Yes, I was called a Nazi. Well, sort of ...
It happened in an unlikely place—the theatre on board a Viking Ocean Cruises ship.
Let me set this up for you. We were in the midst of a great cruise around the British Isles. Sure, we were nervous about traveling again with the sixth wave of Covid taking hold. But Viking was doing everything possible to make our trip safe and healthy.
Amongst the Covid precautions, all passengers were required to wear masks in all public areas except when actively eating. Unfortunately as the cruise went on, more and more passengers stopped wearing masks or left their noses hanging out over top of the mask. I know that sounds absolutely bizarre, that sticking out the nose like that, but it was quite popular with the group we were in.
I asked one of the passengers to put his mask on when he sat beside me in the theatre on the ship. That was when he called me a Nazi. Well, to be clear, he grumbled as he put it on, saying, “well, if you are going to be a Nazi about it.” Then he said that masks weren’t effective anyway. A few minutes later he got up and walked away, presumably so he didn’t have to sit beside me. I think I ruined his evening.
How did we get here?
We got here based on competing stories that different sectors of our society subscribe to. Stories. Not information. Not truth. Stories.
Stories are ubiquitous. Putin tells one story about Ukraine, Zelenskyy another. Republicans tell one story about January 6th, Democrats another. Anti-vaxxers tell one story about the effectiveness of vaccines, medical researchers tell another.
And we all live with the illusion that the story we subscribe to is what is true. If another person’s story differs, we dismiss or discredit that story as wrong, as disinformation or a lie.
But when it comes right down to it, some stories result in lives being lost.
As a novelist, I create stories. When you read my novel—if you engage with it, believe and identify with it, subscribe to it—I’m impacting your view of the world. And so, I have to think hard about my responsibility to my readers in telling the stories that I believe need to be told.
One of the plot lines of An Incoming Tide is a grassroots research study comparing pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical treatments for anxiety and depression. I even tell the fictional outcome of this fictional study. So what if a reader subscribes to that story, stops taking prescribed medication and has a bad outcome to that decision? Have I acted irresponsibly? On the other hand, perhaps by virtue of my story, someone might have the courage to break a toxic dependency on a pharmaceutical they don’t need and may be doing them harm.
What makes that story in the novel particularly seductive is that it contradicts the existing story of mental health treatment that dominates in our culture—the chemical imbalance story. Truly, there is no balance scale for chemicals in the brain. I know I am being a bit glib here, but the simplistic chemical imbalance story is much better at selling chemicals than it is at reflecting on the complexity of how the electrical/chemical process of the brain works (or at least, that’s what the story in my head is telling me!).
My years of working with those suffering emotional and interpersonal distress revealed that while some people with emotional and mental distress benefit from physical treatments (drugs and electroconvulsive therapy) others with similar life difficulties are harmed by them.
Of course, all of this is more complicated than two competing stories. We actually live in an ecology of stories, all interacting. Some stories contradict other stories and some potentiate other ones. Our story ecology is dynamic with new stories emerging, others dying out.
The field of psychology (and mental health) is very young, only about 100 years old. Over my career during the last four decades, there’s been an ebb and flow of prevailing stories about mental health treatment. Each time one of them strengthened we had the illusion that we suddenly had gotten it all right. Years later, each had faded to be replaced by another.
Stories are powerful because they connect things, they provide context to what we observe, they set an emotional tone for the external experiences we encounter. But stories are seductive, seeking to make us believe they are the truth even though they are just what we make up in our head to try to make sense of things.
No, that’s only partially right. While we do make up stories in our head to explain what we experience, many stories we subscribe to are served up to us by those with motives of power or profit. Searching to make sense of things, we sign on to them.
And so in the midst of this, what do we do to responsibly co-exist in the story ecology?
I believe that we need to look at the balance of benefit and harm that competing stories produce. A story that serves to dominate, control or devalue another harms—yes harms, no matter how seductive and ego-enhancing that story feels in the telling. Stories that promote compassion and inclusion smooth social cooperation and connection, help insure survival and individual wellbeing.
And so, “who was that unmasked man?” (apologies to the Lone Ranger).
I don’t know, but I suspect he was pretty miserable when it comes right down to it. Perhaps his story was telling him that he was a victim, that his freedoms were being taken away rather than his health protected, that he had the right to disregard the rules.
But maybe his grumbling made him feel powerful and superior for just a moment. I really don’t know. After all, what he experienced in this was just his own story about the world and his place within it.
oh, and by the way ... if you want to read more about my cruise around the British Isles check out the travel blog on this website.