
Those who don’t get a vaccine remove themselves from the collective responsibility as members of society. They are choosing to benefit from the freedoms they’ll gain from a largely vaccinated population while externalizing the responsibility.
Shared responsibility benefits the individual as well as the group.
When we’re driving, each time we pull up to a red light we have a choice. We can either obey the red light or drive right through it. If we didn’t obey a red light and instead drove based on our own interpretation of what is safe and unsafe, we would either get stuck or cause an accident. Each of us willingly surrenders a bit of freedom in order to get a better deal. We move faster and avoid accidents.
Freedom is dangerous without responsibility.
Traffic is enforced by laws. But laws are a lagging indicator of what is right and wrong. We collectively decide what is right and wrong long before elected officials pass laws.
An easy litmus test for what is right or wrong is to ask what if everyone else did this.
If everyone refuses to get a vaccine, where would we end up?
When you refuse to get a vaccine, you choose to gain freedom and externalize the risk to everyone else in society. You have the freedom to do so, but recognize where you are falling short on your responsibility. There’s still a very real chance that you and your immediate family can get seriously ill.
As Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius once wrote: “That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees.”
I don’t know if vaccines will solve all of our pandemic problems. But data from the United States, where over half the population has received at least one dose and 32.5% of the population is fully vaccinated, shows significantly lower cases and a flat curve.
The United States began rolling out vaccines on December 14, 2020. One month later, new reported cases, hospitalizations, and new reported deaths all began plummeting.
Most people disregard their capacity to take a stand toward any condition that life presents. Frankl writes, “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them.”
We do not simply exist but always decide what our existence will be and what we will become in the next moment. This is freedom. However, freedom is not the last word.
It’s easier to not make decisions and have others make them for us. It’s easier to sit around and wait until vaccine passports are required by law for travel, as an example. Decisions require us to show up in our lives. This is me, these are my values, this is what I want, these are the risks that I’m taking, this is the decision that I’m choosing. Freedom and responsibility require us to show up in our lives, and that can be quite daunting.
This has been a painful week. I feel angry. But I’m mostly confused. I am faced with the reality that people close to me have views completely opposed to my own. How can we go through such a collective human experience and come out of it so far part?
The easy way out is to sweep it under the rug along with every other touchy subject that can fracture relationships. To present an argument to someone with dramatically opposing views requires us to spend time and energy. When opposing views are so far apart, it can feel like a poor investment. I tell myself it’s easier to just leave it. I can also convince myself that it’s just freedom of choice. But, that’s an oversimplification. Both paths avoid responsibility.
When we have the freedom to do whatever we like, then we need to use that freedom responsibly to serve one another. Ultimately, we have a responsibility to each other.
To borrow from Frankl once more, “I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
Thanks to David Burt, Chris Angelis, Nanya Sudhir, and Compound Writing for reading drafts of this essay and providing thoughtful feedback.