Dr. Birx: Don't Retire

The rampant psychology of unkindness

Posted Dec 23, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

It has been reported that Dr. Deborah Birx plans to retire. The back story is that this esteemed public servant has been tirelessly involved with dealing with COVID-19. It would seem difficult to criticize her determination and care about our country. Yet, like other Americans, she apparently has blind spots.

Welcome to the club.

According to reports, Dr. Birx visited her family during the Thanksgiving break in apparent contradiction to her own public standard limiting private gatherings at the time.

Neurotics and Other Folks:

Should public figures have a higher standard? Yes. But, these are not the times in which we live. My recently deceased mother, a social worker herself, used to observe that in her day folks could be quite neurotic, feeling guilty about every little thing. But in our days she felt our world was sliding towards character problems. I tend to agree.

Neurotics feel ambivalence and guilt. Folks with character problems like narcissism tend to blame and evade—whatever the cost. Dr. Birx wants to retire. I am projecting here, but wonder if she’s feeling a mix of complicated emotions, compounded by self-righteousness on all sides. A self-righteousness that can sometimes be self-promoting. 

Her family is exposed; her life's in the spotlight. It may be time to just move on, and I understand.

Is this act forgivable? If it was up to me, yes.

It’s also an opportunity to humiliate.

Once it was discovered, Dr. Birx was taken to task in the media. Right or left, social and traditional media tends to slay its enemies. We have "cancel culture" on the left, hurtful mocking on the right. Self-righteousness is the order of the day. 

Where is the room to be human?

Covid-19 Decisions:

As a psychiatrist working daily with folks struggling with COVID-19, I see close up the difficulties involved with these family decisions—who is in and who is out? These conversations happen in every home.

You’re too paranoid.

You’re not taking the virus seriously.

Don’t you care about us?

Can’t you see it’s overblown?

And then there are blind spots that are easy to see in retrospect. In Dr. Birx’s case, her parents apparently were unhappy and her daughter was isolated. At the moment Dr. Birx seems to be standing by the decision. In retrospect, perhaps she'll regret it—or not. Let time pass.

Emotional Pain Can Be Valuable:

Shame, guilt and anger have a role. It is like the pain we feel when we step on a nail. You learn to be more careful next time. Like mom pointed out, we may be short on self-accountability these days.

How many politicians and business people simply lawyer-up or find a way to get around their blunders? Or, hire a media person to fight back? The reality is that regular neurotic folks make stupid mistakes all the time. And count me among them.

A few days ago I visited a friend and walked into his house for a few minutes against my own standards, wanting to see his new puppy (a weakness). Doesn’t sound like much to you, but it was to me—needing to protect a newborn grandchild, and my entire extended family.

I felt guilt; a sense of sting—and learned a lesson.

The Humanity of Mistakes:

It is very important that we grow up. People make mistakes. We all have blind spots. And this COVID-19 isolation business brings up strange questions of status. Who is in and who is out. It’s rarely scientific. In fact, it’s often quite personal.

While Jewish, I appreciate an important ancestor. And in his memory, I’d like us to remember that it’s the person without sin who should cast the first stone.  

This frank invitation for self-reflection is to be welcomed in our days. Dr. Birx, from one doctor to another: Consider staying on and working for the next president. If you feel upset, there’s help out there. But, you undoubtedly know this.

To err is human; to forgive, divine.