Jennie KuckertzFebruary 02, 2021
Leona Tarver, 84, receives the coronavirus vaccine at the Brightwater Senior Living community in Highland, Calif., Jan. 22, 2021. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

When I tell you that I received the Covid-19 vaccine last month, I am guessing it will not surprise you. If you were to search for me online, the results might be what you already expected for a Harvard-trained psychologist—employer profiles and scientific papers with technical titles. I grew up in a community of doctors and highly educated professionals, attended good schools surrounded by supportive adults and went on to higher education. So you might think that I am exactly the type of person who would be excited about vaccines; that of course #ITrustScience. And you would be right.

But my vaccine enthusiasm might surprise you if I told an equally true but radically different story about myself. That story is about growing up in a household that consumed conspiracy theories and feared conventional social institutions, and how it affected every aspect of my education, relationships and healthcare.

The consequence of holding these seemingly strange positions was that, when I was not being intentionally isolated from the community in which my family lived, I was being actively excluded from it. As a result of subscribing to these theories, my family did not receive vaccines. And in part because we did not receive vaccines, my siblings and I were homeschooled. This was not easy for a kid like me; I craved social interaction and acceptance. For years, not much changed.

One day, my mother called our state representative in Illinois, Patti Bellock, a Republican, to express anger over a vaccine requirement. The year was around 1999, and I was 11 years old. My mother had a litany of problems with vaccines, most of which you might expect from a passionate “anti-vaxxer.” This elected official spent over an hour with my mother, and she listened—really listened—to her concerns. And then she shared two very raw stories with my mother about her own relationship to vaccines.

Rep. Bellock shared how her cousin had suffered in the iron lung before dying from polio, and it was one of two times she ever saw her father cry. She recounted how she received the polio vaccine on an emergency basis after a frightening childhood exposure that left her friend paralyzed for life.

When I was not being intentionally isolated from the community in which my family lived, I was being actively excluded from it.

My mother’s face and posture changed. She had expected that Rep. Bellock would be an ally, or at least sympathetic to, her anti-vaccine stance, probably because Patti Bellock was a fellow Republican, so the lawmaker’s reaction surprised her. Rep. Bellock, like my mother, identified as pro-life.

After this conversation, my mother understood that vaccines were part of that value system too. Eventually, my mother hung up the phone. And as she recounted Rep. Bellock’s story to me, she started talking about vaccines in a way that I had not heard before. Vaccines were personal and vaccines were pro-life. Shortly after, we got vaccinated.

During the time she was opposed to vaccines, other people had tried to change my mother’s mind. When my mother expressed concerns about my sister’s unusual behaviors and asked whether vaccines could cause autism, our pediatrician had impatiently told her that they did not and that vaccines were very, very safe. But neither he nor anyone else could offer answers about what did cause my sister’s autism. Patti Bellock didn’t try to change my mother’s mind, but she did listen long enough to understand the fears that were driving her. While creating space to understand vaccines in a different framework, she tapped into my deeply conservative mother’s value of protecting innocent children against the dangers of the world.

Slowly, I noticed things that had been unquestionably off-limits were being approached with greater openness. That openness around small things snowballed into bigger changes in my life. For years, I had pleaded to go to school. One afternoon my mother asked seemingly out of nowhere, “How do you feel about going to school?” I started the next day as a seventh-grader, and did not stop until 20 years and a Ph.D. in psychology later. School made my world a lot bigger.

That openness around small things snowballed into bigger changes in my life.

When I sat to receive the first part of my Covid-19 vaccination, I unexpectedly found myself holding back tears. I thought about how improbable this moment would have seemed to my 11-year-old self. My beliefs about the world have changed so dramatically that it is hard to see my former self in them. But as I received this vaccine, I reflected on the core values driving my behavior and recognized the comforting familiarity in them.

Was I getting my vaccine because I trust science? Sure. Did I feel 100 percent certain about the long-term safety or efficacy of the vaccine? No. But certainty was beside the point. My personal discomfort is outweighed by the certainty of our current communal suffering: Children home from school are experiencing child abuse in silence; families are struggling to avoid homelessness; seniors are dying alone without their family to comfort them. To me, being pro-life demands that I weigh the inherent dignity and worth of every other human being as equal to my own. It means seeking creative but imperfect solutions for complex social issues that affirm everyone’s worth. It means that getting my Covid-19 vaccine in Phase 1 is a privilege and an obligation in service of these values.

When I say that I got my the Covid-19 vaccine because I am pro-life, that will surprise some people, because it is not a familiar framing of the educated elite for promoting vaccines. This framing may even cause discomfort. But I choose surprise on purpose. I know that if I respond exactly how people expect me to, everyone who agrees with me will applaud and everyone who does not will tune out. On the other hand, surprise captures attention.

I respond exactly how people expect me to, everyone who agrees with me will applaud and everyone who does not will tune out.

My plea that vaccine advocates emphasize the personal rather than the scientific is itself grounded in the science of learning and emotion. According to Inhibitory Learning Theory, previous learning is never erased; vaccine skeptics will not forget their concerns. However, people can form new associations that may override the old ones under the right conditions—specifically, when they experience surprise. New learning happens when your state representative is unexpectedly a vaccine advocate. It does not happen when someone seen as a prototypical “coastal elite” posts condescending things about “anti-vaxxers” or proclaims that they “trust science.”

We might also learn a few things from the science and philosophy behind Dialectical Behavior Therapy. DBT holds that two things that appear opposite can in fact both be true at the same time. A DBT therapist seeks to validate what is truly valid on each side of this dialectic. Vaccines are safe and they are not 100 percent free of potential adverse effects. I am a proud, liberal clinician-scientist, and yet I know what it is like to feel devalued by well-educated elites. When we experience chronic invalidation of our emotions or experiences, this triggers shame, which in turn leads to anger. This process elicits behavior from everyone that is ineffective; it leaves us stuck angrily repeating the same arguments, public shaming or staunchly refusing to consider the value in vaccines.

For my pro-vaccine friends, I challenge you to this experiment: The next time someone mentions their vaccine concerns, notice what is happening internally. Do you feel angry? Nervous? Have the urge to recite data on vaccines? End the conversation?

Individuals have their own stories and experiences that are not well-captured by scientific studies.

Your reactions likely make sense based on your own experience. At the same time, try doing the opposite. Act interested rather than disinterested. Listen rather than speak. Validate the kernel of truth in the other person’s experience instead of invalidating their conclusion. Choose humility rather than arrogance.

If you act opposite from what people expect, you will surprise them, and they might learn something. Equally important, you might learn something. Individuals have their own stories and experiences that are not well-captured by scientific studies and quantitative analysis.

What if we did not insist that everyone adhere to the same set of motivating values? Trusting science, wanting to feel safe, desire to engage in more normal activities, protecting your patients, being pro-life, showing patriotism—each of these are valid reasons to get vaccinated in a global pandemic.

If we listened more than we lectured, maybe we would find different reasons to arrive at the same behaviors that help us heal physically and emotionally. If you want to have an impact, why not try surprising people? I am immensely grateful for one elected official who did.

More stories from America:
-When it’s your turn, get the Covid-19 vaccine. It’s an act of love, charity and solidarity.
-Their community lost 13 members to Covid. These Felician sisters still found God in the pandemic.
-A Coronavirus Prayer

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