One thing that I am absolutely certain of in this life is that there are no guarantees of anything, and yet it never ceases to amaze (and amuse) me how we as humans work so hard to convince ourselves otherwise. When you couple this desire for certainty with our consumerist culture, well, then you have a recipe for truly delusional thinking. There’s probably a fancy psychological term for this, and author David McRaney has probably written about it in his self-effacingly humorous way, but I have made up my own term for this mindset: Inoculation Syndrome. Much like taking a shot of antibiotic or vaccine, the way Inoculation Syndrome works is that once you adopt a certain way of thinking, behaving, dressing, what have you, you render yourself immune from the pitfalls such behavior is meant to ward you against. What we fail to realize is that, as with germs and viruses that mutate and become resistant to antibiotics, the forces of life on this planet forever stymie our ability to contain, or master, them.
In a way, I admire people who believe to their core that their particular faith, ideology or world view is enough to ward off the evil spirits in our world and the people and creatures that inhabit it. I see what a comfort it is to fall back on one’s faith when we feel ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our control. I doubt we ever get over our childish impulse to cry out for Mommy or Daddy whenever we run into trouble, so that when we become adults ourselves, we transfer that impulse to other entities. A Buddhist would say that life is suffering, and that the root of this suffering is an attachment to outcomes. In other words, we set ourselves up for disappointment (suffering) by believing in outcome that may or may not come true. If it does come true – such as when your cancer goes into remission, you get that job or promotion you wanted, or you have that beautiful baby with all fingers and toes intact – then hey, you’ve won the life lottery. But if, by the same token, your wish doesn’t come true, it doesn’t mean that your deity had something else in mind for you, or you did something to make the gods angry. It just means that sometimes things work out the way we want, and sometimes they don’t, but believing that we can influence the outcome one way or the other is a fool’s errand. (This reality was highlighted by a recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, which determined that 65% of cancer cases were the result of random DNA mutations during cell division, a factor that no amount of prevention, healthy diet and lifestyle can protect against.)
I pick on religion because that is the most prominent area in life where Inoculation Syndrome holds sway. This makes perfect sense, really, because religion is not only concerned with how we conduct ourselves in this life but also what happens to us in the afterlife, which is something none of us know for certain, a prospect terrifying enough to drive many of us to religion in the first place. If you’ve ever seen the Christian symbol of the fish on someone’s car, you know how this works. The person wishes to make it known that he or she is a Christian, a person of faith, and this identification, by extension, is meant to cause you to think of that person in a positive light. Much like the early Christian times when the sign of the fish meant a safe haven and protection from persecution, the symbol in modern times identifies the individual to others who may share the same belief. By sharing the same belief, people of the fish know they can trust each other, and that deep down they share more in common with each other than someone who does not flash the fish. But this is no more true than two people wearing jerseys from the same sports team (“Oh, you’re a Panthers fan? Well, you must be all right then!”). See, the problem with inoculation syndrome is that, once inoculated, the person believes his or her immunity spreads to others, as if some kind of protective aura or invisible force field. It’s tempting to think that a fish person, or the fellow members of a church with whom you worship, think like you do, but the truth is that within a single congregation no two people think alike about their religious beliefs. This is why wars continue to be waged around the world and why, especially here in the Bible Belt, we have churches cropping up all over the place whenever somebody becomes convinced that the pastor isn’t leading his flock the right way. It’s one interpretation over another, and who’s to say which one is correct? I guess the Lord will arbitrate the matter from his throne in heaven, but that doesn’t do much to alleviate the conflict here on earth, does it?
