This week I read in The New York Times that many inoculated Americans are “losing patience with vaccine holdouts.”
That’s like saying that many parents are “losing patience with their adolescent children.”
That comparison may sound a little condescending, especially coming from the author of a new book called An Effort to Understand: Hearing One Another (and Ourselves) in a Nation Cracked in Half.
But I’m also the loving parent of an adolescent child.
I’m loathe to call millions of vaccine-resistant Americans arrested-development adolescents. Indeed, one section of my book is called “We, Citizen: American Patriots Don’t Call Their Fellow Americans Nasty Names.”
So I’m not going to call the tens of millions of my fellow citizens who have chosen not to vaccinate themselves a bunch of arrested-development juvenile delinquents. And I’m sure some have reasons I cannot fathom, but should not insult.
And yet: Most of these vax-resisters, despite the adult maturity and emotional discipline that allow them to hold down jobs and raise families and support their communities, are exhibiting one or more of these decidedly adolescent qualities when it comes to a decision that could make or break the nation’s next year.
Or, as I call it, vax-olescent.
• An immortality complex. Like teenagers, many of these folks seem given to magically believing that even at their most self-destructive, they are indestructible.
• Callow arrogance. They’re smugly dismissive of any information from conventional sources; the more marginal the source, the more credible, to the vax-olescent.
• An authority complex. They are gleefully defiant because making other people mad gives them the sense of power and control they crave but rarely feel.
• Adolescent narcissism. Obtusely refusing even to countenance the notion of civic responsibility, they retreat to breathtaking self-involvement, so that they’re reachable only by members of their most immediate tribe.
• Sociopathic tendencies. To defend their untenable positions and execute their dangerous plans (and deny their own disappointment and self-hatred), they are capable of the most brazenly disingenuous, manipulative avoidance, excuse-making, trolling, passive aggression and gaslighting.
To paraphrase the sheriff in No Country for Old Men, if vaccine refusers aren’t adolescents, they’ll do until some get here.
How, then, to deal with these people?
Well, how do you deal with any adolescent behavior? You point it out, you hash it out and then you wait it out while you sweat it out. You use your memory and your imagination to walk a mile in your child’s impractical shoes. You remind your child (and yourself) that really, you’re not yelling because you’re angry, you’re yelling because you are afraid—for the child and for the family. You find ways to say and to show (and to remember!) that you love the child, no matter what. And you try, and try again, to appreciate Olivia Rodrigo.
And of course the actual adolescent finds all of the above enragingly condescending, phony and hypocritical.
Just as their like-minded elders childishly resent “all politicians,” the academic “elite” and the “lamestream media.”
Well luckily, our vax-olescent fellow Americans are not actually teenagers; they are only behaving that way. So we don’t actually have to wait for their brain chemistry to change, for their fuckhead behavior to change.
But unfortunately, we might have to wait until something terrible happens to them, or to one of those precious peers of theirs, to wake them up.
And that might require waiting until something terrible happens to the rest of us, too.
In An Effort to Understand, I write about communication—not just with adolescents, but with all people: “It requires listening as much as it requires speaking. And deep listening. And constant listening. And careful listening. And imaginative listening. And repeated listening. And in our own time, if we are going to have a society that is worth living in, we must learn to listen, to hear, to sense with the tiny cilia of our ears and the tenderest membranes of our hearts—not just the words of our friends and family, coworkers and leaders, but their intent—their deepest intent, and emotional source.”
I’m sure I’ve done an incomplete job of that, in the six months since the vaccines have been available—and perhaps a result of this post, I’ll gain a more nuanced perspective than the one I’ve mustered here. (As often happens in tense conversations with my own actual adolescent.)
But if you’re going to have communication, the other person at some point has to listen, too. And the vax-olescents seem more inclined to stomp off to their room.
In any case, it’s not patience I’m running out of at this point.