Opinion: Gov. Murphy, COVID-19, and the lesson of ‘The Book of Five Rings’

Saladin Ambar | July 21, 2021 | Opinion
‘We all often need the affirmation of wisdom outside that provided by our parents or guardians’
Saladin Ambar

A few weeks ago, the father of one of my son Daniel’s friends’ spotted a book on my shelf. “Ah, ‘The Book of Five Rings’ — that’s an awesome book,” he exclaimed enthusiastically. I watched Daniel’s head spin around, and he proceeded to tell this gentleman that he had a copy and was excited to read it. I nearly guffawed — I had given Dan a copy of the book many months ago (he’s a newly minted black belt in Tang Soo Do), and choked back a hard laugh, as we both exchanged glances. As any parent knows (or will soon find out), nothing hits home for your children quite like advice that comes from anyone but you.

I reflected on this moment as I listened on Monday to Gov. Phil Murphy update the public about the present state of the pandemic in New Jersey, and the “highly effective vaccines that are saving lives.” I was then compelled to rethink any parent’s egocentric response to second-hand affirmations of parental advice: if only our current politics had room for such celebrity endorsements. The truth is, far too many of us are sequestered in our own political silos, and never get the opportunity to hear such advice affirmed. Worse still, many Americans are presented with such good, life-saving advice, but the counsel far too often falls on deaf ears.

Why is this? Here was a plainspoken, nonpolitical, near-monotone Murphy, giving a bevy of statistics related to vaccine efficacy, including the striking fact that only 31 deaths in New Jersey have been linked to the many millions who have received one of the various vaccines available in the United States. Thirty-one may sound like a high number, but, as Murphy pointed out, this means that there is a 99.9993% chance of avoiding death from the coronavirus once fully vaccinated.

As Miyamoto Musashi, the author of the ancient text, “The Book of Five Rings,” reminds us, however, “There is observation and there is seeing. The eye of observation is strong. The eye of seeing is weak.” Our present politics, particularly the Trumpist variety, is rooted in “seeing.” Facts, statistics, fundamental truths pass before the eyes, but go unscrutinized. Seeing is passion. Observation involves the restraint of not leaping to judgment. We got to this place over many decades, but in recent years, our cable news, talk radio, and social media culture has accelerated the process by which even life-saving facts don’t amount to much if they run counter to the warmth of our preconceived notions or desires.

Do the numbers speak for themselves?

“I cannot repeat it enough: We do not have a pandemic among the vaccinated,” Murphy said. “We only have a pandemic among the unvaccinated.” At one point, Murphy said, almost as if to himself, “These numbers speak for themselves.” Do they? The truth is almost certainly more discouraging. The numbers speak only to the observant, and we still live in a country, however far ahead of the rest of the world in this regard, that remains slightly less than half-vaccinated.

All of this means that our lives, not to mention our politics, will be shaped by the pandemic and our schizophrenic responses as citizens, for some time to come. “Some time,” has become the euphemism for “God knows when.” But what else can Murphy, and the nation’s other 49 governors do? These press conferences are like lighthouses out somewhere in the vast ocean, bright enough for those alert to avoid the danger, yet never bright enough for the distracted or negligent mariner.

So the rule of thumb is, save whom you can. We are in the midst of a wicked problem, and it isn’t COVID-19. It is one rooted in our arrogance and a diminished sense of community. The playful lesson of my son Daniel’s reacquaintance with the “Book of Five Rings” is that we all often need the affirmation of wisdom outside that provided by our parents or guardians. There is nothing wrong with that. It suggests that the echo of advice is there to save us. But when we willfully eschew all sources that conflict with our worldview, we violate a fundamental principle of human progress. As Musashi concludes, “To be in the world and see things poorly, to be unable to distinguish one matter from another … is just the mind of confusion.”

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