January 29, 2022
As a deep feeler and thinker, coming up on two full years of living in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted by this pandemic. And I’m one of the super-lucky ones. I’m not a health care worker, I’m not a restaurant owner, I’m not a parent with young children in the school system.
I've been in “put my head down and survive” mode with this pandemic. I haven’t felt like I’ve had much of a choice. And it also felt to me, like the right thing to do. Go along to get along. Trust the experts. I can do that, I want to be a good citizen, a good neighbor.
The grief, worry, and mental burden I have been carrying in my bones and body reached what felt like a breaking point this month. As Quebec ratcheted up restrictions, locking us up, again, in our homes under a curfew, closing businesses, again, restricting freedom of movement and livelihood, further, I emotionally tanked. I felt myself going dead inside. How much longer will this go on?
I am not going to detail all the pandemic mandates and government emergency measures where I live, but Quebec has been the most pandemic-restrictive jurisdiction in all of North America.
I believe context is super important in putting out any paradigm, viewpoint, or argument. Here’s my context, as related to Covid.
No one in my personal circle of contacts have died from Covid. No family of friends have died. No one, that I know, is affected by long-haul Covid. If I follow the chain of personal connections out far enough I can find people who have experienced detrimental physical health affects from Covid, but they are degrees of separation removed from me. I don’t have any close friends or close family in the health care sector reporting back to me on the conditions there.
Friends and family of mine (the people I personally know and trust) all across the country have had Covid, none that I know of, have been hospitalized. My elderly grandfather escaped physically unscathed. No one in my own household has tested positive for Covid.
My privilege and luck in all this is apparent. And I’m willing to entertain and even concede that many of the government mandates and measures implemented thus far have contributed to this. At what cost is my question? And I will get into that later.
But what this also points out is that I have had to trust what the media and the government has told me is true about this pandemic and this virus. This will not be a conversation on the trust-worthiness of the information we have received from the state and media during this pandemic. I can make my argument without it. My point is simply this: I don’t have direct experience with Covid except in the ways that our government mandated response to it both simultaneously protected us and completely disrupted society.
I will say this about trusting the government and media narrative, and the widening gap of their credibility.
I have close family and friends who are not vaccinated for Covid-19. I haven’t agreed with everyone’s reasons for their particular vaccination stance, some reasons are flat out wacky and unbelievable to me. But mostly what I have seen in my family and friends is honest, thought-out reasoning for their own circumstances, doing what they think is best for their bodies, based on their context and what they know and trust.
My intelligent and community-minded family and friends who have chosen to not be vaccinated are not what the media portrays this population to be. I’m not going to “out” anyone here on this blog who isn’t vaccinated. But I will say they are the inner circle of my life and I trust them my heart and my health, safety and security. They’ve got my back like no one else on this planet does. (You can make your own guesses to the identity of these people.)
To be clear: I do not trust the government or any of its systems or bureaucracies with my heart, life, health, safety or long-term security. I lean on them when needed and even depend on the civil society that good government supports, but I trust my people over the government, hands down.
I have held space for lifestyle choices different from my own, from the very beginning of this pandemic, even if I don’t agree with the choice. (By the way, I work hard to hold space for all non-oppressive and non-exploitative choices.)
These people who have chosen to not be vaccinated, these are my people and I know them. They are not monsters. They are intelligent and conscientious. They are neighbourly and kind. I have not believed the rhetoric about those “anti-vaxxers” for this reason.
The credibility of my personal story and context is not in its objectivity or its applicability to all people and places. Human experience isn’t like that. The credibility of personal story is in the truthfulness of the telling of the lived reality for the actual human involved. This is my reality. (Bias reveal: social reality is a construction.)
Most of us don’t have to imagine very hard the frustration experienced when other people cast aspersions on our experiences and the conclusions we draw from them.
People believe in certain truths based on their individual experience. I am that people. You are that people.
I think we would do well to keep that in mind as we encounter people with different views of the world, which includes perspectives on things like vaccinations, for example.
