When I was a teenager, I didn’t realize that my epiphany was already a cliche: “Being a good friend means that you support someone when they’re having a hard time!”
Later, I thought it was sophisticated when a friend pointed out: “It’s obvious when someone’s crying that they need our support; but a good friend can laugh with you, too!” I updated my friendship ideology accordingly.
At the same time, being a Grown Up in our modern world was making clear something more mundane: a good friend can handle it when you disagree.
We all have to make our own mistakes, so the saying goes, and no friend can save us from all or even most of them. How many times have your friends done stupid things? If you’ve ever been my friend, I’m sure you have a list And there are so many other possibilities…
It’s amazing we can be friends with anyone! And that’s the miracle, isn’t it? That in this flawed world we still find each other, and experience sparkling, transcendent moments of laughter and camaraderie with fellow humans, while we try to maintain some semblance of community without screwing people over.
Good friends have at least several options for handling disagreements: We can gently share our opinions; we can argue our points; one or both parties can withdraw; one or both can tell white lies. We can laugh or cry together, or both, or just be quiet. We can listen carefully to each other, and perhaps one of us - very, very occasionally - will change her mind.
Sometimes friends appreciate a reality check; sometimes one has to “set boundaries” and “put on the oxygen mask first” and step back from the friendship for a time; sometimes friends consciously choose to skip over some conversation topics and focus on others. The main thing, I think, is that good friends respect each other, and don’t let disagreements cancel that respect.
Sometimes friends hurt my feelings with their choices, or do exactly the opposite of my advice, or they make a choice that I think is not in their or other peoples’ best interests, or are annoying and rude. Those hurt feelings are something I am trying to own, since I’m just as likely to cause similar grief in someone else’s direction.
I do think it is ALL harder than it sounds, because it’s freaking difficult to watch somebody you love make bad choices! Being a good friend is hard, perhaps in exactly the same ways that being a good citizen - a conscientious member of society - is.
For my entire adult life, I have counted myself lucky to know a large number of people who, despite geography and decades apart, I would describe as Very Good Friends. And I have always respected my friends highly, because anyone worthy of friendship has wisdom to share.
And then came covid. I hadn’t been following current events in politics on a regular basis, and for a decade I hadn’t scanned headlines at all. Once I started, it was hard to look away from the lies, deception, and greed being perpetrated by those in power.
And see, here’s where maybe you and I disagree. Here’s where maybe you say, I’m getting really different information than you are, I think your sources are making things up, I think masks and vaccines are important, and I’m tired of talking about covid, so can you please stop now?
At this point, I completely respect that you’re making different choices than I am, and while I might not agree with these, you are certainly entitled to make your choices without thinking or talking about them anymore.
But making your own choices is very different from supporting (actively or passively) mandates that force others to do what you want. So I get to keep talking, since mandates directly affect me, and they are actually the focus of this article.
When mandates suddenly began descending, and authorities demanded that we stay away from other people and cover our faces in public and inject ourselves and now our kids with experimental vaccines, maybe you went along with these orders, since you had already decided to do those things anyway. There are also many, many unique situations and circumstances that caused each of us to make the choices we made concerning covid, and it’s likely that your rationale for your choices is unique as well. But mandates themselves are fundamentally AGAINST choice and disallow for any unique circumstances, which is again my point here.
If you are one of those people who felt upset, offended, or threatened by my opinions and actions over the past several years, I imagine that you have already stopped reading. But if you are still there, I want to take a moment to appreciate you. I am taking my time in writing this, trying to remove all knee-jerk generalizations and anger, and explain myself as clearly as possible, in case there is hope for our relationship.
I am now going to ask you to take a deep breath, set aside all the hurt and anger that you may have been pointing in my general direction (or elsewhere), and imagine, for a minute, that you were in the shoes of any of those “unvaxxers” and “anti-maskers” vilified for years now by politicians and the press. I am going to assume that you feel that adults should retain bodily autonomy and medical choice in a free society, and that parents and guardians should be able to make medical decisions for children in their care, especially in the context of medical procedures that carry risk (i.e. all of them).
Now, please further imagine that in the course of making your choices (remember, choices that may be the opposite of ones you have actually made, for countless possible reasons), you came up with some very good reasons for your family NOT to wear masks and/or get vaccinated, and that because of this, your children were disallowed from school in your home state, you lost your job, your spouse was disinvited from her mother’s funeral, and the entire family could no longer enter the public library - all based on the choices that have suddenly become your Medical Status.
Thank you. Now, I’ll breathe deeply too, and you can go back to considering your original support, over the past 2+ years, for various forms of medical mandates, if you did support these by action or inaction.
