By Nicholas Perkins
The friend who called complained of a sore throat, lightheadedness, and muscle pain. I listened without offering suggestions. She called two days later; her symptoms had worsened, and it was difficult to breathe. A diminished sense of taste, fever, and medical test confirmed it was COVID-19.
I asked more questions this time, and was shocked when my friend said she had taken Ivermectin, a drug for head lice and parasitic worms. But I suspended judgment and focused on the profound fear that could have motivated my friend to take an unproven drug. As I would with a patient in the hospital, I listened, respected silence, asked open-ended questions, and empathized.
My friend survived her battle with COVID-19, but she remains unvaccinated. The effects of the illness remain, including fatigue, low energy, and brain fog. She believes that Ivermectin was critical to her survival, even though the Food and Drug Administration has not authorized it as an effective treatment for the illness.
The choice to vaccinate or not remains emotionally and politically charged. The freedom to travel, work, socialize, and engage in certain activities is increasingly determined by one’s vaccination status. In fact, the divide is likely to become deeper, as officials in the United States and Europe plan to introduce more restrictions on people who have not had the shot.
As a palliative care chaplain, I support patients and families who face critical, life-limiting illnesses. I honor and respect the choices they make regarding goals of care and end-of-life options without pressuring them. I do this even when I privately think the choices are bad. I listen, demonstrate compassion, and accept them where they are in that moment. I let them know that I am their companion on a journey that is often rife with emotion and questions.
I apply a similar mindset when I listen to individuals explain why they have not received the vaccine. I do not debate, since arguing skews what it means to journey with another person, and those persons have arguments of their own to answer back.
But if I can demonstrate a compassionate, open-minded attitude, it invites me to respect other opinions and other information. For instance, a lack of access to the vaccine, real or perceived, is why some have not been vaccinated. And a lack of trust in the vaccine and the institutions that promote it widen the chasm between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Access to healthcare and disparities in the system are additional reasons that keep some people away. Others may avoid receiving the vaccine because they are afraid of needles.
Where do we find the compassion to reduce fear and hostility, both our own and others’? A good starting point is 1 Peter 3:8: We read about being like-minded, sympathetic, compassionate, humble, and loving one another. These instructions should have us think about how we incorporate these qualities into our relationships.
The language of compassion is so essential in this current climate that the Center for Disease Control stresses it. A video from the CDC states: “Listen to family and friends’ questions with empathy. Ask open-ended questions. Help them find their own reasons to get vaccinated.” This encouragement reminds me that there is nothing compassionate about condemning or judging people who choose to remain unvaccinated.
The willingness to exercise compassion illumines Christians’ responsibility to promote the common good. In Galatians 6:10, Paul writes, so then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone. In other words, Christians should seek the common good beyond the confines of the Christian community.
One could argue that receiving the vaccine is an opportunity to protect the common good. However, I believe that even that stance may take a conversation to another ill-fated place. Instead of debating, I can accept why someone has chosen to not receive the vaccine while I continue to promote the common good myself by following instructions that mitigate spreading the virus.
I cannot respond without compassion when I learn of an unvaccinated person’s death. I must remember that we are all connected, and nobody’s choice to not vaccinate affects just them.
The root words of “compassion” mean having mercy and showing sympathy to another person. I do that every time I listen and appropriately share my experiences about receiving the vaccine. I do not do this to dispel any questionable narratives or theories. I do it because compassion can promote social connection.
Compassion is as vital to life as the air we breathe, and we do not have to make an appointment to receive it. It is an antidote to the angry rhetoric that erodes our responsibility to care for another – and could be what leads a person to get the vaccine.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health Dyer in Dyer, IN.