It especially sticks in my craw when you see the fish sign on businesses, which in marketing terms equates to leveraging a brand that’s existed for over two thousand years. “Shop with me because I’m a good Christian, and I will give you a better deal than the heathen down the road. Trust me.” A business here in Hickory puts religious sayings on its marquee, even going so far as to invoke fire and brimstone for those who don’t believe (you can damn well believe that I won’t ever do business there). During my (mercifully) brief time at the Chamber, there was a Christian businessman who aspired to form a Chamber consisting of Christian businesses. I doubt he realized how that would be a recipe for financial disaster, since religiosity is on the decline here in America and around the world. And he must have slept through the Sunday school lesson on how Jesus felt about the moneychangers in the temple. How does one determine whether a person receives the Christian seal of approval anyway, what with all the flavors, practices and interpretations? Most reasonable people understand that there are just as many crooked Christian businessmen, and crooked pastors selling the snake oil equivalent of the prosperity gospel, as there are crooks in any walk of life. Saying you are otherwise doesn’t make it so. I feel much more secure in dealing with someone based on how they walk the walk rather than how they talk the talk.
Inoculation Syndrome runs rampant in America’s other religion as well: politics. This is particularly true of the more ideological strains of our political parties. After all, politics these days is not about governance but power, and power is one of the most addictive, mind-warping inoculations there is. Politics in a nation of hundreds of millions of people is a cake that has baked into the recipe the assumption that there are many ideas and solutions to a societal problem, and we settle on the best of these – or the ones that cause the least harm – after vigorous debate and (gulp!) compromise. Power works differently. The powerful, upon inoculation, steadfastly believe they have acceded to power by mandate, that they have a right to their position owing to their authority, status and WOW factor (White, Old and Wealthy). Once in power, they cloak themselves with this authority in order to hand down decisions that they tell us with a straight face is for our own good, as if we are too stupid, being powerless and all, to determine those things for ourselves. To speak against their decisions, or to question their authority, is to violate one of the bedrock foundations of morality: we must respect authority the same way we are taught to honor thy mother and father (but especially thy father, since power is still predominantly a man’s game). However, power, as we know, is a fickle bitch. It would be hard to take their arrogance and hubris so seriously if our willingness to cede authority didn’t cause so much damage to the country and our democracy. Draw back the curtain on these individuals and more often than not you’ll find someone who didn’t earn but gained their positions by virtue of being born into the right race, zip code, gene pool and so forth. They refuse to be inconvenienced by facts or reality in making their decisions. Therefore, calling them out on the facts does no good whatsoever. Why? Because they have the power, bitch! They get so high from their inoculation that they come to believe themselves anointed.
But we the sheeple have other ways to inoculate ourselves than power. The free market makes all kinds of goodies, trinkets and bling available to inoculate ourselves with. Our rampant consumerism in America convinces us that the acquisition of things, from the clothes we wear and the flat screen TVs we buy to the cars we drive, elevates our status and makes us happier, when nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the relentless accumulation of stuff distracts us from the issues in our country that really matter, such as having a truly participatory democracy, addressing poverty and income inequality and creating access to essential human needs like education, food, housing and healthcare. Basing our aspirations and worth on who ends up with the most toys is the kind of sad, dog-eat-dog existence that I doubt our framers had in mind when they founded this nation.
As I said earlier, I would love nothing more than to have a system of beliefs that protected me from the things I fear and cannot control, but I have spent the majority of my adult life coming to terms with the fact that such thinking is the equivalent of “Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which one fills up first.” Instead, I choose to take comfort as I find it in the here and now among things like family, friendship, community service, transformational stories, and so on. I know that these, too, shall pass. But then so too will those who lead from a false sense of security that’s proportionate to the dosage of inoculation they have given themselves or received from their paymasters. Ultimately, at some time or other, I know each of these things will disappoint or fail me, just as I will them. I think it’s also important not to forget that reason, intellectualism and believing oneself to be immune to Inoculation Syndrome is its own kind of inoculation. We have a responsibility to be forever vigilant in the questioning and reevaluation of our beliefs. After all, even the most faithful leave room for doubt. At best, all I claim to have are ideas, thoughts and questions about the way things are and should be, ones that forever change and evolve based on my interaction with the world and years lived in it, but never the answers. Anyone who claims otherwise is full of shit and deserves to be told as much.