Several years back, I had a life-changing conversation with a woman named Joan Blades. After establishing the progressive activist organization MoveOn.org, Joan pursued her passion of climate change advocacy diligently until she came to a major realization. As she often puts it, “we’ll never be able to make the progress we need with adversarial problem solving.”
So, Joan left MoveOn and started Living Room Conversations – as an attempt to bring people together across America’s many divides. And that’s how I met Joan and started working with her.
In Joan, I met someone open to hearing my honest questions about climate change – without being quickly written off as one of those “deniers.” And as a result, I found myself wanting to understand Joan more, and hear her heart. That’s when this surprising thing happened. Rather than the familiar place of feeling defensive about my own views, I found myself starting to pay serious attention to the level of fear I was hearing from Joan and other progressives I knew.
My perspective on climate change had not shifted, but something else did when I recognized the emotional burden people were feeling. One woman even told me she was suicidal about the state of our planet. As I wrote about at the time for the Huffington Post, “Shouldn’t their deepest fears matter to me, even if I didn’t as of yet share their belief and convictions?”
I’ve been reflecting on that again this week, after witnessing yet-more-ugly conversations between fellow Utahns about vaccinations – exchanges filled with anger and fear. Like many, I sometimes find myself reacting to them – joining in the anger-and-fear fest, with my own renditions of angst from where I stand.
But it hurts. I don’t like it. I don’t like the feelings it generates about fellow brothers and sisters – and I don’t like where that ferment leaves me inside.
Is there another way we could approach this?
The alternative to an American dialogue about vaccination? Of course there is. I called for an open “vaccine dialogue” this spring, because I believe in the power of opening our hearts to each other – and seeking true understanding together. I sometimes wonder if just hearing each other’s fears would be enough to allay some of the hard feelings.
Rather than trying to hear out the fears of the African-American community, we get provoked into endless complaining about too much focus on racism. And after each election, it seems we’ve grown accustomed to seeing one side taunt the other side – like bratty fans at a game…rather than be human together, and yes – “mourn with those who mourn.”
Yet on another level, I knew full well that Americans weren’t up to this right now.
We’re too mad. And in many (most?) cases, we’re wholly uninterested in hearing anything else from those who see it differently – glued, as we are, to the latest pundit declaration to reaffirm our own views.
At the same time, we keep being told that the conversation America needs to be having is simply emphasizing how safe, and effective the COVID-19 shots are and how much they are key to our national revival (anything to help convince the hesitant and unvaccinated).
That, of course, is not a conversation. Whether you are weary of it or welcome it, this would be better labeled an “educational campaign.”
In lieu of a real, honest-to-goodness vaccine dialogue in America – a conversation where we can really hear each other’s hearts and fears – I wonder if it’s time to try the next best thing.
Yes, a fake vaccine dialogue – represented below in a back and forth between two people who care about each other. [Although imaginary, the conversation below also contains a composite of true accounts people have shared over the last year].
If your family or friends or congregation are feeling the tension of this issue, consider sharing this. It might be helpful. [Fair warning, though: we’ve reached a point where even something that encourages deeper understanding can be labeled as “spreading vaccine hesitancy.” I’ve seen how those seeking to promote understanding on climate change, sexuality, and police brutality, have likewise been condemned as “hurting the cause.” If you accept such illiberal fears and allow them to motivate your life and dictate your decisions (even to the point of condemning efforts to promote understanding), I really have nothing more to say to you].
If it does still matter to you that we promote understanding on these matters, then I welcome your attention to and response to this (imaginary) dialogue between a grandfather and his granddaughter – after he sent out a message letting family members know he was concerned about being around them at the upcoming reunion if they hadn’t been vaccinated.
Email from Stacy:
Dear Grandpa, I got your note right before we finalized plans to come to the reunion. I’ve been looking forward to seeing everyone after the long COVID nightmare, but since getting your note we’re unsure whether we can or should attend. As you know, Dave and I have been trying to have kids for a few years – and now that we’re 3 months into our first miracle pregnancy, we’ve had to be especially careful about things others may not have much risk of. Although we keep hearing the vaccine is safe for anyone, including pregnant mothers, we know there hasn’t been a lot of research with pregnancy. And we’ve also heard stories of miscarriages happening after taking the shot, so we want to be extra cautious. Of course, COVID-19 itself is a risk, but it’s one we are okay taking.