If you can acknowledge the impact of mandates on the lives of others, you can possibly see that support for mask and vaccine and other covid restrictions is NOT simply a difference of opinion, but either implicit or explicit medical coercion. Maybe vaccines and masks prevented a Covid death or several million. Maybe they didn’t. These topics will be hotly debated for decades to come. But in this case, I am urging you to consider whether you feel qualified and entitled to tell anyone else what medical decisions they must make. And if you don’t feel qualified, is there anyone who is? What did they do to earn your trust? Because they almost certainly haven’t earned mine. Bodily autonomy is a basic human right.
“But Sara, vaccines and/or masks WORK!” I can hear the howls of outrage ringing already. “Or in any case, they might. How do _you_ know that _your_ choices are right?!”
But here again: the content and evidence for and against mask and vaccine and lockdown efficacy are separate debates. And the fact that covid is an infectious disease does not somehow justify medical mandates and coercion. The difference between my choices and yours is that I am not trying to force you to do what I think is right.
Because here’s another thing: it is almost certain that I disagree with aspects of your medical decisions. There are infectious and non-infectious diseases all around us, and what we do or don’t do affects our outcomes AND everyone nearby. What we eat affects our immune systems, and affects our emotional resilience. How each of us lives, and which roll of the genetic and economic and Other dice we roll, combine into one crazy enormous variable. It is simply not possible for any human to conclusively determine what the best course of action is for any other individual, let alone entire societies of them, _even though_ our choices impact other people. The Trolley Problem can only scratch the surface of beginning to describe the complexity. The best public health systems in the world do not operate under mandates, and even the best public health systems are flawed. Here in the USA, we don’t have a public health system, and no amount of mandates will fix that.
So when I look at the insane situation around us, “disturbing” barely sums it up. But the saddest part has been the emails and phone calls from friends: Your Ideas are Dangerous. YOU are Dangerous! I Don’t Agree With You, and your beliefs are rude and divisive. I Support Mandates That Restrict Your Movement, Your Social Standing, Your Ability To Earn a Living. If everybody took good care of themselves like you and your family do, it would be different. I know that Diet And Lifestyle is important, but this is a Pandemic! It is the Most Important Thing. Regrettably, as it stands, We must Follow The Rules. We must force People - those deemed responsible for this emergency - to make the choices We want, and We must Make Sure that those who don’t follow the rules really wish they had…
As call after email after discussion has occurred, I have noticed some disturbing patterns emerging. Charles Eisenstein describes these thusly:
“In mob dynamics one might distinguish five roles. First there are the instigators, loudly pointing at the victim, egging on the rest of the crowd, and defining who shall be the sacrificial victim. Second are the enthusiastic accomplices, who happily act on the instigators’ accusations. Third, there are the people who just go along with it, assuming that what everyone seems to be doing must be right. Fourth are those who are skeptical, but seeing that no one speaks up think that either they themselves are mistaken, or that it is futile or dangerous to do anything. Fifth are those who do speak up or otherwise oppose the will of the mob. If they are few, they become the next victims, confirming the fears of the fourth group.
“This is the social pattern that fascists and despots ride to power. It can be broken only when enough people are brave enough to defy the mob.”
I lost more than half of my social circle this year, and my kids and I were ghosted and gaslit by many others. And we are “lucky.” Tens of thousands of others who made choices just like mine, for possibly similar or possibly completely different reasons, remain on “unpaid involuntary leave” at this moment due to vax mandates alone. Students and young people are facing more medical mandates than ever. And over and over and over, many people parroted dehumanizing and untrue things about “the unvaxxed,” current lepers of society: “these people” are themselves a new epidemic, are the cause of prolonged lockdowns, and most ubiquitous: that vaccines prevent infection and transmission of covid, and are the primary responsibilities of an individual in order to “keep people safe.”
I could fill a book with the many, many reasons I disagreed with and made different choices than those demanded by Powers That Be - and possibly you, dear reader.
But even if you chose to be vaccinated and masked and/or socially distanced, that is not necessarily a problem for your and my friendship, and in fact I have many remaining friends who are or have done all three of those things. I don’t think these are generally good choices for all. I still respect people who have made those choices, however, because it is absolutely their right to make decisions concerning their and their family’s health, and I can’t conclusively know what is right for anybody else anyway.
So I’m not here to debate the relative validity of my decisions versus those of many of my friends’. I’m concerned with the ways in which such disagreements - amplified a billion-fold around the world - became weaponized by political forces that I do not fully understand, to cause so many people - including some of my dear friends - to scapegoat, ostracize, exclude, and worse.
