While Standing (Six Feet Apart) on One Foot
June 22, 2020
I love science. Always have. When I was in school, I couldn’t wait for science class. Biology mesmerized me. Physics tried to satisfy the many ‘whys’ that danced around in my head. And chemistry – oy gevalt – the hardest of all the disciplines was the most challenging of all. Whether it was geology, geography, space science, I wanted it all. I wanted to know it all. And even though life took me in different directions and reflections, science still plays a big role in who and what I am.
My parents, of course, knew my interest in science and they cultivated it. Not going to college was never an issue for them. We were going to college. Period. “Study what you want. Stay as long as you want. But you are going to university and you are going to continue to learn.” It was something they told me from my earliest times so, I figured this is pretty standard stuff that parents teach their kids. That’s why I was astonished when one of my Grade 12 classmates started working right after the school year ended. I simply could not believe that someone was not going to college!
Of course, I fully understand that extended education is not for everyone and not even necessary. What I do not understand is how ignorance is celebrated and how those who are educated are dismissed as elite or, worse, conspiratorial. The Flat Earth people are the perfect example of this.
The Earth was proved to be a sphere (or pretty darn close to it) more than 2200 years ago. A Greek named Eratosthenes of Cyrene computed circumference of the Earth by using simple geometry and trigonometry. Most of the Greeks scholars at the time already suspected that the Earth was round – after all, when the ships on the horizon disappear, they surely don’t fall over the edge, the only explanation is a round Earth.
And, yet today, there are people who simply cannot accept or understand the reality of this. Their minds are filled with conspiracies: NASA is hiding something: the arithmetic used to figure out the world’s size is misleading, etc., etc. It is quite an impressive feat of mental gymnastics, truly. To be able to prove with two simple sticks in the exact manner that was proved 2300 years ago and still to be blind to the reality is a feat of mental gymnastics that inevitably gives rise to a chortle of pity laughter. Seekers after the truth, be they scientists or theologians, listen to each other, check each other’s work, critique each other and usually are persuaded if the facts match that theory that matches the data that matches the hypothesis.
Not always, though. Even after some of the great achievements and discoveries of the modern age, some of the most radical theories about how the world works are still disputed or ignored. Even Einstein whose theories of relativity changed the way we look at the world simply could not believe all the premises of quantum physics (Google, for instance, ‘spooky action at a distance’ but be prepared to have your mind blown if you are unfamiliar with it).
Usually, those who deny the reality of things come in two flavors: either they sincerely believe their point of view based on the real data or, two, they are being iconoclastic. And being iconoclastic is a rebellion against authority regardless of what they authority says. This is what parents of teenagers sometimes complain about when speaking to me about the challenging teenage years.
And, with anything that refuses to mature, iconoclasm can morph into a disagreement with anyone about anything. Being an iconoclast becomes a full-time job. In Yiddish we call someone like this ‘farbissener’ – constantly bitter.
We all know people who are farbissener. One person in particular stands out. Many years ago in my rabbinate I happened to be in the kitchen with the queen of farbissen when another congregant brought in a bundt cake that she had made for the Oneg Shabbat – the snack time after Shabbat service. Instead of thanking the woman and taking the cake and acknowledging the effort she took to bake the cake and provide for the congregation, this woman simply said, ‘Oh. A bundt cake. It’s just a tunnel of glue.’ That is toxic iconoclasm and its roots come from never quite getting out of the teenage years.
Today, there are a lot of teenagers roaming around. They are usually grown adults, though, and not teenagers. They are in denial about the COVID-19 virus. They are still spouting that it is a hoax. The numbers are a conspiracy. The numbers aren’t real (by the way, in this they are correct. They numbers are way, way higher than we think). The worst part about it though, is that whomever and from wherever their confirmation bias can be affirmed, that is the source upon which they will live their lives. If the Governor of a state says the state is ‘leveling off the curve’ despite the obvious untruth of it, deniers will simply latch on to it and always, always will take the next step and go back to pre-COVID behavior. They don’t believe their eyes. They think they are immune. And even if this virus affects their family, they will continue to deny its virulence because to acknowledge the truth is really hard. It means you were wrong and when you realize you were wrong in this kind of situation you realize how many people you have hurt along the way. Anyone in AA knows this scenario all too well.
Since there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ as Ecclesiastes once said, you shouldn’t be surprised that denial and willful ignorance is reflected in the Bible, as well. Though the prophet Isaiah is speaking about the willful ignorance of the Jewish people’s disregard of the covenant, the essence of the verse applies equally to those who walk among us, possibly carrying infection, disregarding their needs of others, and putting themselves in danger. We read this verse and it speaks to us today. Talk about biblical relevancy. Here’s the verse:
9Act stupid and be stupefied!
Act blind and be blinded!
(They are drunk, but not from wine,
They stagger, but not from liquor.)
10For the Lord has spread over you
A spirit of deep sleep,
And has shut your eyes, the prophets,
And covered your heads, the seers;
11So that all prophecy has been to you
Like the words of a sealed document.
If it is handed to one who can read and he is asked to read it, he will say, “I can’t, because it is sealed”; 12and if the document is handed to one who cannot read and he is asked to read it, he will say, “I can’t read.”
Obviously Isaiah is speaking about the covenant and the disregard and ignorance of the words of the prophets and the seers, the wise and the discerning. But the message is exactly the same for us. Sooner or later the truth bubbles forth and it often happens that it bubble forth right under your feet. To paraphrase the magnificent movie ‘Magnolia’ – you may be finished with the truth, but the truth is not finished with you.
I suppose we will always have those who deny the simple reality we all see: that their blindness may very well kill them or kill any one of us if we aren’t much more careful than they. Mark Twain said, ‘That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.’ Isaiah saw it, too. Flat-Earthers can’t see it. But they are relatively harmless. People who disregard the reality of the virus and don’t take the necessary precautions we all know about, may very well die and that is not harmless either to them or me.
It is time for all of us to think like Jews – stop putting yourself in danger and stop putting me in danger. I don’t want to be one paying for your denial for your denial is a stealthy murderer. The state and the country may be ‘opening up’ but there are too many people out there and among us who take that as a sign that this crisis is over. You may be finished with the truth but the truth is not finished with you. The usual problem with finally figuring it out is that its usually too late. For God’s sake – no, for your sake and for the sake of the guy next to you who is trying to protect you and himself – if you are going to repress anything, repress your denial. Act as if the world depends upon every little thing you do. For someone else, it very well may.