Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Neighbor won't vaccinate? It's not because of selfishness, by David Cook

Neighbor won't vaccinate? It's not because of selfishness, by David Cook

  • 1

Don’t call them selfish.

The people who refuse to get the vaccine?

They’re not selfish. It’s not selfishness.

I’ve got a buddy, a 3 a.m. friend: if I call in the middle of the night, say, 3 a.m., and I’m in trouble, he’ll come running, no questions asked.

He’s hard-working. Grounded. Smart. All hat ... and cattle.

But he doesn’t wear a mask. Never has. And he refuses to get the vaccine. His wife, his family — no vaccine.

I’ve got other friends — a few other 3 a.m. friends — who also refuse the vaccine.

They’re some of the most selfless people I know.

Yes, there’s a temptation to pressure and shame them. In the story we tell ourselves, my friend is the logjam, holding up our return to a healthy, post-COVID-19 future in our area.

We have been through so much, and here is this vaccine — a modern miracle — and you’re refusing it? Which then compromises me and my family? And all of us?

I can say this in anger. But behind my anger? Fear.

Yes, I’m vaccinated. Proudly. One shot — a Johnson & Johnson — in my left arm. I felt ticker-tape proud, a willing participant in this moment of scientific marvel, genius and innovation.

So much comes down to trust. Who do I trust? What do I trust?

This spring, I’ve been reading “Apollo’s Arrow” — Nicholas Christakis’s account of COVID-19. It is clear, thorough and humbling. Oh, how little I know.

I can’t write two sentences about how to create a vaccine. Don’t know hemaglutinins from adjuvants, or the difference between the case fatality rates and infection fatality rates. Can you explain an RNA vaccine compared to a DNA vaccine?

Me neither. It left me humbled.

Who am I to casually shout judgments about one of the most complex and intricate fields in the history of humanity? I realized that in a time of immense chaos, I had to cash my chips in with somebody; I chose the established collective wisdom of the majority of scientists, doctors and experts.

I chose established, verified news sources, nearly all of which existed before the internet. (I have stopped watching all cable TV news. Wouldn’t look twice at a Youtube video without fact-checking it, then again, and again.)

I chose my county’s health department task force. Local doctors I trust. “Get the vaccine,” they all say.

Does this seem sheep-ish to you? It does to my 3 a.m. friend. He thinks I put my family in danger.

He’s got his own trusted sources: videos, news sites and doctors, online and in person, who say the vaccine is a fool’s game.

He prays for us. Tries to convince us.

How is that ... selfish?

Responsibility. Conscience. For the good of my family and community. That’s why I got the vaccine. That’s why he didn’t.

Yes, I want him vaccinated. I believe his information is misguided and inaccurate. (He says the same about me.)

But what do I really want? In this chaotic world, I want control. Security.

I want a way out of the fear.

I cling to the safety of the (false) belief that other people will behave the way I want them to behave. And believe as I believe.

And when they don’t, I suffer.

“When I consider my own suffering, so much of it comes from the fact that I simply cannot accept life, and people as they are. I get upset by what people do,” writes Buddhist teacher Thanissara in the publication Tricycle. (Her husband is Kittisaro, a Chattanooga, Tenn., native.)

These are Tower of Babel times in America. We’re living in an increasingly siloed sectarianism, pushed there by the constant devaluation of our institutions, often by online voices who say trust no one. Trust nothing.

Where does this lead?

Yes, there are other necessary conversations: Why do Southerners refuse the vaccine at such high levels? How has the CDC been politicized over the years? Where does vaccine skeptisicm come from? (Nina Burleigh explains a lot in her New York Times essay “Why So Many Are Resisting Vaccination.”)

But older, deeper questions remain: How can we make peace with people whose beliefs and behaviors differ, even dangerously so, from our own?

How can we rebuild trust in an age of distrust?

Above all, how do we deal with the great illness of life, which is not COVID-19, but the self — me, my, mine — and all its wants, desires and fears?

David Cook wrote this for the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times/Free Press. Email him at

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

If China hopes to avert a fall in its population by raising the maximum number of children per mother from two to three, it’s going to have its work cut out. That’s because declining fertility, once started, tends to be an inexorable force that few nations have managed to arrest, let alone reverse. Of the 85 countries where fertility had fallen to less than 2.1 births per woman in 2009 — the ...

A veteran with a fever and hacking cough that suggest a possible coronavirus infection tries to make a doctor’s appointment, only to be turned away by a receptionist who personally decides the would-be patient can’t see a physician. A former service member and sexual assault survivor at risk of suicide is denied access to mental health services by a bureaucratic gatekeeper stationed at the ...

President Joe Biden’s recently unveiled budget marks a new era in U.S. economic policymaking. Decades of trickle-down tax cuts are out the window; Biden is betting that trickle-up economics will deliver the kind of sustained and equitable growth we all want. But that's a dangerously short-sighted strategy that in the long term will create far more stagnation than a Reaganomics agenda that ...

In an important 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court pushed back against prosecutorial overreach in computer-related misconduct. What’s most interesting about the case is the breakdown among the justices: On one side, all five justices appointed since 2008 — by Barack Obama and by Donald Trump — plus Justice Stephen Breyer; on the other side, three conservative justices appointed before 2005, two ...

It’s more important to accomplish goals than to abide by principles. The end justifies the means. Isn’t this historical wisdom, the foundation on which America was built, or should have been built, and anyway, people are so much smarter today, at least progressives are. Right? Wrong, at least on the idea of affirmative action, an absurdist view of justice that could make life worse for Black ...

Labeling misinformation online is doing more harm than good. The possibility that COVID-19 came from a lab accident is just the latest example. Social media companies tried to suppress any discussion of it for months. But why? There’s no strong evidence against it, and evidence for other theories is still inconclusive. Pathogens have escaped from labs many times, and people have died as a ...

The question of whether women should serve in front-line combat roles was settled years ago, when the Obama administration officially rescinded a long-standing ban on such duty. So why do we still require only men to register with the Selective Service System when they turn 18? Why has the struggle for gender equality stopped at the door of the draft board? Or why, on Monday, did the Supreme ...

The best local coverage, unlimited

Sign up for a digital subscription to The Press of Atlantic City now and take advantage of a great offer.


Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News