It’s hard to say exactly when my friendship with Maria began. The moment when she became more than a passing stranger or an acquaintance, somebody I welcomed in, came to trust, even depended upon, to whatever extent friends still do that these days.
We both had ties to a Portland community of former residents of the Esalen Institute — Portland apparently being a particularly attractive place to such types: human potential junkies, mystics, healers and the like. Maria and I had not lived at Esalen at the same time, but there was enough shared vocabulary and worldview, and enough healthy skepticism about Esalen itself, to enable a rapport.
I’d seen her at various events: kids’ birthday parties and community barbecues. Maria had a wild head of wavy dark hair that sometimes looked angelic and other times a bit goofy. She liked to remind me that she was about to turn fifty, though her smooth skin and soft feminine features suggested a woman ten years younger. Only a certain weariness around her eyes suggested her true age.
When she discovered I was finishing up a PhD in depth psychology, she asked if she could come over to discuss the works of James Hillman. She missed intellectual discourse, she told me. “I’m starving for it.”
I was delighted, of course. Most people I meet have never heard of depth psychology, much less the inscrutable works of James Hillman. We sat in my living room drinking herbal tea and discussed the nature of the human psyche and the meaning of life. Maria turned out to be a fascinating character. She revealed that she had been sucked into a New Age cult in her youth and was a devout progressive Christian now. She struggled with mysterious chronic illness. She had a deep and decidedly mystical love for music, for singing in particular.
I don’t know when exactly our friendship began, but it was ultimately a bond forged in music, in singing. She intimated to me that she longed to find people to sing with, and I decided to take her up on it. I signed us up for a small choir, she introduced me to the world of a cappella vocal improvisation. Soon enough, she and I were co-hosting singing circles in my living room. Portland had been a lonely place for me, but in discovering this world of creative voice and spontaneous music, I felt like I might be finding the beginnings of a home.
Maria and I bonded over our loneliness too. We were both wayward souls in search of a community we could never seem to find. We would often lament the chronic flakiness and cliquishness of Portland culture.
“What I love about you, Jonathan,” she told me, close to the end, “is that you show up.”
In late March of 2020, when it first become clear that the novel coronavirus was spreading uncontained in Portland, I was worried about Maria. By that point she had shared quite a bit with me about her painful journey with chronic illness. I wasn’t entirely clear about the details of her condition, but it seemed likely she would be at higher risk from the pandemic than the rest of us. We had plans to attend a new singing group in early March, and I reached out to her in advance to make sure she was comfortable attending.
“I’m not worried about viruses,” she told me.
On the drive across town, I started talking about the pandemic and what it might mean. I had been tracking the numbers early and it seemed clear to me that we were moving toward an unprecedented disaster. But Maria was completely dismissive.
“It’s just like the flu,” she insisted.
“I don’t think so, Maria. I’ve heard it might be ten times more deadly than the flu.”
She raised her eyebrows in a gesture of condescension and said, “Ten times more deadly? No, I don’t think so.”
She began to explain to me some very strange ideas. Something about how science doesn’t really understand viruses. That viruses are symptoms, not causes, of disease; that viruses might even be healing agents. She pivoted to talking about how difficult it had been for her, twenty years ago, when she had made the decision not to vaccinate her son.
“Viruses strengthen children’s immune systems,” she explained to me. “Vaccines weaken them.”
I listened to all of this with a bemused, tolerant smile. I missed the exit for our singing event and had to circle the car back around. I had always known Maria had a collection of unconventional beliefs, and I pride myself on being tolerant and kind towards those who see the world differently. Everything I knew about science and biology told me that she was very wrong about viruses — but she was my friend and I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there was some element to what she was saying that I had misunderstood. We arrived at the farmstead hosting the singing event, and I let the matter drop.
Inside we did a number of kooky singing exercises, par for the course with vocal improv gatherings: using our voices to make weird sounds in rhythm with each other, singing a gibberish conversations. At one point, we paired off and Maria and I sat face to face, singing to each other. I could feel Maria’s breath stream on my face as she sang, and I knew she could feel mine. The official word on masks was still confused in those early days, but I knew what we were doing was not safe. Because of Maria’s health condition, I was a lot more worried about her than I was about myself. But she did not seem to care at all.
“That’s a really intimate exercise,” Maria commented to the group afterward. It was. It was also the last time she and I ever sang together.
A few days later, Maria sent me a pair of articles. Apparently, a good faith attempt to educate me about the reality of this supposed pandemic. As I read them, my heart sank. One was an article about how “germ theory” was mistaken. It started on solid enough ground, advocating for a holistic approach to human health that looks at the totality of physiological and environmental factors as context for the activity of any pathogens in the system: I agreed with all that. Then it went on to explain, without much evidence, how vaccines do more harm than good.
