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Jim McDermottJuly 30, 2021
Photo by Kobby Mendez on Unsplash

As Covid cases have started to rise again and the prospect of having to return to wearing masks or even more restrictions loom, I’ve found myself getting pretty angry. I hear it from others who have been vaccinated, too. For 16 months we suffered through the isolation and complexity of life in quarantine and finally, we got the shot and now are starting to get our lives back. The idea that the inaction or willful disregard of other Americans could threaten to drag us back into a place of confinement, danger and fear is incomprehensible.

The news that the Delta variant is far more infectious than previously understood, that it is more capable of breaking through current vaccine protections and may be more likely to cause severe illness—particularly among the unvaccinated—only increases that sense of outrage. 

What can we do with these entirely justifiable feelings of resentment? How are we to respond to others who are endangering both themselves and our society with their stubborn refusal to get a simple shot?

The idea that the inaction or willful disregard of other Americans could threaten to drag us back into a place of confinement, danger and fear is incomprehensible.

When choosing a course of action, the former Jesuit superior general Pedro Arrupe, S.J., liked to say: “Pray first, then decide.” With that in mind, here are a couple of spiritual practices you might try to help sort through those feelings of hostility and frustration in these trying days.

1. Let Your Anger Flow. O.K., yes, this is a paraphrase of a line from Emperor Palpatine, epitome of evil in the "Star Wars" saga. But it is also true that telling yourself you are not supposed to be angry, that good Catholics or good people shouldn’t get mad at others or resent a completely avoidable crisis is both wrong and a recipe for disaster. Emotions are like kittens in a shoebox. You might be able to convince them to sit still for a little while, but eventually they are going to escape. And the longer you have made them stay in there, the worse they are going to behave when they do.

We start from where we are. If you are furious about what is going on—furious with an unvaccinated family member, furious you have to wear a mask again or that you’ve never been able to stop, furious or frightened that people are putting your kids and the rest of us at risk, furious that you feel like we should all still be wearing masks and not everyone is—allow yourself into a holy space where you can just be with that anger. Let yourself feel what you are feeling, without judgment. Treat yourself with the respect and care that God has for all of us.

Emotions are like kittens in a shoebox. You might be able to convince them to sit still for a little while, but eventually they are going to escape.

It is completely appropriate to feel angry right now. And it is remarkable how much better you can sometimes feel, how much clearer in your own thinking when you just let those feelings inside you have a chance to speak and be heard. 

2. Try the Plus Sign (but not the Pass Sign). In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius asks the director and the retreatant to try to always put “a good interpretation” on one another’s statements.

In some Jesuit circles this is referred to as “Giving the Plus Sign.” Maybe that guy who just cut me off on the Eisenhower going 90 is having an emergency.Maybe the customer service agent is talking to me like this because they’re having a bad day. It’s not like we have not acted similarly at other times, right?

Of course, when it comes to the pandemic, those of us who are vaccinated may very legitimately feel that actually no, we have never been in a situation where we could do a very simple thing to make ourselves, our families and literally everyone else around us safer and then refused to do it. It’s fine to “Give the Plus Sign” to a bad driver; but giving a pass to legitimately dangerous behavior? No thank you.

Others insist Covid isn’t a real problem in the first place, which is really just fear in costume. As Moses said more than once to the Israelites in the desert, Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

But I like to think of this exercise as fundamentally not about the other person’s behavior but our own ongoing disposition toward the world around us. Rather than instinctively accepting our snap judgments as truth, we can take a beat to step back and try to see the situation and person before us a little more broadly. We want to see things as God does. We could even conceive of the exercise as just asking God to help us see with his eyes, to perceive others more clearly.

The fruit of that prayer will be different for each of us. Personally, one detail that keeps standing out for me is the fear embedded in many of the explanations given for not getting vaccinated. Some express concerns about being chipped or having side effects or being lab rats or being deported. Others insist Covid isn’t a real problem in the first place, which is really just fear in costume. As Moses said more than once to the Israelites in the desert, Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

Being aware of the fear in some or many non-vaccinated people does not mean that I’m not still angry with their decisions. But what I am finding is that it allows me to separate those choices from the person and to feel, alongside my outrage, some concern or compassion. After the last year and a half, I certainly know what it’s like to be afraid and to feel trapped. And even as I still would like to make everyone get vaccinated right this second, I also find myself praying for those still hesitant, that they might be able to hear the voice of the resurrected Jesus who invites them to come forth and not be afraid.

Even as I still would like to make everyone get vaccinated right this second, I also find myself praying for those still hesitant.

3. Practice the Serenity Prayer. James F. Keenan, S.J., at Boston College defines humility as “knowing my place in the universe.” It is the experience of staring up at a sky full of stars and realizing how small I am, or having a sudden medical crisis and discovering that no matter how solid my life seems to be, in fact, I could suddenly die tomorrow.

Our current problem may seem 100 percent solvable. If everyone would just get the shot, this would all be over. But the uncertainty of the last 16 months proves this is absolutely not solvable by any one of us. The fact that so much has reopened may be simulating the feeling of a return to our normal pre-pandemic lives, but in so many ways we are still largely out of control.

Facing that reality of our place in the bigger scheme of things can be frustrating or scary. But I sometimes find it can also be liberating.  Yes, I wish the unvaccinated would get their shots right now. It is so clearly essential. I also wish that we could also silence the right-wing pundits spooking people with their badly written “X-Files” plotlines. But I cannot make any of that happen. Fixating on those things is like revving my engine while in park. It helps no one and exhausts me. And I don’t have to do it.

In the Serenity Prayer we ask God to grant us “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Confronted with our frustrations and resentments, we might ask God to show us what it is that we can change or do right now and to help us let go of what we can’t. Maybe there are things we could be doing right now, ways of helping others, this situation or ourselves, just waiting to get our attention.

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