It takes real effort of will to allow myself to publish my growing and current thoughts on the pandemic because I value rationality and objectivity but as soon as you say “we have to look at more than just hospital numbers” or “the dangers of Covid to society need to include the whole society” you’re liable to be labeled uncharitable, at best, a conspiracy theorist, at worst. And canceled if you’re a public persona. Secondly, I recognize how incredibly hard it is to govern and make policy during crisis and I don’t have alternatives that would solve the health care crisis this pandemic has wrought and amplified. Thirdly, I consciously choose to orient myself towards hearing multiple perspectives and I always want to make room for that in my mind and conversations, which naturally tempers the stridency of my own voice, as it mostly should. (But damn that sure makes it hard to raise your voice when it feels necessary.) And lastly (for now), I recognize that my personal opinions, experiences, and theories will not be guiding factors of public policy and so it’s kind of like, why bother?
But the mental gymnastics that I have gone through this month as I try to sort through the discourse of this pandemic (and ask myself what’s true here? what’s just spin?), the grief I feel as I enter the third year (!) of watching so many things I love and value (including my young adult children’s mental health) sift like sand through my fingers, and the flat out frustration and anger with being treated like a child who can be talked down to and coerced into behavior (by the way, you shouldn’t treat your actual children this way either), all of that has pushed me to the edge to articulate my beliefs.
To stick my head up out of the fox hole, to risk all that can entail in the toxicity of our societal discourse. This alone, the toxicity of our culture, washes me afresh in sadness and angst.
Writing this post demands a mental rigour that I am barely, if at all, equal to the task of attempting. It lays out my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and also my dreams for the kind of society I want to live in. This is both a deeply personal and intellectual undertaking.
I will proceed nonetheless. For me, this is courage.
Before I get into my thoughts on the pandemic specifically and how it’s affecting my heart and mind (all the personal stuff), I need to establish for you my framework for a good society. Because for me, the heart of the issue, is our definition of a good society. If this one is causing us so much collective pain (where do we even start?), what should be done differently?
I’ve been thinking about this for so many years already. And how I try to life my life has been an attempt at answering this question. Experimenting with my own life to find solutions.
I believe that the natural human inclination is orientated towards goodwill to one another, but generally not at the expense of one’s own well-being. There are exceptions, we make sacrifices for offspring and other close kin. And of course our spiritual saints and gurus provide super-human, or one could say super-natural, examples of possibilities. But mostly, we want what’s good for other people but not if our own well-being, or those of our closest relations, feels threatened.
I also believe that our natural goodwill for others can be undermined, hijacked, and sabotaged by many things. Examples of this happening abound in history and in the present, and unfortunately sometimes these examples dominate our perceptions of what it means to be human.
A good society builds tools, resources, and ways of relating that don’t impede the functioning of human’s natural goodwill for one another and our collective well-being. Our very cells know that our own well-being is intimately connected to the well-being of the collective. So of course we want to protect the group. But we have to be honest and recognize our human limitations that if our personal well-being feels threatened, we extend less goodwill to others. To overcome this impulse takes discipline, spiritual or otherwise. (Most of the discipline we see is of the otherwise variety.)
I argue that good government seeks to create an atmosphere and conditions where our natural goodwill to one another can flourish.
I choose to 1. believe that other people are inclined to my well-being and 2. recognize the limits of that inclination and the things that undermine that inclination (fear, deprivation, alienation, etc…).
The common good needs to be our individual and collective aim. I actually think we’re wired for it, but most of our structures and systems undermine this inherent drive in spite of often espousing collective aims. The means by which this undermining takes place is through the diminishment of the individual’s sense of autonomy, responsibility, and relationality. This is done by those in power sometimes purposefully for nefarious aims, sometimes purposefully for so-called beneficent aims, and sometimes this diminishment is simply as casualty of bureaucratization.
A good society supports the conditions of people’s individual flourishing by both expecting, and providing tools for, individuals to maximally contribute to the common good. The common good is dependant upon individual flourishing and the nurturing and support of people’s natural desire for connection and capacity to care.
The undermining of our natural capacities for connection and care come at a great cost to our common good.
The only ways you can subvert people’s drive for personal autonomy, responsibility, and relationality is with an alternative narrative that everyone believes, which can be achieved through propaganda, religion/shared narrative, and/or force. Whatever means are used, there will never be full buy-in. You cannot suppress the fundamental human drive for freedom, nor wrangle all the outliers of human experience into one story. Therefore, what a good society needs to do is channel all that potential into building common good through individual flourishing and development.
