The Covid Vaccine and Fearing the Unknown
When I was a kid, there was this corny joke that made the rounds in our Jewish schools and camps. It went something like this:
Joker: I bet I can stump you with a question you won’t be able to answer.
Listener: Ok, let’s hear it.
Joker: What is the meaning of the phrase: “Ani lo yode’ah”?*
Listener: I don’t know.
(Listener: rolls eyes, then looks for an exit strategy.)
But cringey pranks aside- it doesn’t usually feel great to say we don’t know.
The human brain craves knowledge and certainty; it feels unsettled when confronted with uncertainty. As we were often taught**: “There’s no joy like resolving doubt.” Conversely, being in doubt can create significant distress. We find comfort in feeling sure.
We’re also trained this way: as kids, we’re supposed to try and answer questions in homework and tests; even if we don’t know the answers, we’re encouraged to try, guess, or bluff it, in the hopes that we stumble correctly and get unearned credit. Many adult situations aren’t so different- applications, interviews, jobs, parenthood- we’re expected to have answers or improvise. Admitting we don’t know, instead of being a sign of honesty and humility, is often viewed as a sign of weakness.
Not knowing is not the same as ignorance. Ignorance is “ignoring” available knowledge; not knowing just means either we haven’t learned it yet, or it’s not even definitively knowable yet.
In our lifetimes, we have witnessed phenomenal breakthroughs in science, medicine, and technology. Not only brilliant researchers, but also as lay people, we experience the dramatic changes in our quotidian functioning based on this rapid progress. This is both exhilarating and terrifying for mankind. We can get drunk on the illusion of human intellectual potential.
One of the advantages and dangers of our time is the readily available plethora of both information and misinformation at our literal fingertips. The lightning speed with which data morphs from mantra to myth is dizzying. Then there’s all the marketing, ego, politics, financial obfuscation, and emotionality that become entangled with our truth-seeking. That make it feel almost mandatory to opine, commit, and advocate, even for those of us who are largely uneducated and uninvolved in the research.
The Covid vaccine is a powerful example of this dynamic.
“So- will you vaccinate?”
(Many are so grateful to have a new conversation piece, that they will grasp at any article, quote, theory, or fear to formulate a stance, and oppose those who feel differently.)
“No way- there hasn’t been enough time to test the safety and efficiency. I don’t want to be a guinea pig. Or a robot with a tracker in my body to be controlled by big government or big pharma. Anyone who takes it is just sheep blindly following the herd at risk of self-harm and global destruction.”
“Absolutely I’m taking it! I’m so grateful that there’s a scientifically proven way to eradicate this disease; it’s basically the same as polio. Anyone who doesn’t take it is pretty much a murderer.”
(Both arguments enlarged and parodied to show texture.)
Once again, another casualty of 2020, is nuance.
The capacity to say:
“I honestly just don’t know; I hear potential logic (and disturbing extremism) in both perspectives.”
The willingness to entertain multiple, rational, moderate possibilities:
“This vaccine could be a miraculous gift, or it might have complications. I’m not an epidemiologist, and even if I were, science is not a monolith. Nor is it stagnant; today’s ‘we now know’s are tomorrow’s ‘they used to believe’s. Empirical evidence is dynamic, constantly evolving, and self-correcting. More time and research will give us more clarity, but even that keeps changing, and always will.” With candor and empathy, there can be both.
I empathize with the fear of trying something so new, at a time when humanity is feeling so medically vulnerable, mistrusting, and destabilized.
I also empathize with the desire to see this vaccine as a salvation from G-d, responsibly designed by expert medical minds, an opportunity to finally begin healing our global community.
I’m sure I can’t possibly be the only one feeling both tremendous gratitude for the development of this treatment and significant apprehension about it.
One of the most critical lessons I’ve learned in my Torah education is how often great thinkers like Rashi will quote a verse or a question, and simply comment with the words: “Ani lo yode’ah.” Great people don’t feel obligated to “guess for credit.” They don’t filibuster or gloss over the issues they haven’t mastered. (I mean, he could have just not pulled the dibur hamatchil altogether, really.) They don’t worry that critics will cancel their erudition if they don’t have a pithy line or edifying essay. They acknowledge the reality that while there are objective answers and truth in G-d’s eyes, we often don’t have access to them yet. And that’s actually our place as mortals. Accepting that we don’t know everything is what drives us to constantly learn more and refine our paradigms. To commit to pursuing truth, not our temporary feelings or opinions.
I’m not suggesting that we not make choices; either you’re going to have the vaccine, or not. (Or maybe you’ll have it, but not immediately.) I’m grateful that it’s here and grateful to have the freedom and privilege for each of us to consult with our own trusted medical professionals, based on their research and education, and our individual needs and risks.
What I am suggesting is that it’s not only ok, but healthy, to broach this issue with humility, equanimity, intellectual integrity, and respect for those who see it differently.
*The words “ani lo yode’ah” are the Hebrew for “I don’t know.”
**I’ve never found a definitive source for this oft-quoted line.
Did you resonate to these ideas? If the concept of healthy, balanced thinking appeals to you, then this might too.