What Defines Us
Recently, many media outlets (see, for example, Slate) have been opining about a subreddit that "awards" anti-vaxxers who die of COVID. Reddit users post screenshots from other people’s online accounts in which the people deny that COVID is a problem, fight mask mandates, declare that the vaccine is dangerous—followed by screenshots of them posting about catching COVID and going to the hospital—followed by their loved ones posting ever-worsening health updates—culminating in a death announcement and sometimes a Go Fund Me for medical/funeral expenses.
Morally, this subreddit is not attractive. Despite professed hopes that they are convincing the unvaccinated (and the posts of new vaccine cards), the subreddit carries a strong odor of I told you so. Also of ghoulishness, as some Redditers are apparently trolling Facebook for keywords to find fodder among the pages of people who had their privacy set to “everyone.” In the way of the internet, posts may even be fabrications.
Though I felt a bit ghoulish myself, when I checked it out, I found myself riveted, not by the Redditers’ often hostile comments, but by the successions of screenshots themselves.
Many of the pre-COVID posts were hateful, especially towards Fauci. So much fear and anger masquerading as fact or humor. Declarations of the importance of freedom, even if meant the freedom to harm others. False equivalencies between vaccines and guns as means of protection, between requiring vaccines and the holocaust. Rants blaming COVID on the Chinese and immigrants.
I wondered who made all those memes in the first place. I also wondered what kind of media the posters consumed to give them this worldview. Why they (and many others regardless of political identity) would enjoy posting hate. What in their own experiences brought them to this place—closed businesses, extreme loneliness, a fear of their country changing into something unlike the country they grew up in? I couldn’t know.
Once the individuals fell sick with COVID, the posts became just heartbreaking, as each poster described the terrible symptoms, and the relatives posted in agony about the suffering and dying person they loved. Often the death posts cited how big-hearted the person was, how he or she would do anything to help another person. Describing a person seemingly totally different from the person who would share mean-spirited memes.
Bryan Stephenson, the author of Just Mercy, writes: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” In the same way, each of these people are more than the memes they posted, than their stance on masks and vaccinations. I’m sure in addition to the memes they shared photos of their dogs and grandkids and spouses. But we don’t see those posts in this subreddit.
Recently I heard the advice: “How you do one thing is how you do everything.” Writers use this idea often. I once introduced a character by having him throw his lit cigarette on the ground and step on it. That character liked to sleep with lonely tourists in his city, one night stands that required little of him, before he moved on. So, how he did one thing (carelessly casting away a cigarette) was how he did everything.
And yet, it’s reductive to look at people that way. I admire writers who let their characters be messy, be a lot of things simultaneously.
I think of Raymond Carver’s chronical of redemption in “A Small, Good Thing.” (This paragraph contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read the story, go read it immediately.) In the story, a woman orders a birthday cake for her son Scotty with his name on it. On his birthday, the boy is hit by a car and hospitalized. Needless to say, the parents don’t pick up the cake. The baker starts calling the mother, harassing her anonymously, saying things like “Have you forgotten Scotty?” She calls the baker “evil.” After Scotty dies, when the baker calls, the mother figures out who the caller is, and she and her husband drive to the bakery and confront him.
When they say their son is dead, the baker apologizes. He asks forgiveness. He gives them cinnamon rolls and bread and they eat and talk. The parents listen to him describe his hard life and loneliness.
The story in itself is astonishing, but it is famous among writers for another reason: Carver published a minimalist version of the same story years previously, called “The Bath.” The earlier version of the story ends with the baker calling. The son hasn’t died and the mother thinks the call might be news of her son’s condition. She never discovers the identity of the caller, never confronts him, never gives him a chance to redeem himself.
In “The Bath,” the way the baker does one thing is the way he does everything. In “A Small, Good Thing,” the baker is not defined by the worst thing he’s done. He recognizes he has caused harm and tries to repair it. The mother realizes he is not really evil.
Though I’m not against minimalism ("The Bath" is harrowing and haunting in its own way), I prefer the largeness of heart in the later version. The ability to let the readers see characters are complex.
We need to do that more in life too. To forgive, to extend understanding. To both admit our own mistakes and refuse to reduce ourselves and others to our worst moments. In a time of so much worry and grief, we need compassion. Though I doubt fostering compassion was the original aim of the subreddit, by giving me a window into the lives of those suffering from this disease, that's exactly what it did.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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