The sheer monstrosity of anger and fear and certainty of virtue exhibited by those literally forcing others to receive shots in order to continue to earn money to feed their families, work toward degrees, socialize and recreate in their communities, or see their grandchildren before they die…is overwhelming to me.
I absolutely think we each have a responsibility to treat others well. I just can’t think of a circumstance that can justify medical mandates.
How come so many people decided their beliefs were so justified that they could skip the part about other people being people too? How come so many stopped being good friends in such seemingly record-setting numbers? This has been the first time in my life when I watched many people behave in ways I had only read about in scary history books, or descriptions of totalitarian governments in Other Places. (In case you’re wondering, the answer is no: I’ve never come even close to losing half my friends in any year prior to covid.)
I am aware that many will say It’s over now, and we should let bygones be bygones, stop discussing these Little Things all the time, and “go back to normal.” And once again, this leaves me perplexed: how can the socially ostracized and jobless go back to normal? What will prevent a mess like this from happening again? How will we even get out of the mess we’re in? In the context of friendship, vaccine and mask mandates and lockdown measures - which made so many people’s choices more or less criminal - take “agree to disagree” to an entirely nonexistent level. I will certainly continue to attempt to treat all persons with basic civility, but without an individual’s - possibly even your - acknowledgement of the impact and incredibly dangerous nature of medical mandates themselves, my trust in those - possibly even you - who supported these mandates, voted for political candidates who support these mandates, and enforced similar mandates in smaller organizations, is hugely eroded. I suddenly learned who would stand up for me, as a friend and a fellow citizen of a would-be democracy…and who wouldn’t. Didn’t. In some cases, still won’t.
While totalitarianism certainly wasn’t invented last year, neither can it be excused by pointing out other flawed mandates that exist now and at other points in history. The more I learn, the more my faith in political systems also erodes, along with any respect I used to have for pretty much every institution there is.
It turns out that trust isn’t something that is easy to add back into society - or at least, not in my personal experience. Most of my realizations over the past two years have not landed me in some amazingly fabulous community of like-minded believers, but rather in a destabilized and demoralized place. A lonely one, too.
“Often I receive the following criticism: ‘Charles, you are overlooking the real cause of all our problems. A psychopathic Satanic elite controls everything from behind the scenes. Until we expose them and tear them down, we will never be free.’
“What I have to say here is equally relevant whether or not this criticism is true. Either way, we have to ask what makes us vulnerable to their abuse? After all, they do not possess superpowers. If they indeed rule us, it is not because they can leap tall buildings in a single bound. They rule through our acquiescence. If they do not rule us, if the source of our oppression is systems and institutions, well, they too rule through our acquiescence. Either way, the question before us is how to become incorrigible.”
It turns out that despite my bitterness and cynicism at the moment, I am actually an incorrigible optimist: I KNOW that there are brighter, more beautiful, and all-around better paths we humans might choose. I like to brainstorm and commence action steps in that general direction. I do not want to become bitter and old when I’m merely middle aged. I want to be part of the revolution!
But last month, I had officially lost touch with optimism. I felt like the embodiment of a seething, boiling-over pot of anger and loneliness, which was possibly feeding my possibly obsessive online research, which in turn uncovered fact after sordid fact after sordid story concerning the lies we have been fed and continue to be fed about the covid response and a lot of other things, too. This doomscrolling coping strategy was not helping my mental health only 100% of the time. Which finally led me to implement a digital detox as a way to break the cycle and investigate next steps.
At first, I committed to not using my phone at all, apart from as a phone and a camera. No checking email except for important action items as identified by my trusty and uninterested teenage helper (who was definitely not obsessed with scanning Substack headlines). I moved my to do lists to paper, wrote down snail mail addresses, and wrote letters in a notebook.
For the first week I had massive withdrawal. Literally, a constant urge to check my phone at every waking moment. I could feel the sensation of my home button in every digit of my right hand.
On day four, I noticed some breaths of peace. Some moments of stillness. Some giant rushes of sadness. And a lot of thinking without concurrently researching to keep myself up to date on absolutely every bit of late breaking awfulness.
Several weeks in, I am starting to see the point of things again. I’m texting and looking some things up, but I’m not scanning headlines. I’m trying to understand what the future holds, with the perspective that none of the covid response is new, exactly, nor are the human behaviors that I have found so disappointing of late. It is only new for me, and only because I had the sudden and personally shocking realization that people I thought I knew could follow diktats so obediently, could do what they were told to the point of supporting laws and rules and regulations that would exclude… Me. Who had been, until that point, their friend.
Mostly I wish I could cry like a child, not sit here and Think like a numb and dry-eyed grown-up.
