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In Moderna (Or Pfizer, Or Johnson & Johnson, Or Whoever) We Trust

Philip Gulley on the glory of vaccines — and the shame of those who would discourage them.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

My Quaker congregation has gathered via Zoom for a year now. It has worked out so well, I’m concerned that when we’ve consigned COVID-19 to the dung heap of history, none of us will want to attend in person anymore. Everyone will prefer to sleep in, throw on a respectable shirt at the last minute, and sit at their kitchen tables communing with the Ground of All Being. Our meeting has even started attracting participants from Europe, Asia, and across the United States. All I need now is better hair and 72 teeth as bright as headlights, and I’ll be the Joel Osteen of Quakerism. 

Alas, science has upended my plans for wealth and fame by creating a vaccine, which should return us to some semblance of normal soon if enough Americans agree to be vaccinated—a big “if” given the fear loose in our land. Oddly, some of the same people who dutifully lined up for polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and diphtheria vaccinations as children are now ranting about the dangers of vaccinations, saying they’re a threat to freedom. I received all the standard vaccinations without losing my freedom. Come to think of it, I didn’t come down with polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, or diphtheria, either. I wonder if there’s a connection?

I’ve had it up to here with “freedom,” or more accurately, those folks who think freedom means doing whatever they want no matter how it affects others, who shrug off hundreds of thousands of deaths rather than wear a mask, who pay daily homage to a vision of freedom that never requires anything of them except their own comfort. If that’s freedom, I’m not sure we’ll survive it.

Our granddaughter, who is a kindergartner, spent the night with us recently, normally a delightful venture. We performed the customary procedures designed to exhaust a child—a walk around the neighborhood after supper, a warm bath, and a bedtime story in grandma’s lap. But when it came time to go upstairs to bed, she refused, telling us she was free to do as she pleased. 

“Oh no you’re not,” my wife said.

My wife’s one sentence summarized my understanding of freedom as a kid—the liberty to do whatever I wished, so long as my elders let me. Eventually, I learned there was always an elder, someone whose wishes and well-being I had to take into account, whether it was a parent, spouse, child, neighbor, or friend. These days I cheerfully move heaven and Earth to please my granddaughter, for example. Elders, I’ve learned, come in all sizes and ages.

As theories go, freedom can’t be beat, though in practice the real thing is quite rare. I’ve known it in fleeting moments, usually while riding a motorcycle, but even then I was constrained by centerlines, edges, and speed limits. When I’ve ignored the restrictions placed on me by the government, my motorcycle imposed its own limitations. A BMW R1200RT simply will not exceed 135 miles per hour, not even downhill with the wind at one’s back. Don’t ask me how I know.

The denial of freedom’s limits is strong in our country today, voiced most loudly by those least willing to exercise it responsibly. I have no desire to grant armed mobs at Statehouse rallies even more freedom, considering how recklessly they’ve used it thus far. Unrestricted freedom doesn’t lead to more freedom, but to anarchy, the powerful doing what they want, while the weak suffer what they must. 

I don’t know if the Biden administration will require Americans to receive the vaccine, but a Gulley administration certainly would. I want to be done with the menace of COVID-19 once and for all. It has been over a year since I’ve had a Skyline Chili cheese coney with oyster crackers and a Diet Pepsi. I can’t remember the last time I snuck out to Kroger for a Hostess cupcake and ate it in the park so my wife wouldn’t see me and remind me I have diabetes. In a Gulley administration, I would give everyone who got the vaccine a box of Hostess cupcakes and would likely have universal compliance. 

Chili dogs and Hostess cupcakes aren’t all I yearn for, of course. There are family members I want to visit, specifically my relatives in warm climates, with guest bedrooms. I have a distant cousin in North Dakota I have no desire to see, though I made it a point to visit him often when he lived in Panama City Beach. 

When the vaccine becomes widely distributed, I’m going to get that sucker as soon as I can. I’ll be pushing women and children out of the way to get my shot, that’s how bad I want it. I’ll be the guy on the Titanic tossing babies off the lifeboat to get on board. 

It’s a shame that vaccines are administered via shots, since so many people have needle phobias. I know a strapping young farmer who can reach into a cow and pull out a calf turned sideways, but who passes out when he sees a hypodermic needle. The first pharmaceutical company that figures out how to put the vaccine in a Hostess cupcake could make billions of dollars. Back in 2007, the National Institutes of Health asked researchers to develop methods of vaccination that didn’t require needles. The College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas in Austin concocted a sweet-tasting coating that dissolved in one’s mouth like hard candy, releasing the vaccine. If we did that, people wouldn’t even have to know they were being vaccinated. We could pass them out at sporting events and have herd immunity in no time at all. 

One thing I won’t look forward to when we return to normal is all the meetings sure to resume. This past year has been a pastor’s dream. I haven’t donned a suit and tie since last February, haven’t had to conduct a funeral on a vacation day, nor driven 17 miles to the meetinghouse to let someone in who has lost their key. I’ve not had to creep along on ice and snow to visit someone at Methodist Hospital, and just last week, I delivered a sermon wearing pajama bottoms. Business on top, casual on the bottom, just like a mullet. Talk about freedom!

Joel Osteen must have felt me breathing down his neck, because his church opened up for in-person worship recently. If you’re thinking of attending, you need to go online and register for a seat, so you can join thousands of other people, then get sick and die within a month. Or you can stay at home in good ol’ Indiana, seated at your kitchen table, and watch a bunch of Quakers worshipping in their pajamas. I know where I’ll be.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. "Back Home Again" chronicles his views on life in Indiana.
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