William J. Doherty has seen pretty much everything in his more than four decades as a therapist. He's helped to heal marriages on the brink and guided parents to richer relationships with their kids through simple family meals and playing games. As co-founder of Braver Angels (braverangels.org), Doherty encourages us to mine our better angels, inspired by none other than Abraham Lincoln. But the University of Minnesota marriage and family therapist can now add a new challenge to the perplexities of human nature: COVID-19 vaccine envy. With our better angels, well, conflicted, we asked him to share his wisdom and wit, and practical guidance for gracefully navigating the next few months.
Q: So, vaccine envy. Did you see that coming?
A: I didn't anticipate it but now that it's here, I'm not surprised. This is human beings at work, it's our mammal nature kicking in. Mammals, including dogs and monkeys, can show envy.
Q: But they'd be happy with a bone or a banana. We want the vaccine!
A: Yes. There is a precious resource — a potentially lifesaving resource — that is out there and available and some people, particularly people who are similar to me, are getting that resource and I'm not. What the heck? And it's free. It's like free ice cream being given out to everyone and I haven't gotten any. Not many of us felt envy with the nurses within the COVID units, or people in nursing homes. But once it starts to spread to regular folks, we think, "What about my turn?" There's even geographical envy. You're living on the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota and the county across the border is giving vaccines to people your age and you feel like, "Huh?" Even if my higher consciousness says that it's a mistake to cross borders, you're also thinking, "But, right next door to me I could get the darn thing." We have this split consciousness. It's a fascinating psychological experiment.
Q: Hence the guilt that a lot of people seem to be experiencing. Few can just say they got the vaccine without an immediate disclaimer about how and why they got it. What's going on there?
A: Guilt is a good thing because it shows that we have a conscience. People who don't feel guilt tend to think they're the center of the universe. Fairness vs. cheating is a fundamental human, moral emotion. If I'm in a line and somebody cuts in ahead of me, that's not fair. Even if they cut in behind me, I still might be mad because we're social creatures, we're communal creatures, with a sense that there should be some larger fairness. The guilt is about wondering whether I'm unfairly taking advantage.
Q: Which leads to rationalization …
A: Whatever gets you the darn medicine. I don't want people to lie, but these reactions are intuitive, instinctive. They come over us in a nanosecond. But it's important to use our higher brain functioning to evaluate them.
Q: Example, please.
A: You're healthy and 33 years old and your mother works at a health care clinic. And just before closing, they're going to have to throw out some vaccine. Your rational brain says, "They've got to give it to somebody. It's better for me to take it."
Q: Do people owe it to others to explain how they got the vaccine?
A: If you have very good friends, they probably would tell you how they got it. There can be people with invisible-to-you reasons for why they need it. Some people are, subjectively, terrified of getting this virus. They don't tell you that, but psychological well-being counts, as well. We need to be aware that there are reasons that we aren't privy to.
Q: Interestingly, I heard a public health expert say much the same thing during a recent radio interview; that those who jump the line aren't huge in numbers and they're not about to discourage people from getting the vaccine any way they can as we anxiously try to build herd immunity. Agree?
A: This is life and death stuff here. There are always going to be people in any given population who are more assertive, more aggressive at getting their needs met. By our evolutionary origins, we have a drive toward self-preservation. There will always be some people who push themselves to the head of the line. But I'd keep my mouth shut if I were one of them.
Q: So resist posting to social media?
A: If someone jumped the line, posting exemplifies ambivalence. It's guilt but it's also pride and celebration. It's a lot of feelings at once. People are used to putting things on social media to share their joy and pride. Heck, people posted selfies on Jan. 6, when they were breaking the law at the U.S. Capitol. Everything is shared on social media.
Q: And then there are those who selflessly try to help others, such as vaccine spotters building databases and social media sites to try to connect people to vaccines.
A: These are the rescuers. Human populations need them! I will step up and give my kidney to a stranger. God love them. Very pro-social. But we need to be accepting of the broad range of human behaviors.
Q: What's your advice for those still waiting (mostly) patiently?
A: Don't get too outraged when others get theirs first, even if they jump the line. There are hundreds of millions of doses coming. Let's realize that it takes all kinds in the world, accept a small minority of people who game the system and celebrate those who wait in line and help others.