We recognize that many have come to believe that anyone unvaccinated is a risk to others, including the vaccinated – as a potential carrier of the virus. If that’s a concern you have, we want to be sensitive to that – and understand if you don’t feel you can take the risk of having us there.
We’ll wait to hear from you before making plans. Regardless of your decision, know that I love you so much – near or far!
Your favorite granddaughter (:
Stacy & Dave
Email from Grandpa Bill:
Thank you, my for-sure favorite granddaughter Stacy. It made me happy to see your name in my electronic box of mail. And it was also refreshing to hear both your love and your sensitivity to the concerns I raised. (Far easier to just ignore it – and pretend like you’ve been vaccinated). As you know, your grandmother and I have been high risk for COVID – and were grateful to survive that scare last year when we both got sick. We grew up seeing vaccines make a difference for polio and malaria – and we both took it as a miracle to see a vaccine for this finally available. So, we were eager to be vaccinated – and grateful to have that available as a protection to our country. We were also reassured to hear the prophet encouraging it for members – and, of course, to see study after study confirming that the vaccine is safe and effective.
That’s why we sent out the note to the family, as a way to use whatever influence we have to encourage our posterity to do the right thing – and use whatever (little) leverage we have to hopefully persuade the undecided. That being said, we recognize there are always unique sensitivities with developing babies (congratulations!) and we respect you and Dave’s ability to know what’s best. Have you consulted with your physician about the decision?
That’s probably a silly question –just trying to be a good patriarch! Let me talk with your grandmother about your question – and I’ll get back with you, okay?
We’d surely love to see you, if at all possible. It’s been too long. One more question – I was curious about your comment that “many have come to believe that anyone unvaccinated is a risk to others.” Is that not clear from the science? That’s been our understanding.
Always your (favorite) grandparent….don’t tell grandma,
Response email from Stacy:
Thanks for getting back to me, Favorite Grandparent (except Grandma). We’ll wait to hear from you – and will respect whatever you decide.
We’ve definitely spoken with our physician, who’s helped us evaluate pro’s and con’s. She’d honestly like to see us get it, but we haven’t felt peace about it yet.
That’s what you and Grandma have always taught us to follow, right – the peace?
We have heard the science is clear. But that seems to be what we hear about other things too – including some things that go against our convictions as believers. Just the other day, a liberal-leaning mother in the ward insisted in relief society that “the science was CLEAR that gender transitioning was emotionally healthy for transgender teenagers.” I’ve heard similar absolute claims about children raised in families with gay parents being no different than any other child – and, of course, all this gets amplified by the media outlets eager to promote these claims.
Could the same thing be happening here? If we’re so skeptical about media claims in other areas, why would we be so trusting now? While yes, these are very different domains of research, wouldn’t it be okay to have caution and hesitancy about other claims of “scientific certainty” in the health arena? Some members who are cautious about scientific claims in sexuality seem willing to jump down our throats for daring to ask questions about the science around a relatively new vaccine.
You can understand, at least, our wondering. Thanks for hearing me out.
I love you no matter what,
Response email from Grandpa Bill:
Wow – that is an interesting question. Not one I’d thought of, I admit. But worth considering.
I have to say, it’s quite refreshing to have a conversation where there’s enough trust (and love) to be open with each other and ask questions. Makes me wonder why more people can’t do this in America? You’re right – it seems like on so many issues we’re ‘jumping down each other’s throats’…a phrase I confess to never understanding (wouldn’t that hurt?!)
I’m wondering if we could move this to a phone call, before making a decision. Partly because I’d like to hear your voice again, and partly because there’s more I’d be curious to ask you – as long as I’ve got your captive attention. (:
(No, I promise not to ask you about your temple attendance and scripture study while we’re on the call…hee hee).
When could I be free? Anytime. Retirement is a little like heaven – except for the back pain. Let me know when you could fit in a call.
