(RNS) — Americans are angry at one another about a lot of things — politics, education, economics, religion, you name it. Americans are also angry about COVID-19 and the efforts to get the country vaccinated.
In a recent survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), more than two-thirds of Americans who are vaccinated (67%) agree that they are “angry at those who are refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and are putting the rest of us at risk.” More than 7 in 10 unvaccinated Americans (71%), meanwhile, say they are “angry at those who think they have the right to tell me to get vaccinated against COVID-19.”
The same poll found that this anger is affecting how we relate to our own families, with 1 in 5 Americans saying that disagreements over COVID-19 vaccinations have caused major conflict.
Frankly, we understand the anger; we experience it ourselves. It’s not unsurprising or unreasonable. The pandemic has led to almost 800,000 deaths and has continued for two years, compounded by urgent reckonings on race and one of the ugliest elections in the history of the nation.
The vaccination debate involves people’s fear of sickness, individual liberty and pressures on our health, educational and other civic infrastructure systems. Of course we’re angry.
We also know that this anger will not help us get to where we need to go — on vaccines or the other challenges that our nation, communities and families face. Nevertheless, the anger revealed in the survey is instructive. If we take a moment to consider what’s behind the anger and what it reveals, we will be better equipped to navigate the dynamics tearing our country apart.
Whitney Kimball Coe from Center for Rural Strategies gets the sense that our responses to the vaccine are “symptoms of something larger and more complex,” namely, the lack of trust in institutions at every level. In the aftermath of disinformation and economic instability that leaves families “isolated and uncertain,” said Coe, “consent is the final holdout.”
Coe invites us to reflect on the deeper motivations behind our fellow Americans’ decisions. How does that change our view of them if we do?
Sharon Salzburg, a Buddhist teacher and author, observes that not all anger is harmful: “The energy of that flare of anger can be good — we feel energized instead of complacent, and we can cut through social niceties to point out wrongs.” However, Salzburg considers the root cause of anger often to be a sense of powerlessness: “In Tibet they say that anger is what we pick up when we feel weak because it will make us strong.”
Viewed in this light, perhaps our widespread anger is actually a manifestation of something much more vulnerable and profound — that is, a deep sense of fear and insecurity that pervades the nation. In many of our national dynamics, you can see how various communities operate from a sense of anxiety and helplessness and a fear that we are out of control. Our often-adversarial politics and political conversations may be a demonstration of this profound fear.
How do we navigate out of this place of fear and anger? In our IFYC vaccine outreach efforts, we started by listening. Research shows that the best way to encourage productive conversations about difference is to prioritize deep listening. As Samar Ali, of Millions of Conversations, has said, “Our starting point to find a functional way forward together has to start with us first understanding each other’s starting point. That is the doorway towards a positive way forward for all.”
Listening isn’t just waiting for your own chance to interject and share an alternate perspective. It requires holding space for a truly divergent viewpoint and seeking to understand the motivations behind that perspective. It requires a belief that, in the words of Simon Greer, an IFYC senior fellow and founder of Bridging the Gap, our own perspectives are “in no way diminished” by seeking to understand another.
When we operate from a place of fear, anger or anxiety, it can be profoundly difficult to both maintain a grounded conviction and confidence in your own viewpoint while extending openness to understanding another. Simon urges us to “take seriously the things that others hold dear, be curious why they think what they do, honor the truth in their experience so we might share our values, experience, hopes, and fears as we honor theirs with an open heart.”
This hard work may involve spiritual discipline. Curtis Chang is an evangelical pastor who has been in the middle of the vaccine debate among conservative Christians. He turns to his faith to help him navigate its challenges.
“In my view, the anti-vaxxers are making wrong choices. Their choices threaten me and are leading to real deaths of others. The challenge for me is to extend to them mercy and grace in the same spirit that God extended himself to humanity through Jesus. It’s not easy, and I confess I’m failing at this calling more often than I am succeeding. But this is precisely the spiritual opportunity for Christians who are angry at the other side.”
Salzberg recommends finding the strength to do something positive about our anger:
In Buddhist psychology, anger is likened to a forest fire, which burns up its own support. … In other words, as the host we can be damaged by those flames. If I feel anger I try to look into its depths, to find the kernel of helplessness. Then I resolve to do something, even if the action seems very small. That way I feel like I’m doing something with the energy of the anger, instead of just roiling around in it.
The anger is real, but so are the opportunities for conversations that can lead to more understanding among friends and family members, greater cohesion among civic society and, potentially, more people ultimately choosing to be vaccinated. More broadly, we need to learn from our anger to understand what’s behind it and extend that same courtesy to our fellow Americans.
(Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is senior adviser for public affairs at Interfaith Youth Core. Mary Ellen Giess is IFYC’s vice president for strategic initiatives.The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)