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On Immunity: An Inoculation
On Immunity: An Inoculation
Eula Biss
Graywolf Press, 2014
216 pp., $24.00

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D. L. Mayfield


The Fear Exemption

Clutching at any appearance of control.

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On Immunity is deeply theological in this regard. Biss, using her clear, articulate, well-crafted prose, absorbs both the hysteria and the scientific jargon of our day and turns it into a soul-searching metaphor: how willing are we to protect our own at the risk of the vulnerable? We are, as Susan Sontag says, a country which “praises self-interest as individualism.” The effects of this bad theology (for indeed, putting our hope in ourselves and our attempts at self-preservation is a form of faith) are all too evident in many sectors: public education, immigration reform, social welfare programs. What happens when we only think about the good of our immediate family, at the cost of the wider community? What happens if too many make special exemptions for themselves?

Biss is keen to think through the ramifications of our obsession with self-interest and self-preservation. Take her interactions with The Vaccine Book by Dr. Robert Sears (colloquially known as Dr. Bob). The Vaccine Book has commonly been touted as an accessible, moderate tome on vaccines, arguing for modified and delayed vaccine schedules. In a chapter called “Is it your social responsibility to vaccinate your child?” Biss writes that Dr. Bob gives an answer that is much different from her own. “Can we fault parents for putting their own child’s health ahead of that of the children around him?” For Dr. Bob and the majority of his readers, that answer is no. Dr. Bob then goes on to caution his readers not to share their fears with too many other parents, “because if too many people avoid the MMR [measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine] we’ll likely see the disease increase significantly.”

A thought that would not leave me as I read was this: why do we localize our fears on these minute risks? I see this in my own life. I think about the anguish I felt as I had my daughter vaccinated, on time and as scheduled, how I felt like a traitor to my own motherly instincts. Perhaps it is because the world is a dangerous place, and we clutch at any appearance of control. As Biss writes, the American consciousness fears sharks instead of mosquitos—obsessed with media spectacles that present very little real danger to us while dismissing deadly diseases (such as malaria) which kill so many around the world. Since malaria no longer poses a threat to our children in the U.S., we do not fear it. And, as Biss spells out, the consequences worldwide have been dire.

Again and again, Biss returns to this theme: we are not nearly as independent and self-sufficient as we would like to believe. Using science and systems theories, she gently points out some of the graver consequences of our refusal to believe that we somehow have a responsibility to one another. Love your neighbor as yourself, while never explicitly mentioned, is a compelling moral argument threaded throughout the book.

Too often our world stokes our predilections for faithlessness and selfishness, creating individuals empowered to self-preserve who still feel very powerless in the face of life. A Christian theology of interdependence is a helpful antidote here. As St. Paul so beautifully put it, we are all different parts of one body. If one area is sick, it affects us all. We cannot afford to dismiss the vulnerable, we cannot afford the luxury of oblivious self-interest, we cannot afford to localize our fears. We are called to recognize that none of us are granted immunity. Greater than any myth of self-preservation, we have a distinct theology: we are all citizens both in the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. And it is not safe; but it is a very good place to be.

D. L. Mayfield lives and writes in the Midwest, where she currently is a part of a Christian order among the poor. Mayfield’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Image, Christianity Today, and The Other Journal, among others. She has a book of essays forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016.

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