Back to your question, I guess it’s true we tend to have different levels of trust in different areas of science. Your grandmother and I have always had a lot of trust in our doctor, ever since you Uncle Pete got better from cancer. I know people wring their hands about pharmaceutical companies, but in the day to day, we’ve been helped by so many good people in the medical system – and even by some of the medications themselves. I don’t know what we would have done without them!
I’m not sure I’ve ever gone against the wishes of my doctor, although I don’t begrudge you from doing so if you feel a lack of peace right now. As long as we’re bringing in metaphors from the conversation about sexuality, I do worry that your attempts to justify yourself could become one of those slippery slopes, like we see among some activist types on other issues.
Maybe we could go a little deeper on the concerns we have when we talk? You could share yours – and I could share a little more of mine too? Might feel good to have someone hear you out for once, no?
Look forward to hearing your voice, dear one!
Yours no matter what,
S: Hey Grandpa! Nice to hear your voice. I figure since you were sitting back in your lazy-boy watching ESPN full-time now, this was a good time to call as ever. Ha! We’re needing to finalize plans tonight to be sure Dave can get off from work. Glad to catch you at home. Is now a good time to call?
GB: You bet, darling. How is that scripture study going?
Just kidding. Nice to hear your voice too. It’s been far too long.
Let’s dive in. Why don’t you say a little more to help me understand why you (and I assume Dave, too) are declining your doctor’s recommendation. (And don’t worry, I won’t report you to the Authorities for spreading vaccine hesitancy. They don’t start rounding people up for the camps until at least next month…)
Sorry, your Granddad’s still a jokester!
S: Yeah – some people I know wouldn’t take that as a joke at all. There’s a lot of fears out there about restrictions on freedom and what that could mean. I’m not someone who would ever get up in arms if I couldn’t go to the grocery store instead (hurrah for InstaCart) – but some of my neighbors would go ballistic if they were restricted from attending a sporting event or concert anymore. I honestly worry what it would mean for our already fragile nation if a large proportion of Republicans felt singled out for lock-downs, forced masking, or other restrictions due to vaccine passports.
GB: Bring it on, baby! We know things are going to get rough before the Second Coming, right?
Just kidding. I need to stop joking about this all. That kind of spiraling conflict – I’m thinking of my own neighbor that boasts of having 20 guns – would be heartbreaking to us all.
There are no easy answers here. I pray for President Biden every day.
S: I do too – even though we didn’t vote for him (oh boy, there goes my Favorite Granddaughter status down the tube!) Back to your question. Concerns – let me break it down. This is just what I believe; I respect that many don’t. I’m honestly grateful you’d even care to know. Since you give me time to think about it, I’ve summarized them into a list of 3:
(1) Every death that has occurred is sad – and tragic. We should be united in mourning that. But we still wonder how accurate the overall COVID-19 count has been. Story, after story, we heard of people being diagnosed as positive, when they weren’t. And one friend of mine who is a nurse volunteered at a hospital in New York last year, and she had three people die on her shift. Two of them, she knew objectively had nothing to do with COVID-19 – but all three of them were labeled as COVID-19 deaths. How can we be sure that hasn’t happened more frequently? With all the talk about flu going away this year, I can’t help but wonder why so few raised the possibility we could have been mislabeling even some flu cases as COVID-19. That never even came up in mainstream news.
(2) This seems like one of those questions worth exploring (a little)– but Dave and I have been a little alarmed at how even honest questions haven’t seemed to be allowed. Over and over, we’ve seen people that seem sincere – and even with credentials – deleted off YouTube or Facebook. We heard recently of a group of parents whose kids had serious negative reactions to the vaccines who started a Facebook group to support each other – and that group was just deleted. Regardless of your conclusions about vaccination, I’ve been wanting to ask others, doesn’t this seem a little off? If it’s the full truth that needs to be promoted, can’t that be done without censorship and silencing? After all, that’s how we spread the gospel – by sharing the truth. Not by insisting no one can criticize it or raise any other perspectives (although, come to think of it – that might really help!)
