Lately I have been thinking about choice, not in the reproductive rights sense — but choice amid the constraints and restrictions of COVID. Choice at a time when so many options and activities seem to have been stripped away. Choice at a time of dangerous division.
“Across the country, anti-vaccine and anti-mask demonstrations are taking scary and violent turns,” reads an Associated Press article from August 22. Anger has become the predominant emotion about COVID, and politics determines how you react or respond.
I feel increasingly at odds with people who brush off this persistent virus as they would a bout with the flu. How many more deaths do we need as evidence? Why can’t my fellow Americans heed the science and then fall in line?
That assumes we’re all watching / hearing / reading / scrolling the same news sources, as we did when I was a kid. Walter Cronkite broke the news of a president’s assassination in 1963. WCCO-AM, the “Good Neighbor” station, was where the Twin Cities turned for weather reports and winter school closings.
Nowadays, “people will choose what’s best for them as they define it,” said a recent report about nudge theory on the BBC. But people also “are followers when faced with complex choices. They may need a nudge.”
Paint a white line on a subway platform and riders are more likely to stay away from the tracks, the BBC said. Use a cowboy for a “mask up” sign outside a restaurant in Wyoming, and patrons may be more apt to protect themselves, according to an NPR “Planet Money” report in July about the recently revised edition of Nudge, a behavioral science book that has gained wide appeal in business and government since its first publication in 2008.
How do you nudge me to wear a mask if I’m not a horse-riding cowboy? My employer, a private university, has made it easy. As of August 23, before all the students arrive on campus, everyone — of whatever political persuasion or vaccination status — will wear a mask indoors.
That’s not a nudge, it’s an order. My employer has removed all ambiguity, taken away any choice about how I protect myself and others in the face of a vital public health risk. And I am grateful for that.
Since the only power I have is over my own actions — to “control what I can control,” in the words of a former manager — I am locating where I have choice. Rather than feel victimized in the face of what I consider the absurdity and short-sightedness of refusing to get vaccinated and wear a mask, instead I am choosing to protect myself every way I can.
I am making choices that, at age 64, I deem safest for my own health and that of my 70-year-old husband — and our grown sons, one of whom recently endured a nasty case of breakthrough COVID four months after getting the Pfizer vaccine.
Consider these scenarios and how you might have confronted or ignored them:
- A man on a city bus was wearing his mask along his chin line. He was Black. I am white. I didn’t want to come off as too . . . instructive or know-it-all or condescending or proprietary. After a moment of contemplation, health won out. I leaned forward and asked him — politely — please to cover his nose and mouth.
- One of the four students who reports to me at work is a political conservative from an anti-vaxxer family. HIPPA laws forbid me from asking students to disclose health information. So, I wrote my four student workers earlier in August, described my own vaccination history and said this: You have the choice not to disclose your vaccination status. I have the choice to protect my health. If you choose not to disclose, or if you seek a university exemption for the vaccine, we will hold our meetings over Zoom.”
- Two electricians entered my kitchen the other morning and introduced themselves. Neither had on a mask. I asked if they were vaccinated, as our general contractor for this remodeling project had promised all subcontractors would be. The electricians, two young white men, said they were not. Trying not to display my disdain too overtly (their job entails entering people’s homes!), I told them they would have to mask up inside our house. Then I strapped on a mask, too, in solidarity.
I saved the best for last. Because this example involved not confrontation or silent condemnation or self-righteous judgment, or any of those aggressive traits I have tried to moderate with age. This exchange centered on curiosity.
I met a sometime friend, a woman I had not seen since before COVID, for a cup of coffee and a walk this past Sunday. She got out of the car unmasked and seemed to hesitate about wearing one. Keeping my voice neutral, I asked if she was vaccinated. And then instead of recoiling or sneering when she said no, I simply asked a question.
So, Becky, how do you feel about vaccines? The specifics of her answer are less important than the conversation that ensued, the give-and-take, the attempt at, if not agreement, then mutual understanding.
I thought of my talk with Becky later that afternoon as I was listening to a podcast by New York Times reporter Ezra Klein.
He was interviewing journalist Anna Sale, whose book, Let’s Talk About Hard Things, is drawn from her podcast “Death, Sex & Money.” (You know, the hardest things.) She talks with people about touchy topics by listening with intention, asking open-ended questions, demonstrating how curiosity can lead us away from the divisiveness that currently derails any attempt at discourse in our society.
“When you commit to having that [hard] conversation with a spirit of: ‘I want to learn more. Help me understand. Tell me what that was like for you. That’s interesting, I wouldn’t respond that way,’ then you come away seeing that other person in a deeper way,” said Sale, “and also feeling seen.”
I can change how I respond to people who see the COVID threat differently than I do. I can stay away from them. I can mask up and limit my exposure. I can try to learn more about their fears and their beliefs.
The day I pulled out of a three-hour shift at my employer’s booth inside the Education Building at the Minnesota State Fair, where no masks or proof of vaccination were being required, I told a friend, “I’m feeling like a COVID crab.”
Then I recognized a more empowering, self-affirming reality: No, I am exercising choice in the face of the most challenging public health crisis of my lifetime.