The second article, written by a medical doctor, seriously asked the reader to consider if the coronavirus pandemic might in fact be caused by the recent activation of the 5G network. Furthermore, it stated that epidemics are always correlated with a “radical change in the electrification of the earth.” The 1918 Spanish flu, it claimed, was the result of the widespread use of military radar. The argument is compelling in a magical storytelling kind of way. It might be plausible enough to merit renewed scientific inquiry, if not for the glaring fact that pandemics have been with us far longer than our electromagnetic technologies. I wonder how the author would explain the historic records of plagues dating back thousands of years before Edison’s lightbulb? The trouble with this line of thinking is that it encourages increasingly spurious explanations to justify belief in the alternative theory: perhaps these electromagnetically induced plagues of the past were caused by shifts in the Earth’s magnetic poles? Or perhaps interference by aliens? Or some kind of inter-dimensional convergence?
I have nothing against fantasy and speculation. I actually think we would be better off if we did not hold our certainties so rigidly. Healthy science requires ongoing inquiry and open mindedness, a willingness to see what past generations have missed. If you want to fantasize about great mysterious electromagnetic events causing plagues in antiquity, by all means, enjoy your fantasy. Newton, the father of classical physics, was an avowed alchemist after all. New scientific insights can come from strange ideas and strange places indeed. We can honor science without insisting that science has had the final word on absolutely everything. There is still room in this mad existence for further surprise.
But until you are able to actually produce some truly compelling evidence for your fantasy, you have no right to ask others to take it for fact. And this seems to be the sticking point where Western civilization is poised to fall off the cliff. We’ve started to blur the lines between fantasies and facts, between the pure possibility of existence and the grounded reality of what science can actually measure. I teach research methods now at the graduate level, and a big part of what I try to instill in my students is a deepened capacity for evaluating claims of truth. Science might not have all the answers, but it has a hell of a lot more answers than YouTube. Yet YouTube has increasingly become the toxic water in which our collective psyche now swims.
In this case, it was not merely that Maria had gone down the internet rabbit hole and lost her sense of the real. She had gotten these articles from one of her healthcare providers. Her false belief was supported by a social network that had lost touch with the ground.
“He’s a really smart guy,” she said to me about her naturopathic physician, “and he doesn’t believe the virus actually exists.”
I was a bit shell-shocked reading the 5G article. How could a woman as intelligent and soulful as Maria believe this spurious, unsubstantiated nonsense? Why would she want to? Had a lifetime of chronic illness made her that distrustful of conventional western medicine? Had her past trauma as a former cult-member left her with a skewed perspective on reality? But what could I say to Maria that would not come off as judgmental and condescending? How could I discuss this without it turning into a fight? In the spring of 2020, with the whole world thrust into chaos, a fight with Maria was the last thing I wanted.
In my introductory course on Research Methods, I’ve taken to showing my students the Flat Earth Documentary on Netflix. I do it to demonstrate the epistemic crisis that our civilization is moving into: a time when educated people are actually gathering to question if the Earth is really round. Questioning is healthy, in a general sense, as long as you have a reliable methodology for finding answers, and you don’t jump to conclusions. The trouble with Flat Earthers and their ilk is that they’ve replaced genuine inquiry with unquestioning belief, and they hold that belief so strongly it actually prevents any kind of rigorous inquiry. They only accept the “evidence” that fits their theory, and ignore anything that contradicts. It becomes the opposite of research: the unconventional possibility becomes a doctrinal creed. This is the same pattern underlying the conspiracism that, over the last decade, has all but destroyed our civic discourse. Unproven conspiracy theories cease to be areas of genuine inquiry and become matters of certainty and faith. There is no robust methodology, no metric for evaluating results — only righteous collective identity through tribal storytelling. It doesn’t matter that judges appointed by Donald Trump threw out all of his election fraud challenges — the tribe believes the story, because the story constitutes the tribe. The election was faked because the tribe demands it. Under these conditions, a siege of the Capitol is par for the course.
I’ve often thought it would have been easier for me if Maria had turned out to be a Flat Earther. Because however wrongheaded and wacky they may be, at least the Flat Earthers aren’t hurting anyone. The same can’t be said for the Anti-Maskers in a pandemic.
In the early days of Covid, I went through waves of optimism and even inspiration. At first, it seemed like we might actually be able to beat this thing through collective action and collective care for our fellow Americans. This sentiment was, of course, short lived.