Also I have a lot of questions: How do I go forward with all this in mind? What terrible things might I accidentally be drawn into, if a mob drew _me_ in? Could I really _get_ drawn in, like the many people in whom I am lately so profoundly disappointed?
What do I value in friendships going forward? Will I ever be able to cry again? Is it justified for me to disconnect if somebody I love has done something I believe to be fundamentally wrong? Is “justification“ even relevant in matters of the heart?
How did those who opposed slavery deal with the fact that all around them were people who directly or indirectly supported the status quo? How about those who opposed the Nazis, and totalitarian regimes around the world? In the early stages, totalitarian restrictions often focus on so-called infectious disease prevention very similar to covid lockdowns ( https://lifeisapalindrome.substack.com/p/who-will-stand-up-for-you ). Especially in the uncomfortable years or decades before the incriminating evidence of wrongdoing becomes overwhelming, it can be so difficult, lonely, and dangerous to speak up.
After friends and family members supported vaccine mandates, or told me off in any number of ways, in many cases with the postscript that they don’t respect my beliefs or find them dangerous or dogmatic or stupid, and/or they automatically associate me with extremist groups they’ve heard of (and by the way, no more time to personally research, and now I’m Done Talking and Writing To You), I find that my desire to be with them is gone. They certainly seem done with me. It seems possible that this could change, and perhaps they will change, or I will. But my desire to maintain these friendships is mostly gone too. This does not mean I hate the people involved, nor do I think they are stupid or ignorant or unqualified at their jobs. In many cases, I miss them very much. But it means that I no longer respect them in a very fundamental way. And I’m not sure what comes next.
To recognize that “belief in science” is nothing more than a sort of fanaticism, and that most science is itself manipulated by organizations with much more at stake than pure pursuit of knowledge, reminds me over and over that I may be forever unable to find an intellectual way out of this mess. And developing a spiritual grounding to guide my own way forward seems like the job of a lifetime, forget about what might be needed to contribute toward the spiritual grounding of a society.
Maybe cycles of Progress coupled with Blazing Into Cultural Fragmentation (and even sometimes annihilation) have been part of human civilizations since as long as there have been human societies recorded. Certainly the scale is bigger now than ever before, and potentially so are the casualties. And maybe pre-agriculture, or pre-certain-technologies, or pre-recorded history, things were different. It’s hard to imagine why and how they would be, because I am stuck in Now. Maybe things were so much less crowded and therefore simpler? Maybe organisms that can create such an incredibly complicated paradigm are capable of many other paradigms, just not…when the current paradigm is global in nature? I dunno. This is where my head starts feeling stuffed with cotton.
I do think it would be great if there were gentler and more amiable Seekers of Truth out there to help dig up and disseminate the mountains of existing and emerging evidence concerning exactly how badly our governments and corporate unelected officials and tech/media misled us with the Covid Response, and why. Many of the folks sharing important counter narrative information are also increasingly angry - as I too become when I read ever more horrendous news items on the topic of deception, fraud, and obscene profits at the expense of Everyone and Everything else. And this anger could certainly be off-putting for someone just beginning to dip their toes into Not The Narrative…
I also see that the binary Us vs. Them blame game exists on “both sides”, and I do not want to generalize and scapegoat “the vaxxed” any more than I appreciate being labeled “the unvaxxed.” Life is way too short, and health is WAY too complicated, for such infighting!
Also, however, this mom is generally focused on feeding a lot of hungry persons three times daily, and is not, therefore, prepared to be that gentle, careful, extremely thorough counter-narrative current-events blogger. The need to focus on my actual circles of influence in the world is why I am currently taking a break from the news.
How can I join the revolution? What are some Right Things to do during this time??
I am open. This has been a prayer of mine lately, because after I took the doomscrolling away, I remembered how much energy and enthusiasm I have for life! I want to contribute small things with great love to my family, our communities, what remains of A Broader Society. Researching, sharing information, and maintaining individual and collective health through real local food and farming, healthy housing, and Good Work are my general focuses in life. Making music and other art with people is something I can facilitate, and surely this can help heal?
I am trying not to ask for too much from myself - or others. It was sad and angering and scary to lose so much respect for so many people in such a short time - and to lose so many close friends. Currently I aim to surround myself with those I can trust while slowly discovering ways I can be with people even when I don’t trust them, or don’t know if I do. This latter endeavor is not something our society encourages very often or very well, so I am further committed to helping my children build strong communities and relationships while maintaining an equally strong sense of compassion and morality.
None of this is easy for me! There are few guidebooks and tour guides. I would love to hear your experiences! I do not know what the future holds. I am open.