You’ve probably noticed by now that we don’t live in this dream society of mine.
What we have instead are blunt tools of coercion and reward, all the way back to how we raise and educate children. (You know I’d have to bring education and family life into this.)
Western society ideologies and structures are skewed to individualism over collectivism at the detriment of actual individual freedom and flourishing, which is both the pre-requisite of true collective flourishing and must be supported by collective agreement. This is not a zero sum game of individuals vs. the collective. This is a dance.
So now, after building and making explicit my spiritual and political framework I’m going to return to the situation at hand.
I’ve been compliant with pandemic rules for two years - vaccinations, masks, all the rest. I chose to trust the general (and evolving) scientific consensus because I actually do think that trying to make decisions based on scientific evidence is a reasonable response to a global health crisis. I recognize there is always outlying evidence and personal experience to the contrary. Is Western scientific evidence the best way to make decisions about all things? Nope. But in medicine and public health it’s definitely one of the tools we need to use.
For a long time I’ve been happy to both comply and signal to others, with my mask and other actions, that I cared about their health and would protect them by curtailing my own freedom and preferences, especially considering that we were still trying to figure out what we were dealing with. And by happy I mean I get a sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment in caring for other people, and having them know I care. Caring for people is one of my fundamental values.
I am increasingly feeling like the well-being for myself and my family, and millions of other people, is of decidedly lesser importance to policy makers than hospitalization counts and narrative management. It’s getting hard to trust that my well-being matters in the big picture. (And truly, my personal well-being does not directly matter to the state, but the collective of people’s well-being certainly should.) It feels like narratives are being spun not just for pandemic management (get everyone on board regardless of the fine print and everything we don’t know) but also for political aims like re-election. It’s disgusting to me.
Where I live, it is the government that funds and is responsible for delivering “health”care. Universal health care is also one of my personal values, as it is for many Canadians. After decades of underfunding, the functioning of that system is tenuous (and borderline crisis) at the best of times. Even before the pandemic our health care system was strained, and I have direct and immediate experience with this.
During the pandemic, the common good has been calculated according to a specific clutch of metrics: deaths, hospitalizations, Covid-related affects to acute care in hospitals, and Covid-related health affects to individuals. Without even opening the can of worms labeled “what do those numbers actually represent?”, we can see that these metrics are attached to something of great import for humans but not the sum total, nor even close to the sum total, of what constitutes a good life for a whole population.
Do these numbers matter? Absolutely. Do they matter to the exclusion of all else? Absolutely not.
The human condition includes illness and disease. And our ultimate individual fate is 100% death. We are never going to escape those odds, technocrat utopian metaverse visions aside.
Do we need to take care of the sick and vulnerable? Absolutely. Should we alienate, vilify, and coerce people who don’t want to personally be vaccinated as their contribution to the common care and good? Just take a guess at my answer. (Please remember, I believe that people, vaccine-free included, are naturally orientated to the common good and choose to participate in the common good according to their own sense of autonomy, responsibility and relationality within the collective.)
More questions: What threshold of disease in the population is acceptable to us? What lengths are we willing to go to as a population to mitigate and stave off the inevitable (death)? Who is most affected by this or other diseases and illness and how can we mitigate those vulnerabilities before we reach a societal health crisis? What does a well funded universal health care system look like and what has prevented us, one the wealthiest nations on earth, from building that? And, who gets to make those decisions? Does anyone or anything stand to gain by disease-management and increased medicalization of a population (or perhaps forced vaccinations)? If yes, shouldn’t we interrogate that a little?
The questions abound.
To anchor this discussion in actual law and not just political theory, philosophy, and spirituality, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Are lockdowns and vaccine mandates reasonable limits given the health impacts (both known and unknown) of Covid-19 on the whole of the population? And have these limits to our rights been justifiably demonstrated by the government?
I believe the answer is no to both of these.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an attempt to protect, by law, the individual autonomy portion of the societal contract whereby the collective protects the rights of the individuals because as I’ve laid down above, flourishing individuals create a flourishing collective.