I could not believe the things I was seeing on social media. So many folks seemed desperate to spread the “truth” that the virus was a hoax. That masks were a government mind-control device. A woman from my PhD cohort, to my horror, actually started posting conspiracy theories about how Bill Gates had positioned himself to make a fortune peddling a fake and perhaps harmful vaccine to the world. Others went even further, insisting Mr. Gates was going to use the vaccine to tag us all with microchips.
I may have been receiving a higher dose of all this conspiracism than the average educated social media user. Because I have a background in the New-Agey Los Angeles yoga and wellness community and am trained in massage and holistic bodywork at a variety of esoteric locales, my social media contacts were replete with unconventional folks who are extremely distrustful of existing institutions, including Western medicine and government authority in general. I suspect there must also be several bad actors behind the scenes, taking advantage of this distrust and deliberately sowing discord through disinformation, with aims at one political outcome or another. As the recent integration of New Age culture and QAnon conspiracism has shown, this population was particularly ripe for the plucking.
My early optimism about the civic response to the pandemic was quickly smashed. In its place, I became genuinely depressed. The sheer self-destructiveness of right wing populist resistance to Covid left me genuinely despairing about the future of humanity. Things are bad, so let’s not work together, let’s ignore science, let’s abandoned the weak and the elderly for the sake of short-term economic gain. People resisted simple virus containment measures in the name of freedom and economy — and in so doing insured that we would all be less free and less prosperous for many more months, perhaps years, to come. After a few weeks witnessing this collective insanity, I reached a breaking point, and, isolated in lockdown, I broke with my usually stoic stance on social media and decided to vent about it on Facebook. I posted openly about my newfound depression and its cause. I stated that I was feeling no small amount of despair about how human civilization could possibly survive this descent into conspiracist fever dream.
Of course, that Facebook post became an instant magnet for every conspiracist in my network to reply with their favorite arguments and articles, no doubt trying to save me from my sheep-like delusion. To some extent, I expected this behavior: they were defending their worldview and identity, as humans have done from the beginning of time. But this instance was particularly disturbing to me because in this case I had ultimately been posting not about conspiracy theories but about my own depression. It was, in its own small way, my cry for help and reassurance. And here came the horde to pile on.
Maria was among them, hounding me with arguments about the blindness of Western medicine and reiterating again that her naturopathic doctor didn’t believe that the virus even existed.
Something snapped inside me. My tolerance, my good-faith open mindedness, my willingness to look the other way, all fell away. It wasn’t just that I believed with all my mind, heart, and soul that Maria was dead wrong. Nor was it just that I had lost respect for her, though certainly I had. It was the fact that I had made my own small cry for help, and instead of hearing me, like a friend, she decided to come out swinging, wielding the very poison that had sickened my soul.
I was kind in the exchange. I told her I loved her and that if she truly believed the virus did not exist, I honestly did not know what else to say to her. I signed off.
It’s hard say at what moment exactly, my friendship with Maria ended. Or if it truly ended, if somehow, somewhere down the road, we’ll find our way back?
She texted me a few days after the Facebook incident, asking if I wanted to try out a new online singing app. I told her I was upset about the exchange and needed some space. She texted back: “I’m sorry for anything on Facebook that you experienced as hurtful and if you ever want to talk about it, I’m available.” It was exactly the right thing for a friend to text, to reaffirm the friendship.
The trouble was, I did not want to talk about it. At all. I was hurt, and I was angry. But my anger was not just because of an emotionally charged exchange on Facebook. I was angry that the world was falling apart. I was angry that somehow, insanely, mask-wearing was becoming politicized, all but insuring that this pandemic would soon enough be one of the greatest catastrophes of my generation. I was angry that science, one of the pillars on which our civilization was built, was now in danger of crumbling under the weight of a conspiracist culture that could no longer differentiate fact from fiction.
And now, whenever I thought about Maria, I thought about all of those things.
Weeks went by, and I did not reach out to Maria. I thought about her often. I felt terrible about abandoning her. Her voice haunted me: “What I love about you Jonathan is that you show up.” And here I was, not showing up.
I never told her to fuck off. Or that I never wanted to see her again. Or that she was an idiot and that I’d lost all respect for her. I just stayed away. But I also knew that I had made a choice to keep my distance, to not have the difficult conversation. I imagine she had too much pride to keep reaching out to me. I’m the same way: when somebody snubs or ignores me, I freeze them out. Perhaps that also helps to explain why Maria and I were both so lonely. Neither of us were particularly good at the humility and sacrifice that true friendship requires.
I wanted to be better than this. I wanted to be the kind of friend who doesn’t abandon someone just because I disagree with them. In my fantasy, a better friend would have stuck with Maria, argued with her, fought with her, provided an ongoing counterpoint to her extremism, and stood there and said: “You know, I think you are completely wrong and what you are doing is destructive but I’m still your friend and I’m still here for you.”
