The Embarrasing Truthtelling of Viruses and Bacteria

Hamlet: A man may fish with a worm that has eat of a king, and eat of the fish that has fed of that worm.
King: What dost thou mean by this?
Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a-progress through the guts of a beggar. (Hamlet 4.3.2)

I’ve been having little arguments with myself all week: one one hand, like many good Americans, I believe in the idea and potential and creativity and wonder of individuals. I believe that the mind, for example, is a fathomless miracle. I believe that individuals have certain rights to freedom and self-determination.

Yet at the same time, everything that we are has been given us. We carry in our bodies the genes of thousands if not millions of ancestors; we have been brought to this moment–every moment–by people whose care and attention and patience have loved us imperfectly along. And, of course, by the God who has loved us into being.

Those of us who have the gift of being able to read and write often also have the ability to learn and to choose–to choose where to live and with whom, to choose what to think and to believe and to consume. And that, compared to how most people have lived and do live, is an almost unimaginable luxury. We can choose.

Maybe it is tempting, then, to assume that because we can choose, because we are wondrous beings with miraculous minds, because no one save God can know our secret thoughts and desires and motivations and cares, that our choices belong to us, and us alone.

And sometimes they do, or, at least, appear to. Who is harmed if I choose to drink lots of coffee, stay up too late, live entirely on chocolate and steak, and spend my waking hours studying the obscurer novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edith Wharton? My children and husband, perhaps, but anyone else?

What about the growers that raised the coffee and the chocolate? What about the cows who suffered to give me steak? What about the creation that groans with the effort to get these products to me? What about those who have loved me into being, and what about those around me in need of someone to love them into being?

I do wonder if the ire I’ve provoked this week regarding vaccines is because illness frequently touches the space between what we can deem personal and private from what we can see as public and collective. For viruses and bacteria are not always–indeed, not often–respecters of “personal” boundaries.

They whisper of our connectedness in embarrassing and messy ways. Direct contact. Droplet. Airborne. Fecal-oral. 


Maybe they tell a truth we’d rather not see…which is that none of our choices affects only us. Every choice is made, or at least made possible, by factors and conditions that we did not set up or create or earn or deserve, and every choice carries with it implications for people a whisper away as well as a world away. Some are just harder to see than others.

And so no choice can really be made outside that second bit of the Greatest Commandment. And that’s uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. It would be so much easier if my choices were just between me and Jesus. But I think that kind of thing is an illusion; a suspension of disbelief. We are all connected. Sometimes the links are just too faint to see.

To tell the truth, this scares me. I am from a culture that deifies the individual and I am going to a culture that scarcely understands how that is possible. I want to hold on to my security, my storage space, my dental insurance, my privacy, my iPhone, my abundant beautiful clothes, my deeply held convictions about what’s right and good and true.

I don’t want to have to consider everyone when I choose what to eat for dinner or inject into my body or buy or not buy or believe or not believe. And in fact I can’t. The connections are too extensive, too invisible, too many.

It is hard, indeed, for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

Lord in your mercy, hear my prayer for grace as a person of wealth in a world of poverty.

I’m going to be away for a few days at this gorgeous place at this wonderful meeting. I’ll be back on the blog next week. Peace be with you all.

xo, Rachel

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3 thoughts on “The Embarrasing Truthtelling of Viruses and Bacteria

  1. ¡Vaya pues! Bien dicho, chica. Todo esto e incluso una cita de Shakespeare. En serio pues a mi criterio uno de tus mejores escritos. De verdad. Y por supuesto me encanta lo de Jesús y sus amiguitos.

  2. I read an article a few days ago on an argument for Christian Veganism. I think it was you who posted the “there is no guilt free diet” post –and was reminded of that – – but it is certainly overwhelming to think of all the people our decisions impact and how much influence my seemingly innocent choice to drink a cup of coffee this morning while I read blogs has on people in this world.

  3. This reminds me of The Lion King: “We eat the gazelle, we die and become grass, the gazelle eat us …” Reminded me of John Donne too: “No man is an island, entire of itself … Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”

    Where does our responsibility begin? For me I figure it starts with every breath I take, Rachel, and that’s why your prayer for grace as a wealthy person in a poverty stricken world hit home with me. Thanks.


    P.S. That Malawi Network program sounds great and those pictures of the conference center are gorgeous. Praying for you and Tim as you travel. Enjoy!

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