The Puritans Are On The Run

The Whirlwind of Uncertainty Made for an Abundance of Judgments

Duo Dickinson / 6.16.21

For the first time I have been stared at for wearing a mask. The roads are fully full. Restaurants too. People are even going to the movies. There are people singing in churches. America is coming out of the sequester cave as quickly as it dove into it, rolling the boulder of judgment over the cave opening between us and the rest of the world.

But I find myself with lingering, hard judgments.

I know of several folks who were among the most zealous of Plague Avoidance Puritans. They are all around 60, all in immaculate health, proper weight, and with no existing conditions that put them in any high risk group. They did not leave home for months, wiped down all delivered groceries, fully cleaned all surfaces that were touched by anything from the unclean outside world. They wore masks while even being outside alone.

None of them were first responders or held critical jobs that required early inoculation. In all their piety, somehow these model citizens went around the Covid Commandments to get the vaccine shots ahead of those who were in their age and risk group. I found myself amazed when I found out. I was getting my first shot at age 65, while others were getting their second at age 75. An acquaintance had a 92-year-old father who could not get an appointment until 6 weeks after the Covid-Puritans had gotten their second shot (six weeks before the protocols would have allowed). The late appointment of the 92-year-old was followed up by a second shot, but an infection happened in between those two injections. Despite his adhering to the extreme precautions that had kept him uninfected for over a year, he died within 10 days of his Covid diagnosis.

I was outraged. I somehow associated the line-jumpers with his death, as the injustice was hard not to see.

Would I have jumped the line, as these others had? I don’t think so. But there was at least some connection between the extreme orthodoxy of the stringent Covid rules that some applied to themselves and their equally zealous judgment of others. And of me in condemning their willingness to at least indirectly delay another’s protection, who was, by any measure, more at risk.

Our judgments are always leveled at other people. And in this year of sequestration the rules have compounded, piled on top of an already merciless society and amplified by the life-and-death stakes.

If you view survival as more important than an understanding of others, it is easy to judge others. I know I do. I follow the advice of others to not give money to street people, while trying to help them find services. But is it doing the correct thing to avoid paying for the deadly consequences of addiction, when their suffering demands more than good intentions?

Despite my anger at those taking advantage of their connections to end their own risk before allowing for others who were more fragile to end theirs, I understand why they did what I know they felt conflicted about. I share their conflict — it’s just like my own, about withholding money from those begging for it.

The rule book has little to say when what we do cannot be answered by a commandment. I do not kill, I do not commit adultery, I do not steal. But do I love God above all else? Do I covet?

I, we, everyone, fails at doing the things we do not define for ourselves. The Covid Puritans found it easy to follow the rules they knew were right and judge others who did not. As I find it easy to judge those same Puritans when they did what I know was without a thought beyond their own safety. I am no better than they, but at least I know that I’m not a Puritan.

Does that make me better, or worse, at loving like Jesus did?

This year of complete social retooling, of new norms of behavior, of a new apprehension of danger and mortality in a world obsessed with ignoring all the fragilities simultaneously revealed that life is a miracle. This whirlwind of uncertainty made Puritans of many of us — a fact that should make us pause and face the coming undoing of our need for judgment.

We all face a reckoning when we realize that our lives, here, will be over. Whether the terminal diagnosis, the death of a dear friend or loved one, or just an obituary, this year of public freak out over the potential for uncontrollable danger terrified many. The answer to terror can be devotion to self-preservation — or you can pull back and listen to God. Difficult to do amid the fear.

This year’s fears were nothing new. Those fears have always rolled through our lives as we lived them in the joys and sorrows of all of our day-to-day existence. But, like war, a plague focuses attention as does the hangman’s noose. Everyone, now, faces death. Now.

So we judge. We become Puritans. We rationalize. Even endanger others by protecting ourselves.

Or we try to hear God, that voice that calls us beloved, amid all the danger, fear, and the shortness of our days.