(3) Lastly, we’ve heard far too many stories of people having some pretty serious adverse effects from the vaccine – and not just on developing fetuses. I get the difference between anecdotes and statistics, but every story is still one person, right? It’s hard for us to understand why so many people seem to insist they have nothing to do with the vaccine – and it must be some other issue. Just the other day I overheard a conversation where one person was telling a group about two people in their ward who took the vaccine after the prophet encouraged it, but developed some pretty serious complications – including one individual who now has MS-like symptoms and shakes uncontrollably, and another who has chronic migraines when they never had them before. These symptoms came right after the vaccine, and these two good members are struggling quite a bit emotionally and spiritually. Yet rather than showing empathy or curiosity, the immediate reaction from people in the group seemed to be explaining it away. I get the desire to educate and reassure. But when that requires us to pretend something is perfect, haven’t we stepped into dishonest territory?
Overall, my biggest question is: Is it really so hard to imagine someone having concerns like this? I’m shocked that people are so shocked when some of us do. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
There – I’m done. Do you want to ask questions before sharing your own list?
GB: Thanks precious granddaughter. That was articulate – and I’m proud of you for being so thoughtful. Almost thou persuadest me to be an anti-vaxxer!
Ha ha! There I go again.
S: I’m not an “anti-vaxxer” by the way – just feeling unsure about this one. But I know lots of good people who are. Would you disown me if I was?
GB: Ha ha! No way. It’s your voting for Trump that gets me tempted, though. Hee hee.
Thanks for your answers, Stacy. I’ve heard some of these kinds of things on Fox news. But coming out of your mouth, it sounds very different (you’re more likeable than Tucker Carlson, it’s true).
And to your main question, no – you’re right. I can see how someone who is thoughtful like yourself could have concerns. It’s true that with so little space to consider them, I also appreciate how someone in your shoes might look around and wonder, “why do people keep saying someone like me is crazy?”
I don’t think you’re crazy. But I do think you may not be seeing the whole picture. So, yes, I have a few questions.
First of all, no vaccine is perfect. And clearly different people have different responses. But when one side is raising endless hysteria about all the damage it can cause, maybe that’s why the other side feels a need to push back and correct the record. Could that overreaction be the bigger problem?
Second, you know I love a good story. But how have you decided it’s a good idea to trust a few stories, rather than the combination of stats? I’d ask the same questions about the random stories of a nurse in New York – or a person with a wrong test. Shouldn’t we trust the official statistics more than these stories?
Lastly, it seems to me the science is settled enough – and the risks serious enough (more on that soon), that it seems to me there’s a strong, public health case to get the right education out there. Wish we could spread the gospel this way, but alas – people don’t yet understand the risks of ignoring Christ on such a widespread level! (:
So, no, what you call censorship, I would just call some really amazing public education!
Back to you.
S: Wow. So funny how we can see things so differently! I sometimes wonder, “doesn’t everyone see how freaky all this censorship is?”
And you’ve answered that for me – not they don’t. Amazing how it can look very different to someone else I love and respect.
On the statistics and stories question, I do think we should pay attention to both. Sometimes the story people write off all stats. And sometimes the statistics people are like “oh, that’s just an anecdote – we should ignore it.” Let’s pay attention to both – and still ask questions about both.
That’s what I think. Now, your turn on the concerns.
GB: Okay, sweetheart – this won’t sound like news, since you’ve probably been hearing some of it out there – but maybe hearing it directly from your trustworthy granddad-who’s-never-wrong will help. (:
First, you know how much I want to stay around as long as I can for my grandkids and your amazing grandmother. But over the last year, I’ve seen more friends than I care about pass away. My counselor in the bishopric, our neighbor down the street, and even your grandmother’s best friend. Speaking of stories, that’s been a wake-up call! You talk about being unsure about the overall numbers. But I trust them. We’re not talking about some hot-button socio-political topic here. Why would they be lying to us about this? It’s serious – people are dying. I wish we could unite around the seriousness of the situation. That’s a starting point for me and your grandmother.
Second, vaccines have saved so many lives over history– and reports are that this one is now saving innumerable lives. Also, just as we expected, we are now seeing that it’s the unvaccinated people getting sick and dying. Shouldn’t all that be persuasive? Why isn’t it? It’s honestly just hard for us to understand why this isn’t more conclusive, at least to most people. Seems like politics are getting in the way of it – or something more than science.