The question I keep coming back to is this: Is taking an ethical stand reason enough to end a friendship? Every time I ask, a part of me responds immediately: Doesn’t it have to be? Don’t we all have to draw the line somewhere? What if we discovered our dearest friend was a domestic terrorist? What if we found out they were conducting horrific experiments on trafficked human beings in their basement? These are extreme examples of course, but human history has not shied away from such moral atrocities. At what point, in valorizing loyalty, are we complicit in the crimes of those we love? At what point does our unconditional love become an enabling force for evil?
I don’t mean to say that Maria is evil. In her view, she just wanted to show all of us the truth. But as of this writing, over half a million people have died from the coronavirus in the USA, and the number is still climbing. No doubt many of those deaths could not be prevented — but likely, a lot of them could have. If we, as a society, had just been willing to take basic measures to care for one another, some of those people would still be alive. Even for those who are skeptical, if wearing a mask provided only a small chance of saving the life of the person next to you on the bus, what on Earth could justify you taking a stand against that basic human kindness? So much suffering, so much loss, so much pain, and for what? For the right to express yourself as someone who doesn’t like to have a small piece of cloth over your face in public? Where does ethical and moral discourse have to go in the face of such narrow, small-minded selfishness?
When I think of Maria now, I also think of the half-million dead from this disease. Is that a line worth drawing? Someone has to draw a line somewhere. Somebody has to take responsibility, or nobody will. If we don’t take a stand for the truth, for science, for robust research, for epistemic humility — I don’t see how we have a future.
In August, I attended a vision fast ceremony in the desert. A small group gathered for ten days with masks and distancing protocols, to support each other in four days and four nights alone and without food in the wilderness. The guides suggested we reach out to the people who are important to us on the eve of the fast. Among the people I reached out to that day was Maria. I texted to tell her what I was up to and that I was thinking of her. It was a turning point in my life. By one measure, I don’t know that I could have done anything greater to honor the friendship than to reach out in that moment.
When I got back to civilization 10 days later and fired up my cell phone, I was disappointed to see that she had not responded. I imagined, at that point, she had written me off for abandoning her. Perhaps I deserved it.
At the end of September, I decided to leave Portland. Winters there were long stretches of darkness and icy rain, and in previous years, I’d gotten through the season only by means of an active social life. All those social opportunities would be gone this winter as the second wave of the virus took the country by storm. So, I decided I would make for California and shelter in place in the sunshine. I texted Maria to let her know I was leaving and asked if she would like to see me before I left. To my surprise, she responded.
I drove over to her house for tea on the porch. She was bright and upbeat and seemed genuinely happy to see me. Her house was empty; she’d had a falling out with her son and he had left, along with another housemate who had been renting a room. I did not press for details, in part because it seemed to be an open wound, and I didn’t want to intrude.
Maria talked about how much she had suffered in this pandemic. How intensely lonely she had been. How she had completely disconnected from her social world and even shifted her political affiliations, all presumably, because all of those people believed that dangerous viruses exist. I sat there astounded, wondering silently why she would sacrifice so much for this one odd, unverifiable belief — a belief about a phenomenon she did not begin to have the tools or the education to thoroughly evaluate. Why, Maria, why did you choose this hill to die on? Of all the righteous causes to sacrifice your happiness for, why this one?
But I didn’t say any of that. I didn’t want to stir the pot and risk a fight in what might well be our last moment together. I had promised myself that we would not argue. I just wanted to show up and appreciate our friendship for what it had been.
She told me she was doing very well now. She had been hired by a private community of anti-vaxxers to teach their children in an anti-vax homeschool. They were paying her handsomely and had even bought her a car. I knew how much she had struggled with money in the past and I was genuinely happy for her, if a bit concerned that she was apparently surrounding herself with extremists.
But what else was she going to do, when friends like me abandoning her?
“Being alone has only made me more firm in my beliefs,” she told me. “One of my biggest realizations is that I’m okay if I’m alone. Even if I end up a crazy old cat lady and nobody understands me. That’s okay.”
I appreciated her confidence and fortitude, but my heart broke for her all the same. Surviving and affirming loneliness is all well and good, but why should we live in a world where such a thing is necessary? I don’t want Maria to be alone. I love her. I want her to be happy and free and to know that she is loved.
In short, I want the same things for her that I want for myself. As different as we are, she still holds up the mirror to me. We are both alone late in life. Stubborn to a fault. In need of true friendship. Not always very good at being a true friend.
Image: “masks: wearing or not wearing them” by Petra Wessman, licensed under CC 2.0.