How Do You Respond When an Anti-Vaxxer Dies of Covid?

In the earliest days of the pandemic in New York City, I would often pass the refrigerated morgue trucks parked outside Mount Sinai Hospital, just a block from my Jesuit community.

In those days, it seemed that everyone was masking, everyone was keeping distant, everyone was washing hands and wiping down packaged groceries. And everyone was praying (or hoping) for a vaccine.

Then, incredibly, it came. Then, even more incredibly, some who were eligible for these medical miracles resisted. And among those who refused the vaccine, many have died. Many more will die.

Both the famous and not-so-famous, perhaps some of your friends or family members, have joined the long line of those who have died from Covid after resisting what nearly every reputable scientist and physician has said, even as misinformation spreads: Getting vaccinated, wearing masks and maintaining social distance are the best protections from Covid, and also help protect others, particularly those who are sick, elderly or immunocompromised.

Pope Francis has called getting vaccinated an “act of love.” To put it more bluntly than the Holy Father: It’s not just about you.

It’s not surprising then that when a prominent person who has refused to perform this act of love — particularly when that person has railed publicly against these health-saving measures — dies from Covid, some people are eager to say, “I told you so.” A few go further, mocking those who have died or even trolling their survivors.

This welter of strong feelings can be disorienting: We see someone resisting vaccines or masking (which frustrates us); thus endangering others (which angers us); perhaps even endangering ourselves (which frightens us); and then dying — which should sadden us but, some of us are horrified to discover, doesn’t. Feeling vindicated by someone’s death seems immoral, but it also seems reflexive. Human.

There are several possible theories of how humans evolved a tendency to feel schadenfreude, the German term for the joy one takes in another’s misfortune. Perhaps our cave-dwelling forebears felt something similar when they saw an enemy get too close to a saber-tooth tiger, despite repeated warnings, and end up as an afternoon snack. “That’s what you get, Og!”

Colin Wayne Leach, a psychology professor at Barnard College who has studied schadenfreude and gloating, told The New York Times recently that the schadenfreude many feel in response to the death of anti-vaccine activists is an outgrowth of the country’s polarization: “In many ways, it’s seeing your enemies suffer because of what they believe. That is the sweetest justice, and that’s partly why it’s so satisfying to the other side.”

Whatever its evolutionary roots, many people experience satisfaction in saying (or thinking): “See? I was right.” After months of trying to convince anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and anti-social distancers that life-saving measures are both for their own good and that of others, frustration might get the better of people.

There’s schadenfreude across the ideological spectrum. Recently, on Fox News, Laura Ingraham, a commentator who often expresses her belief in “Christian values,” applauded the news that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had tested positive for the coronavirus despite being vaccinated and boosted.

The problem is that even a mild case of schadenfreude is the opposite of a “Christian value.” Jesus asked us to pray for our enemies, not celebrate their misfortunes. He wanted us to care for the sick, not laugh at them. When Jesus was crucified alongside two thieves, he says to one of them, according to Luke’s Gospel, not “That’s what you get,” but “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Schadenfreude is not a Christian value. It’s not even a loosely moral value.

At this point I could run through a list of philosophers, theologians and wise voices from religions and traditions around the world to prove my point. Instead I will reclaim a word that has been largely lost from our discourse: mean. Crowing over someone’s suffering or demise is as far from a moral act as one can imagine. It’s cruel.

Indulged in regularly, schadenfreude ends up warping the soul. It robs us of empathy for those with whom we disagree. It lessens our compassion. To use some language from both the Old and New Testaments, it “hardens” our hearts. No matter how much I disagree with anti-vaxxers, I know that schadenfreude over their deaths is a dead end.

“Come on!” some might say. “It’s a natural emotion.” That’s true — and emotions are usually beyond our control. If someone coughs intentionally (or thoughtlessly) in your face on the subway, it’s natural to get angry. At least for a few seconds.

But what you do with those emotions — give in to them, prolong them or intensify them — is a moral decision. After your fellow subway rider coughs in your face, you don’t need to express your anger by punching him. Simply letting your emotions take you wherever they please is what a baby does, not an adult.

When it comes to schadenfreude, a line from Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” is apposite. The dotty father of Charles Ryder, the protagonist, is hosting a meal at home. The father mentions someone whose business has failed, and another guest chuckles.

“You find his misfortune the subject of mirth?” Charles’s father retorts.

It’s a lighthearted scene, probably not meant to carry as much weight as other scenes in Waugh’s novel about moral choices. But it has always stuck with me. Don’t find another person’s misery the subject of mirth, glee or satisfaction. Doing so is mean. It’s immoral. And one day you may be the unfortunate one.

James Martin (@JamesMartinSJ) is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of the magazine America: The Jesuit Review, and the author, most recently, of “Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone.”

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