Love yourself and your life a little bit more and maybe we’ll get through this pandemic

November 4, 2021 5:14 am

Nurses draw vaccine doses from a vial as Maryland residents receive their second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at the Cameron Grove Community Center on March 25, 2021 in Bowie, Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

You don’t appreciate life until you’ve looked a dying man in the eyes and know that you get leave and he doesn’t.

But, that’s exactly the lesson I learned as a young, inexperienced hospital chaplain.

I remember one particular hard day in which it seemed as if death was around every corner. A motorcycle accident in the emergency room; a man in the ICU who was slipping away; and another older man who, as I remember, was dying from cancer. I remember those steely gray eyes staring at me. Despite my well intentioned gestures, I could offer him nothing as he approached the precipice of life and whatever is beyond. I slunk out of his room with an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

Those eyes still haunt me. And that night as I walked out of the hospital – on some ordinary and otherwise unremarkable night, it was a Tuesday, I think – I teared up that I was walking out of that place, going home to a dinner of leftovers, thankful that I could leave.

And so I have found myself thinking more and more about those moments in a different career and a different time. Until recently, I haven’t understood why those moments are suddenly looming larger, now – almost a quarter century later.

But I think they come back as I watch the headlines roll by. You know, those stories that say another five people have died because of COVID-19. I know what those moments in a hospital look like. I know the profound nature of the moment when a life passes – a reminder of how beautiful, fragile and uncertain life is.

It’s the same feeling I have had as a reporter covering car wrecks, fires and other natural disasters. Here were people not so unlike me who were going about their lives until something – a car accident or even disease – happened. For all the cynicism that many people associate with journalists and media, I have always thought of it differently: We tend to be deeply appreciative of life because we’ve witnessed how quickly it can change.

So as we look down the barrel of another year with the coronavirus and a pandemic in a state that has fallen far, far short of anything close to herd immunity, I am frustrated by the cavalier attitude toward vaccinations. Here is something that can literally stop death, and many instead choose to risk their own lives.

I am disappointed and disheartened by leaders who won’t exercise their authority to govern to do more to save lives. Wistfully, I wonder how they’ll explain their inaction – trying to explain that, of course, they could have intervened, but didn’t. It makes me wonder if they’ve ever heard the gurgle and gasp of someone struggling to draw breath. I wonder if they have seen the terror in the eyes of someone as they take that lonely journey to whatever lies ahead.

It’s not that some of these leaders who blather on about personal freedom and choice are pro-death. The opposite of being pro-life isn’t embracing death; it’s instead a callous indifference toward life. And I’d suggest that those who shun vaccines or steadfastly refuse masks aren’t rooting for death, they’ve just radically undervalued the gift, beauty and delicate nature of life.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has admonished people like me who have vociferously supported vaccination as engaging in virtue signaling; as if we’re trying to shame people into doing the right thing.

And yet just as much as his beliefs and religion may be driving his policies, so too are mine influencing the words I commit to paper (or, in this case, electrons). To me it boils down to the great commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself: Surely we love – or at least care – enough for our neighbors that we don’t want to pass along a disease that could kill them, right?

Maybe that’s the problem, though. Maybe the root issue here is not how much we love others vis-à-vis getting a vaccination; maybe it’s that we don’t love ourselves enough to value the life we’ve been given. And if we don’t place a little higher value on life, then loving your neighbor as yourself becomes nothing more than an exercise in indifference – you know, some people live, others die. The End.

What happens if the problem isn’t being suspicious of what chemicals are in the COVID-19 vaccine, or taking a political stance by asserting your God-given right not to comply with the government – two of the common refrains of anti-vaxxers? What happens if it’s a problem of not really caring about how amazing and brief this life can be?

If that’s the case, it’s a problem that can’t be cured with brand names like Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.

We really can’t expect our neighbors to save us or care about us when they won’t do the same for themselves.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.