This is a foundation of liberal democracy.
We cannot run a society on “we must save lives at all costs”. Or “we must keep up the narrative at all costs.” Or “we must protect hospitals, or schools (or any other needed, valuable institution) at all costs”. At all costs sounds a bit like totalitarian rule to me. So to does, “your personal liberties must be subservient to emergency measures for an unlimited period of time while we sacrifice fundamental human ways of being (gathering, worshiping, etc.) in order to prop up a failing health system.”
This is all starting to smell bad.
I do not measure the common good by the GDP. I do not measure it by how many people are in the hospital, or have a viral disease. Or even how many people are dying from said disease.
The measure of the common good is bound up in this shared flourishing between the individual and collective, and the mutuality, reciprocity and sense of goodwill between the two. When this breaks down there is no common good.
I understand that we want a system that’s going to mitigate affects of disease, and works to avoid death. We expect a lot from our health care system. This is especially true in our post-religious society that has lost a shared narrative of meaning. We’re desperate for a non-spiritual ticket out of mortality, and all that entails. (Enter technocratic metaverse here.)
I don’t blame us, we’re human. We’re trying to solve problems and we create systems to do so. But our modern systems, often operating as silos (education here, health care here, etc…) aren’t very good at accounting for a holistic sense of human well-being that needs to be nested within a holistic collective. Our systems are not communities of care and connection. They try to replicate care and connection, to varying degrees of success, and I’m grateful they exist especially where particular expertise is required. But unfortunately right now, the system (in the large governmental and media sense) appears to be doing it’s darndest to prevent communities of true care and connection from rising to the task.
I get it. I get it. The system is scrambling in the name of risk management and loss mitigation (this is a generous reading of the situation), but human need and experience is way broader than that.
The systems, structures, and bureaucracies that manage our lives cannot provide the intangible things we need. And right now the limits around their functioning are actually preventing these needs being met, in the attempt to solve a crisis.
We’ve created a nightmare.
I feel de-humanized by this pandemic. I have long considered how people become radicalized towards collective-threatening actions. I have thought about the conditions that breed those behaviors.
Disenfranchisement of your voice, alienation, loss of livelihood, “othering”… these things radicalize people. They turn people against each other out of fear and sense of loss. What this pandemic and our government’s response is doing to our social cohesion, which is tenuous at best, what it’s doing to my own and my family’s mental and emotional well-being, has potentially disastrous consequences.
We, as a culture have been on this track to disintegration for a while. We have no overarching narrative of meaning except consumerism.
Isn’t it interesting that to compel people to become vaccinated our government restricts consumerism. They also restrict religious freedom but the only real thing that everyone collectively cares about is our ability to buy things. (I recognize here that we actually have to buy things because we’re no longer producers in our lives, but consumers. Ironically, we’re helping boost this along with every on-line order we’re forced to make with closed local businesses.)
I have found great meaning in caring for my family and in plodding along in solidarity with them through this crisis. It’s nearly everything to me.
Take care of my people. Take care of my people. Take care of my people.
It’s been my mantra.
I have been standing at the gate of my family, sword in hand, yelling “you shall not pass” to the demons of this time. Not only is it barely working but I’m so tired of trying.
And as much as I have always loved that scene in Lord of the Rings, Gandolf holding off the Balrog of Morgoth at the pass, sacrificing himself for the fellowship, I have to ask myself, in what ways am I willing to sacrifice myself and for whom will I be sacrificed?
I sure as hell won't sacrifice myself for a system that only cares about me as a consumer, voter, and a tax-payer.
I cannot believe that I’m living into year three of a global pandemic that has resulted in vaccine mandates that force people to be vaccinated or lose their jobs, a pandemic that has unleashed the Kraken of divisive rhetoric and continuous “emergency” measures for which governments are not accountable. This is not what I believed to be true about my country.
Whenever you’re told there’s one story, one path, one way to look at a problem, one way to fix a problem - it’s time to get curious. And when you hear “and if you don’t see it this way, we’re going to alienate and shame you in our language, we’re going to segregate you from society, plus we’re going to take away your means of earning a livelihood” you better get damn curious. A modern liberal society could never do this to a racial, gender identity, religious, or any other kind of minority. It would be unconscionable.
