Sunday, July 26, 2020

Negotiating the Danger of Fools and Their COVID-19 Folly

"Sweetie, don't get too close to the lady," I say to my granddaughter at the swimming beach of our local lake. "Give her some space."

As my granddaughter stops and backs away in water that's waist deep for her, the lady says, "Oh, that's not important to me."

"Well, it's important to me," I respond.

The lady leaves the pond, and as she exits the pond, she grimaces and mutters, "I think it's just ridiculous."

It's a hot summer late morning, and my wife and I have taken the kids to swim. Few people are there, only an elderly man (maybe a bit older than me) and another grandmother and her two grandkids. The other grandmother is sitting in the shade maybe thirty or forty feet from the water. She never says a word to her two grandkids, whom we have to remind, along with our own grandkids, to keep our separate family spaces apart. The elderly gentleman has a touch of what used to be called "feeble-mindedness," and I have to clearly ask him to keep his distance as he leaves the water.

So, yeah, I'm thinking about the situation and how I answered, and with a bit of research come up with a Biblical reference from Proverbs: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes" (26:4-5).

That's quite a mouthful, yet I think the main idea is that debating ignorance on its own level is not only a futile exercise, it also legitimizes the foolish idea or action. From that perspective, I think my response was appropriate. I stated my perspective in a way that motivated the response I desired--without trying to argue the individuals out of their mindset. I didn't accept their viewpoint; I just established that I would prefer that they keep their opinions over there.

As I write this, the United States will soon have four and a quarter million confirmed cases of COVID-19, 150,000 deaths, and has several states seriously under siege and in danger of being overwhelmed by the new coronavirus. "What will it take to convince people that the pandemic is real, that there is real danger?" I ask myself. Here I am at the beach on a Saturday morning for an hour and a half, and I have to interact with three individuals who foolishly are disregarding the fact that the world is experiencing a pandemic.

Being an admirer of the Age of Reason, the era that birthed our United States of America, I think of Benjamin Franklin and his Poor Richard's Almanack. “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.” The United States, along with the rest of the world, is in the midst of dealing with the "dear school" or hard-knocks school of a viral epidemic, yet because the virus is invisible and for many Americans the effects of the virus are not sitting on their doorsteps, they scoff at the pandemic and its dangers, to circle back to the Biblical reference.

Negotiating the pandemic deniers is one of the greatest dangers during this time. Arguing with the deniers is a danger that has resulted in some deniers invading the personal space of others to breathe or spit on them, or to even attack. Another Biblical quote, reads "For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise" (2 Corinthians 11:19). To paraphrase, if we consider ourselves "in the know," then we should be kind and patient with those who are engaged in unwise thinking and action.

There is the flip side to this saying though, that we should "not kindly suffer fools," that we should not put up with the dull and dangerous thinking of others. Such behavior, though, can be its own expression of the ignorance of arrogance and excessive pride, of belligerence born narrow-mindedness. Thinking about this pandemic, it seems some push-back is necessary to keep a safe space around ourselves. The question for me as a private citizen, an individual, is how do we keep ourselves safe without provoking covid fools to get into our faces? How do we allow ourselves and others our personal freedom without giving this novel coronavirus the freedom to spread?

As a private citizen, I think my course is to be clear in my expectations of others without being confrontational. I am not trying to separate fools from their folly; I am trying to separate myself from the fools. Looking back at my actions at the beach, I think I did an okay job. For the woman who thought social distancing ridiculous, I didn't ask her to change her opinion, only to respect mine. For the grandmother who just let her grandkids play without providing social distancing guidance and intervention, my wife and I just kindly reminded the kids to each keep to their own areas. For the older gentleman who wanted to come up close and talk to me, I asked him to keep his distance in as neutral a manner as possible, turning my shoulder and breaking eye contact. All three strategies worked.

The problem is that each of those three situations could have been dismal, disastrous fails. The woman who felt the whole thing ridiculous could have ignored me and hugged my granddaughter, or could have charged over to me to scream in my face. The kids (including my own grandchildren) could have ignored our instructions, being at an impulsive age, and just gotten together. (This, of course, is one of the biggest fears of teachers as the beginning of the school year is approaching.) The elderly gentleman could have just not understood my request that he keep his distance, just a nice old guy navigating the fog of his latter years. I could have been occupying the covid reef he crashed upon.

None of those worst-case scenarios occurred, but they could have. I was reminded that going out in public during these times is a risk. We are all trying to balance our need for the freedom to get out with our need to keep safe during this pandemic. What risk level can we tolerate, and what risk level is prudent, not only for ourselves but for society, is the question of questions. We must find a way to kindly suffer fools yet to find a way to be "kindly unkind" and clearly indicate what behaviors are dangerous and unacceptable. As the governor of Wisconsin said last May, "We are the Wild West." Just as in the frontier days, an element of self-sufficiency, clear-headedness, and realistic thinking is required of all of us if we and our families are to remain healthy. The police and civil law can't protect us if someone invades our personal space and infects us with this novel coronavirus. It's already too late.

Yes, people in some cases and places are breaking civil law, but the big deal is that so many are breaking the laws of nature. People may get away with breaking a government's law, but the laws of nature are implacable when it comes to retribution. Hunker down, run, yell--do what you must, but do not get between fools and their folly. And for God's sake, do not become infected with their folly.

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  1. “I am not trying to separate fools from their folly; I am trying to separate myself from the fools.” Thank you, Tom, for yet another excellent blog post. I am Quaker and there is a phrase that we use sometimes to express strong agreement with the previous speaker in a Meeting: “That Friend speaks my mind “. In this blog post, you, my friend, have truly spoken my mind.

    1. Hi, Mary Sue, and thanks for the comment. I checked out your front porch blog and bio. I also am a teacher--or was, since I'm retired. I have a nice vegetable garden and love the mountains. We have common interests, so I've followed your blog. You might be interested in my camping blog, and my Facebook page,, where I post most of my articles and also other articles I've read and enjoyed. Again, thanks for enjoying my essay :)