Third, I know about the reports of some who say negative reactions have happened after the vaccine. Seems like Fox News seizes on each and every one of them as prime time news…doesn’t that seem a little dishonest? That brings us back to the statistics. Why are we allowing a handful of stories to guide the national conversation, rather than the larger statistics across tens of thousands of people?
Lastly, let’s talk about the Prophet. He has been pretty clear about COVID-19 vaccination, much to the relief of many of us. Yet some of the same people who have criticized gay activists for explaining away teachings they don’t like, are not trying to explain away this teaching they don’t like. Seems ironic. Your grandmother and I do feel like this is a question of faith – and whether people will trust the prophet. Isn’t that fair?
Do you have any questions for me?
S: Lots of great points, Grandpa. I’m having the same experience of appreciating a chance to hear it from your own mouth – without defensiveness or big cable news egos getting in the way. This is the best conversation about the pandemic I’ve had.
Your point about Fox News seizing on the stories is a really good one. I’m going to need to think about that. I wonder if it boils down to who and what you trust. So many people we know have stopped believing in the “official numbers.” Each time they hear of more “findings” released directly from Pfizer, they roll their eyes – “here we go again.”
And so, in an interesting way, when these official statistics come out, they project all the same distrust onto that. Once you’re convinced inside that you’re being lied to – then it’s true, you grab onto a single story to validate what you’re feeling inside.
But doesn’t this seem like something both sides do? We seek out the reports, stories (and numbers) to validate our own conclusions – legitimizing our fears and backing up our hopes. Maybe this is just a human reality – rather than exclusive to Fox News viewers?
GB: A fair point. There do seem to be examples on both sides…although it doesn’t seem equivalent to me. Go on.
S: I also wish we could unite, Grandpa. How painful if this were to divide and estrange us as a family!
I’ve been thinking a lot about a neighbor of mine, who is so troubled by the Church’s donation of millions of dollars to help spread vaccines, that she’s stopped coming to our ward. Now, she’s posting on Facebook about how the Church is in league with Bill Gates and the U.N. This is someone who used to be a stalwart in our ward – I love her!
Another friend is now insisting the Church is doing all this because it has stock in pharmaceutical companies. Nonsense. It gets pretty crazy, pretty quick.
But isn’t part of this because of the lack of open conversation? When half the country feels totally censored and silenced, can you blame them for just talking among themselves? And should that surprise us to see such conversation-in-dark-corners further polarizing perspectives?
GB: Maybe you’re right about some of the censorship. I think that’s a fair point. But how do you invite an open conversation without giving a platform to some of the craziness you describe?
S: Maybe that’s where some of the craziness gets sifted out – and we say together “no, that’s too far” – with people seeing for themselves what’s ‘out there.’ It’s like we’ve stopped trusting our ability to do that as a community – trusting someone else to do it. “Only the experts” can say anything about this, as you keep hearing.
GB: All this is so interesting. I mourn with you to see people pushing back from the Church and condemning the Prophets from sharing what they believe God would have us do. I suppose that’s always been the case – but this time it’s especially sad.
Maybe that’s what I should be focusing on. I’ve said what I felt I needed to say about the vaccinations. Rather than staying focused on that and hoping we’ll all unite, maybe your grandmother and I need to encourage our family to unite around a belief in Christ – even if we may differ in these other matters.
S: I like that, Grandpa. And I can promise you, I will continue to seek God’s guidance in our own family. I take seriously everything you’ve shared – and I’m going to be thinking about it all week.
GB: Well, you better make arrangements with Dave’s work, because you know your grandmother and I couldn’t bear to have you miss the reunion. And hey, if I keel over because I gave you a hug at the reunion, you know I’ll haunt you from the other side.
S: That one’s not funny Grandpa! I’ll wear a mask when I see you, if it helps you feel better – especially if you’re worried my hug might be lethal. That’s the last thing I want you to feel when I hug you! (:
GB: That would be sweet, darling. Can’t wait to see you!
Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D., writes about the implications of competing socio-political and health narratives – and what it takes to preserve public conversation where open exploration of truth in these matters is still possible. To read more, visit: http://unthinkable.cc