The anti-vaccine movement has led to a profound increase in disease and deaths, overtaxed hospitals, and drastically marginalized care for others with serious illnesses. This reality reflects a more profound cultural problem in our country. Namely the need for more innovative and creative ways to rediscover our obligation to each other to get vaccinated and to follow the best that science can offer.
No longer do we share what Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political philosopher, best known for his two volumes “Democracy in America,” wrote that through associating for a mutual purpose, both in public and private, Americans can overcome selfish desires, thus making both a self-conscious and active political society and a vibrant civil society functioning according to political and civil laws of the state. Sadly, this pandemic has shown that we no longer share this “mutual purpose” or commitment to others.
To whom can we look for models of service and action through which to rediscover our interdependence and our willingness to accept our responsibilities to each other?
The oaths and deeds of the medical profession can be a frame of reference. Examining the health care providers’ fealty to their patients writ large may help heal a fragmented body politic.
In the 1960s, Dr. Louis Lasagna’s, an American physician and professor of medicine known for his revision of the Hippocratic oath, added to that pledge: “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body, as well as the infirm.”
It is important to stress that when health professions treat individuals through their technologies and technics and offer their personal health and their life to the cause of serving and saving others, they “gift” themselves to others. Viewing the profession of medicine through this lens suggests that medicine is a spiritual calling.
The poet David Whyte in his book, Consolations writes: “Giving has an enormous horizon and a breath that is hard to compass. It is both a practicality — it creates bonds and dependencies necessary to our communal well-being — and an essentially, the essence of giving being that the other person is simply alive, and by corollary, not only a privilege to know, but a living privilege themselves …”
The poet continues: “Giving means paying attention and creating imaginative contact with the one to whom we are giving; it is a form of attention itself, a way of acknowledging and giving thanks for lives other than our own.”
The decision to ignore preventive measures results in chaos within the larger community, including the medical system. It causes health professionals and laypersons alike to suffer from moral injury. In contrast, giving spreads like a gentle west wind. It diffuses throughout society and becomes a widespread habit, a habit of the heart. It is born of both altruism and a social obligation to help one’s neighbor, one’s community, society, and the entire world.
The challenge is that giving the gift of one’s decision to vaccinate for oneself and others requires an act of the will. It requires faith that one’s willingness to be vaccinated regardless of all the risks inherent in this action will be a contribution to the community. It means deciding to surrender the myth of individual freedom, it means to risk an untoward reaction, and it means that we may appear to embrace or betray one political belief system over another.
In his book, The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities, theologian and anthropologist Tom F. Driver argues that new actions on a societal level begin by process of “ritualization.” Rituals and traditions result from repetition and modeling. To call upon the better angels of our nature, we need to develop service rituals, giving, and gifting, much like those expressed in the medical profession’s oath. In so doing, we may offer a formidable advance toward healing our broken society through rediscovering and sanctifying service to others.
Joseph Fennelly is an internal medicine physician.
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