ruminations on a vaccine

On this, the day of my first vaccine dose, I’m feeling a lot of things. Mostly gratitude, but also awe. I’m so incredibly impressed by the unending labor that went into making these vaccines. And in under a year! Science is basically magic to me.

I was thinking about this TikTok I watched last night where a guy explained how the vaccine works, acting out each of the players: mRNA, immune system, antibodies, etc. It was goofy and entertaining, but it also made me unexpectedly emotional. It was definitely partly due to the background music of “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor),” which will move anyone to tears on its own, but it was more than that. I mean, the things our bodies can do? Unbelievable. Surprisingly enough, I’ve never sat down and deeply contemplated how vaccines work, but it turns out they’re really fucking amazing (I know, I’m late to the party). Not only can our bodies learn to defend themselves from specific attackers, but human scientists actually figure out how to trigger that learning process in our immune systems. What?? How did anyone come up with this? How do they even make it happen once they know what they’re doing? Blows my mind.

My own mother is a career scientist, one of the smartest people I know, and also one of the most compassionate and awesome humans on the planet. Whenever she tries to explain her job to me, my eyes glaze over and my brain smooths to pudding consistency. The fact that she understands this stuff is beyond impressive to me. And something I really admire about my mom is that science is spiritual for her, in a way. I remember she once told me that the more she learned about how the human body works, down to each individual cell, these microscopic yet deeply complex systems that labor ceaselessly to keep us alive, the more she believed in God.

I think most scientific-minded people would turn up their noses at that, or argue that believing in science and believing in God are unreconcilable. I don’t believe in God in the Christian sense. But I do believe there’s more to the world than we see. And I understand what my mom means — there are so many perfect systems in nature, so many incredible, beautiful things that happen without any outside influence. Am I saying I don’t believe in evolution etc.? No, obviously. But when I think about our planet in the context of the infinite universe, all the life teeming here. Sunsets. Whales and shit. Human love. I have to believe in magic, just a little bit.

What does all of this have to do with vaccines? Not a lot. I’m just very moved by the progress scientists have made in the past year, to almost a reverent degree. The hard work, endless days, the burn-out they must have experienced and are still experiencing. And the work we’ve all done, both emotionally and physically, to keep our heads above water in the past year. Those of us who are still here, we’re so, so lucky.

We’ll be feeling the effects of this year for the rest of our lives. And maybe it’s weird and new age-y to think like this, but everyone who makes it through this pandemic will be connected by a shared trauma. Not remotely a romantic thought, but it’s meaningful to me: The idea of being connected with people I’ve never met, having gone through something unimaginable with everyone else on the planet. It gives me a strange sense of comfort.

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