A Smudge and an Ugly Sneer

Author: Jean Abbott

 Jean Abbott, M.D., is a mostly retired emergency medicine physician. The following is a condensed version of a meditation she shared last month at evening church.

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults – unless of course you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It is easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, “Let me wash your face for you” when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor. Eugene Paterson, The Message: Matthew 7: 1-5

There are so many lessons from the past 18 months, although a colleague pointed out: these are lessons we’ve heard; whether we learn from them remains to be seen.

And then I realized that there is a huge log in my own eye, an “ugly sneer” that challenges me but that I don’t really want to face: the so-called “anti-vaxxers,” people who won’t get vaccinated.

I’ve been working with a group at the state for the past 18 months, grappling with one COVID-19 pandemic ethical challenge after another. We have talked about ethical approaches to potential shortages – ventilators, ICU beds, morphine. Then staff shortages, and the injustice of visitation constraints that we are starting to realize were excessive.

But the current challenges as this pandemic surges again feel very different –“avoidable deaths,” and overwhelmed colleagues, working to care for the sick, the dying, but feeling like they are not respected, that we are not all in this together, that choosing “for the community” is out the window –it all is too much. They tell me it feels different to be primarily caring for those who refuse to be vaccinated. I have colleagues who ask if they must care for anti-vaxxers when they present sick to the hospital.  Wow! That’s pretty unheard of in what are traditionally “helping” professions.

All of this makes me both angry and afraid for my town, my country, the world.

Jane Vennard was the first spiritual leader who pointed out the healthy side of anger….not to deny or suppress, but to recognize as a symptom to be listened to, not as an end in itself. Which leaves me with this: what is my faith trying to tell me about how to approach this challenge, without the sneer, without contempt?

I guess, if I am going to try to live as a Christian, that is what I am called to try to tackle!

What if I don’t stare at my neighbor’s smudge, but instead look at what “right conduct” would look like for myself?

  1. Modeling what I think is right. Probably that means wearing a mask, at least indoors, even if I am vaccinated.
  2. Caring for those who are on the front lines, or at the back of the line – not just with platitudes, but with action – helping sign people up or driving them to be vaccinated, advocating with our representatives for neighborhood drives, pushing our healthcare institutions to actually support my colleagues who are so drained, not with perky yard signs or extra meals, but with adequate salaries, sick time, benefits.
  3. Witnessing to my belief in the science (and to protecting my loved ones) by saying a respectful “no” to those who want to visit but are unvaccinated.
  4. Reflecting inward. That’s what our scripture is asking. For me it is pushing back against the outsized worship of science in our culture. With all the advances in medicine, have we focused too much on “the data” and lost the art of medicine – a human relationship of curiosity and sharing that promotes trust – which we believe leads to better health?

But there is still that smudge on my neighbor’s face  — the anti-vaxxer’s. It feels like a big smudge, too. What to do? I can’t just turn inward. In fact, I need to turn my anger into actions that might result in some of the outcomes that I hope for and believe are best for our community.   So if just shouting about the data doesn’t work, how about some different and respectful strategies. So here is what I’m going to TRY:

  1. Be curious – Engage in our common concerns: How is this affecting you? How are you coping? What do you miss most?
  2. Listen and learn – from our anti-vaxxer neighbors – yes, there may be a few loud refuse-nicks, but a lot of folks just have different standards by which they make choices necessary to navigate life. We all use shortcuts to “lighten our cognitive load.” Some of us trust the medical experts or the scientists; others listen to faith leaders, political people, or to recommendations from family or other authority people.  And we each choose different social media to trust. How does our neighbor think through these times?
  3. Be humble –Even for those of us with a scientific bent, we need to name the fact that this is a time when we have been feeling our way, that the science has been incomplete, sometimes wrong, and changing.

Truth be told, there is a certain human joy and satisfaction in sneering, scorn, shaming; but indulging in them can build walls rather than windows. It’s not that science is to be disparaged, but the heart part, the caring part, of making relationships that are I-Thou, not I–It – listening and curiosity about the “other” – are also so important. And humility about what we all know is important to name openly.

What can our church community do? This is where I come – as a solace, sometimes just as a place to share in the lamentation, but also a place to turn anger into strategies. Here we can share with others who wish to grapple with the same questions.

I’ve always liked a lesson I learned in this church, probably 25 years ago – that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear.  We can’t escape moving in a world of doubt, leaps of faith, things that can’t be proven as we reach for meaning and purpose in our life.  Science can inform our thinking but it doesn’t have these answers about how we “ought” to conduct our lives and be in relationship with others.

 But this is a time of fear – a time that we’ve named “liminal” time; a time of huge uncertainty, where death can come close.  We need each other to avoid lashing out in fear, in scorn, in anger, in contempt. Somehow, we need a community that helps change an “us-them” confrontation into a caring community working on behalf of all of us. Or it’s possible we aren’t going to survive.


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