To my un-vaccinated friends and family, to all those who have already lost their jobs and been censured because of their beliefs around personal liberty and bodily choice (imagine!), I’m so sorry I haven’t spoken publicly till now. (Just because I am doesn’t mean the pipeline to my inbox is now open for alt-right news and conspiracy theories. I still can’t handle that stuff.)
I really hoped this would just blow over, we could move on and forget about this time. That I wouldn’t have to take a stand and do the work of articulating my position, and raise my own head above the fox hole for criticism. But Omicron burst the bubble for me of detached engagement and narrative compliance.
We have to dream. We have to communicate clearly and kindly. We have to listen. We have to stand by our own moral compass and trust that our neighbors come to their own convictions with the same integrity with which we come to ours. We have to question the state and challenge it to prove if the actions of its authority are just. We have to have enough goodwill amongst us to sit at a table together, break bread and try to find holistic solutions to this crisis.
I want to live in a society that enables people’s individual flourishing with both the expectation of that flourishing, and by providing the conditions (which for me, includes distribution of resources and care) allowing individuals to maximally contribute to the common good; where the common good is: 1) dependant upon mass individual flourishing vs. only select individual flourishing and 2) facilitates the nurture and development of people’s natural desire for connection and capacity to care.
This pandemic has brought into sharp relief the edges of some of my thinking on human nature and how a society should be structured in response to that. And my personal experience of living in Quebec during this period has shown me the kind of cultural milieu I “don’t want to live in” for future crisis.
How do I be a responsible, autonomous, and relationally-orientated citizen in my context? That’s all I’m trying to figure out. And even though we use different words and place the emphasis on different syllables, I truly believe that’s all that most of us are trying to do.
I refuse, despite the media and governments attempts to convince me otherwise, that people who see a different route to the common good are automatically monsters.
To land this plane in political theory and my hopes for the common good, here’s my argument about Canada’s national and provincial response to this crisis.
When the state uses their authority to curtail and limit individual’s autonomy, responsibility, and relationality the onus is on the state to prove the merit of freedom-limiting measures versus on the individual to prove their right to freedom. The right to individual freedom is the antecedent in a liberal democracy. (Which by the way, this is not my personal ideal form of civic governance, but it’s what we’ve got, which is better than most alternatives out there. And it’s actually what our laws, if not current policies, are based upon.)
In a liberal democracy individual liberty is the given state, the independent variable. If the state fails to convince a population by reasonable means why the individual’s autonomy, responsibility and relationality must be curtailed, and they must advance their agenda via coercion, that state action and that authority is unjust.
This is my line in the sand.
Humans want to be free. We want to care and we do care. We want to help each other. We want to thrive.
I have to try. And that’s all any of us can do. We have to try.
This post has been bubbling in my heart and mind for many months, as I hope is obvious in the care I took to make my arguments in a reasoned, compassionate, and personal way.
I started writing this post, pulling together my thoughts and revisiting journals and drafts, on Tuesday, Jan 25th in response to reaching the end of my rope with the situation where I live.
While I was writing, head down, hands on keyboard in my apartment in Montreal, a Truckers Freedom Convoy was driving across the country headed for Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates and government overreach. The knowledge of their movement hadn't totally reached my consciousness at the time I started this post. After I got the bulk of my ideas down that day, all five thousands words, gulp, I went to spend the evening with a friend to help pull me out of my pandemic-funk. Doing so, going to visit my friend, was a violation of the at-the-time government mandates. I was literally was not allowed to do so by the state.
Tuesday night and into Wednesday, I started to really watch what was going on with #freedomconvoy2022 and the stories of solidarity, of ordinary Canadians (of all types) across the country showing up on highways and overpasses, giving food and donations, throwing themselves into this effort, was the energy to finish and publish this post.
On Thursday we decided to go to Ottawa this weekend to be here for this historic moment when the people, the collective says "you shall not pass". Together. It turns out I'm not alone on that bridge.
You can follow my stories and posts about this historic coming together, a movement of liberty and collective goodwill, on my Instagram account.
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