The Journal Gazette
Sunday, December 27, 2020 1:00 am

Fight the power of resentment

Unproductive emotion has already drained too much from our lives

Audrey M. Van Gilder

Seeing frontline health care workers and the elderly being vaccinated against COVID-19 is good news and a welcome relief after nine months of vulnerability, sickness and death. That the vaccine rollout coincides with the new year is all the more reason to feel grateful and hopeful.

But I'm also grappling with less charitable feelings toward certain politicians who have the unearned privilege of being among the first Americans vaccinated.

In April, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham supported cutting off funding for the World Health Organization, an agency tasked with promoting international public health. A WHO program called COVAX has since secured more than 1 billion vaccine doses for low-income countries that cannot afford to purchase the vaccine. Graham, a Republican, received the vaccine on Dec. 19. He tweeted “help is on the way” and a thumbs up. Help is indeed on the way, no thanks to Graham.

In September, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst falsely and offensively implied that American doctors and hospitals were inflating COVID-19 case numbers to line their own pockets. She received the vaccine Dec. 20, tweeting her encouragement that all Iowans do the same “when their time comes.”

In June, Vice President Mike Pence authored an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal under the headline “There isn't a coronavirus second wave.” (Newsflash: there was.) Pence argued that concern about the virus was “overblown” and incorrectly attributed new outbreaks to more testing. Pence was vaccinated on camera on Dec. 18, quipping that he “didn't feel a thing.”

Well, I felt something – a white-hot flash of resentment.

I know these politicians are not actually “skipping the line”; Pence, Graham, Ernst and many others from both parties are being vaccinated earlier than the rest of us in the interest of continuity of government. Fine.

But for these politicians to have spent nearly the whole year using their considerable power and platforms to minimize the threat of COVID-19, spread misinformation about its origins and transmission, abdicated responsibility for its uncontrolled spread, yet still benefit first from the vaccine is unconscionable.

I wasn't alone in feeling resentful in 2020.

Some Americans resented having to confront systemic racism and state violence as the largest social movement in U.S. history dominated the news. Some Americans resented being asked to act on climate change as distant places burned from forest fires. And some Americans resented the suggestion that young people burdened with crippling student loans should have part of their debt wiped away.

Resentment breeds self-pity. It bakes into spite. It leads to denial of truth, and it closes us off to greater understanding and generosity toward one another.

Resentment may be understandable in the face of perceived unfairness, but too much of it can subsume us and distort our worldview.

The author Katherine J. Cramer studied this phenomenon in her 2016 book “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.” Cramer's thesis is that rural Americans' resentment toward perceived elites in cities and in government divides our country as much as race, class and political partisanship.

This year, as COVID-19 reached the smallest towns in America and rural hospitals filled up, we saw overwhelming expressions of resentment toward the people who live in and govern urban areas.

Rural residents of Oregon and Washington drove in caravans to confront and intimidate their urban neighbors. The president – a New Yorker whose supporters are overwhelmingly rural – directed racist rhetoric at the Black mayors of Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. More than a dozen members of a domestic terrorist “militia” plotted to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan.

None of us should resign ourselves to the politics of resentment when the consequences reach these violent extremes.

I won't deny that I feel resentful toward those I perceive as having done little to protect me and my community from COVID-19 in 2020. But I will resist giving in to resentment in 2021. And I resolve to start the new year celebrating our shared health, strength and unity in tribute to the 320,000 Americans – urban and rural alike – who are no longer with us.

Audrey M. Van Gilder is a Fort Wayne attorney.

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