State of Mind: Autumn of Our Discontent

What happened to the common purpose and unity we experienced a year ago?

My view of fall as a time of renewal and revitalization is being challenged this year, and I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that way.

Despite what the calendar says, I’ve always thought of autumn as the beginning of a new year – a mindset no doubt left over from years of back-to-school activities. It’s been a long time since I packed sandwiches and fruit into a cartoon-themed lunch box or attended a meet-the-teacher get-together, but those memories are strong.

I love cooler weather, new sweaters and the start of SEC football. And I truly believe – or used to – that people in general are in a better mood once the summer heat moves on and the fall season sets in. So I am disappointed in what seems to be a generalized crankiness, often verging on anger, clouding this fall season – no doubt owing to COVID, the new twists and turns it has delivered and reactions to them.

A year ago, as we were trying our best to cope with the pandemic, we drew comfort from a palpable “we’re-in-this-together” sense, despite a few rumblings from anti-maskers and other contrarians. Even as we were adjusting to the continued effects – inconveniences for some, hardships for others – we were buoyed by the knowledge that vaccines were being developed and would likely be ready within months.

Yet once the shots were available, the resisters got busy, doing their best to disparage the vaccines, the scientific community that had developed them and the healthcare professionals and government officials who were urging citizens to take advantage of them. Then the anti-vaxxers went after the CDC, almost seeming to blame that agency for the very existence of the virus, not just what they considered faulty advice. And, of course, the media is always a favorite target. (I know, I know. The CDC reversed itself somewhat on mask-wearing last summer; and not every media report was all that it should have been. But the villain is the coronavirus, not those trying to provide guidance or information.)

So what happened to the common purpose, the unity, the pulling-together? Did it vanish the first time someone groused about wearing a mask? Or when someone else decided that mask-wearing was not just a nuisance but a violation of basic rights? Or when others, frustrated by many aspects of the pandemic, decided to focus on protesting things meant to keep them safe, including the vaccines?

Least comprehensible to me is the notion propounded by anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers that “the government can’t tell me what to do.”

Well, guess what? It can and does. On many levels. The government tells you that you can’t rob banks or axe-murder people who annoy you. It tells you that you have to pay taxes on your income and that you can’t be married to more than one person at a time. It tells you where you can drive and how fast, where you can park, where you can stash your garbage and whether you can build an addition onto your house. It requires you to refrain from shoplifting and to clean up after your dog on city streets.

So, yes, government can tell you what to do, especially if your actions or inactions affect public safety.

Watching news reports of parents demonstrating against mask mandates in schools, apparently concerned about the government “interfering” in matters of public health and safety, I can’t help wondering if they object to speed limits near their children’s schools or the regulations that govern conditions in the kitchens where their kids’ lunches are prepared. Maybe motorists should be able to use their own best judgment and drive as fast as they like, unimpeded by any governmental authority. Maybe it’s just plain “overreach” to inspect food preparation facilities in schools or elsewhere.

Or maybe people just need something to get upset about, something to speak out about, something they feel they might have a shot at controlling, since control of the COVID crisis is proving so difficult and so many are feeling powerless.

A recent crossword puzzle clue sent me looking for the exact wording of a favorite quote from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Different times, different context. But at its core, an admonition worth considering this troubled autumn.

Categories: Opinions, State of Mind