Today a husband apologized to his wife in my office for harming their son. “I was wrong. I hurt both of you. And I’m sorry.” What did he do? Did he beat the child, starve him, abandon him in the grocery store? None of the above. He acknowledged that his irrational fear had led him to suffocate his child—literally and figuratively—through needless masking and social isolation. “I thought I was protecting him, but all I was protecting was my own anxiety.” He promised to immediately end these abusive practices and work on the emotional illness that led him to lose his way as a father.

I did not expect to see this display of accountability and contrition. Most of my patients continue to cling to their fear, or they have abruptly dropped it without making note of why they suffered from it for the past two years. Both examples are indicative of an ongoing problem, but I find the latter to be far more troubling.

When you have harmed someone else, especially your own child, due to your own clouded judgment and emotional instability, it is dishonest to pretend that nothing happened and simply forge ahead. You do yourself and your victim a disservice. Sweeping your sins under the rug simply defers the necessary process of making amends. Atonement must be made if your relationships are to survive.

The process of acknowledging that you have harmed others can take many forms. In the case of the father who harmed his son, he chose to first apologize to his wife, whose resentment had grown so large that it threatened their marriage. Next, he will need to explain to his son that good intentions are no justification for injuring the person you love. Good intentions pave the road to hell.

Did you get married in 2020 or 2021? If so, congratulations. Did you refuse to allow friends and family to attend the wedding if they were not “vaccinated?” If so, you have a much more important task to perform than writing thank-you cards for the wedding gifts. I recommend you set those cards aside and begin writing detailed personal letters of apology to each person you banished from your marital celebration out of a foolish, entitled display of narcissism and fear. If you expect to have any hope of maintaining those relationships, this is not optional. The public cruelty you displayed to those you pretend to care about has poisoned any good will you held, and you are deserving of being permanently cut off from everyone on the receiving end of your callousness.

“But I was acting out of an abundance of caution. I was just trying to keep everyone safe. It was required by the wedding hall.” Nonsense. When the drunk blames the bottle for his wife-beating, he receives no sympathy, nor should you. Neither ignorance nor fear can justify or explain away such massively irresponsible actions. Acknowledging the harm you caused, however, is an excellent first step at repairing the damage.

You are not alone. Millions of Americans have been acting out of fear for the past two years. Many are now moving on. Few, though, are showing the maturity and courage necessary to take responsibility for the damage their uncontrolled fear has caused to their family, friends, and community. If we are to ever recover as individuals or as a nation, each of us must be brutally honest and not shy away from facing the sadistic, cruel, ugly, and inhumane expression of our dark selves. We have engaged in a social genocide. Its organizers—politicians, bureaucrats, media titans, and corporate executives—should be held criminally liable. For millions of everyday Americans, though, a national truth and reconciliation process is needed. There is no way to move forward without an accounting for the sins of the recent past.

Mark McDonald, M.D.
Psychiatrist and author of United States of Fear: How America Fell Victim to a Mass Delusional Psychosis