On a warm, spring afternoon two friends joined me for a late lunch and cold beer on the patio of a Greensboro restaurant. As we raised our glasses and contemplated each other’s maskless faces — we were outside, isolated and well past our second immunization shots — I experienced a feeling of joyful liberation. It had been a long, dark year and it felt as if we were basking in the light at the end of the tunnel.
The ecstasy of that sunny afternoon was intensified by the contrasting agony of the past 12 months. The theme of Irving Stone’s novel and subsequent film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” reflects the connection. Contrasts illuminate feelings and past sorrows amplify present joy. Unfortunately the light we experienced that warm afternoon can be dimmed, the ecstasy deferred and the agony prolonged by anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, conspiracy paranoids and political lemmings. Here are COVID agonies we don’t want to relive and their reciprocal ecstasies.
The agony of illness and potential death: The three of us on that sunny patio were approaching, or were of an age where catching the virus risked our survival. We were, as one participant satirically labeled us, “chronologically gifted.” For a year, we kept our heads down, stayed home, sacrificed our social lives, followed the rules and awaited a vaccine. We endured the agony because we didn’t want to end up in isolation, on respirators, unable to be near our families.
The ecstasy of immunity: We now have vaccines with very strong evidence of protection. They are not a 100% perfect, nothing is, but all offer affirming scientific evidence of efficacy and safety.
Beyond individual protection, vaccination is essential to defeat the virus through herd immunity. Immunization is both a personal and a community responsibility. Yet polls show that more than 40% of Republicans are skeptical or won’t take the vaccine and nearly 50% of Trump voters claim that they will reject vaccination.
A powerful statement from our former president would prevent many of these lemmings from jumping off the COVID protection cliff and delaying herd immunity. He needs to go public and emphatically encourage his base to, as he did, get vaccinated. He made a lukewarm endorsement that was cloaked in a cynical reference to Biden in February. That was underwhelming, self-serving and insufficient.
The agony of politicizing masks: Our former president scoffed at personally wearing a mask and sowed seeds that led to the perception that masking was caving in to socialistic control and a sign of weakness. Not wearing a mask became a political statement. Trump’s irresponsible behavior stimulated a cult of anti-maskers who endanger both themselves and others.
When spotting a maskless person in a retail establishment the wisest choice is to express your discomfort to the manager. Confrontation is a bad strategy but I initially tried it. Mostly I received blank stares, sometimes accompanied by four-letter words. At a big-box building-supply store, a guy asked me to step outside. I said I’d be happy to do that if he’d wear a mask out there. The humor possibly helped but, more likely, the situation deescalated on its own. I don’t confront anymore. It doesn’t work, isn’t worth the hassle and could be dangerous.
The ecstasy of a culture that practices respect for others: For every self-absorbed, irresponsible, maskless fool there are thousands more who care enough for others to behave responsibly. The good news is that, regardless of where they live, the majority of Americans have a shared value of respect for others. That’s cause for ecstasy. The student hiker who paused to put on a mask before passing me on a narrow trail at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park and the extended family who wore masks and heeded social distancing rules at a Friendly Center grocery store are but a few recent local examples of our basic national character.
Despite the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists and political lemmings, we will beat this virus through respect for science, selfless discipline and concern for others. That’s both who we are and a path for ecstasy to conquer agony.
Greensboro resident David Noer writes a monthly column about leadership, organizational behavior and community issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.