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Victor Gurney Nielsen, 1939 – 2014

grandpa

My daughter will have no memory of my grandfather. He’ll be a stranger in our family photos, like my great-grandfather was to me. I’ve got all these years of being his grandson, and I will have years of being her father, and those two relationships will never occupy an overlapping space.

When we came to him, he was warm, and his chest was still rising and falling. We were warned before we came that he “didn’t look good”, but to me he looked younger — or maybe not younger, but not old either. Maybe it was his helplessness, or the intimacy with which we all held his hands and touched his forehead, like you would a child. We were told he was already brain-dead, already “gone”, but we held his hand against Karissa’s belly anyway, so he could feel the baby move. (She didn’t cooperate.)

They gave him the sacrament, and his sons and I gave him a blessing; then they removed his ventilator, and he took a long time to die. It was just reflex, the left-over animal struggling for air–but it wasn’t until the moment his heart stopped that he actually looked dead, and it happened all at once.

I believe he’s still around, but because my mental image of the afterlife has lousy 80s production values, it’s a hard idea to really hold in my mind (like, he’s here, but slightly translucent, or whatever). I have the same problem with Jesus: in my head, I see a white hippy in a polyester toga, and it’s hard to take that image seriously.

Afterward, they carried him to the university medical school as a research cadaver. We’d done all the rites that Mormons do, but then we just got in the elevator, and left him to be wheeled into a refrigerator in the basement. It was an act of holiness — giving his body to teach doctors, and preserve life — but it was unceremonious, unromantic holiness. It troubled me a little, but I think Grandpa would have liked it.

Specialization is for insects.

I just listened to the latest Cracked podcast, “Why the Internet is Turning Us Into a Hive Mind“, which suggests that unprecedented levels of openness and connectivity provided by the internet may actually be blurring the lines of individual consciousness.

Their thesis was that instead of being an individual concerned about privacy and their individual interests, each person is becoming like a single neuron in this massive emerging consciousness, receiving and processing and firing off little packets of information for everyone else to process.

The analogy is a little weak, because comparing a person to an individual neuron sort of implies that the internet is making us dumber, simpler, less potent as individuals–and that certainly isn’t true. Mormons love the idea that the internet is positively writhing with pornography–we often repeat the old idea that “half” of the internet is pornographic–and that just isn’t true, any way you define it. It’s not easy to find because the world is out to get us; it’s easy to find because everything is easy to find, and we like it as much as anybody else does.

Having unlimited access to information may make it easier to focus on the inane and the vulgar (whether it’s porn, celebrity gossip, or Instagramming your cupcakes), but it also makes it a great deal easier to learn a new skill, get informed, and save time for higher-level tasks by dispatching with trivialities quickly. It makes all kinds of thinking easier–so if we spend our online time jerking off (literally or figuratively), the flaw is with the biological components in the system.

This new consciousness has a pretty disgusting id, but it’s much more than that. For example, I spend a fair amount of time on a forum where people are encouraged to ask and answer interesting questions about history, with moderators verifying that everything is accurate and well-sourced.

Of course, all the source information is online already–no one does any independent research–but it’s this intermediary place, where scattered pieces of knowledge are gathered in from across the network, and processed collaboratively into something useful.

It isn’t all that different from what goes on in a library or a university, except for the unbelievable speed at which it occurs. Instead of hunting through dozens of indexes in a library by yourself (which people usually don’t care enough to do), hundreds of individuals spend thousands of hours researching, producing, and disseminating the information, just for the fun of it. The cost of accessing the sum of human knowledge has fallen through the floor.

Some of this is old news–it’s common knowledge that people don’t memorize facts like they used to. No American spends more than a minute trying to remember song lyrics, or the name of the guy who starred in that one movie, because Google is basically an external hard drive that makes that sort of thing unnecessary.

 

I’ve been hiding out for a while.

I quit my job, ostensibly so I could focus on school–but I’ve been doing exactly as little of that as I can manage, motivated solely by the threat of having to take these classes again. I’ve been showing up to church just enough to avoid being brought up in any meetings–but apparently I missed that bar, because I’ve started to get concerned text messages, and our home teachers actually showed up last month. (So things are pretty serious, I guess.)

Sarai had a severe case of Turner Syndrome (a single X chromosome, instead of XX or XY), which led to massive edema and heart failure. The doctors told us she had no chance of surviving birth–her heart would gradually give out as she grew in utero, and they’d have to remove her.

It was easy to be a good, modern man, and say, “your body, your choice”; but I wrestled with it. We weren’t the only ones to get a raw deal: this little girl had been given a broken body, and her parents were so disappointed that she was not the strong, healthy boy they had been expecting. I thought of meeting her in glory, radiant and terrible, and trying to explain why, when it was time to decide whether she lived or died, I passed the buck.

I remembered how I had felt at her first ultrasound; how I had been so ready to fight for her. I thought, if she had any hope of even a few days of life–if she could know what it was to rest in my arms, or to grip my finger, or to breathe air–how could I rob her of that?

But it really wasn’t my sacrifice to make. I wouldn’t have to carry her, and feel her life slip away inside me. I wouldn’t have to grow over months, and deal with people’s careless talk. I wouldn’t face the rising risks of delivery as the baby grew. So we got a second opinion, and scheduled the induction; and when I prayed, I felt comfort. I knew that, if we took anything from her in our ignorance and weakness, Christ would make it up. The debt was with Him.

She was born at 5:05 am on October 16th, and I was asleep. The photographs now seem horrifying–I don’t think I’ll ever take them out of the box if I can help it–but at the time, it wasn’t so bad. Her skin was very thin and sticky, like a healing sore, and her whole body was swollen and pink–but she just seemed like a baby. My mind did strange things: I didn’t cry because she was dead, exactly, but because she was cold–and despite all the blankets, she could never get warm.

We named her Sarai, because that was Sarah’s name before her transformation, and the fulfillment of God’s promises to her–and Sarah had to wait a long time.

I was so certain that this experience would be beyond our capacity to endure. Our marriage was not strong, and neither was my faith, and it was hard to imagine believing in a God who could be so cruel when we were already struggling. They say “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle”, and I think that’s one of the most obnoxiously unhelpful platitudes ever conceived. I mean, it’s technically true, I guess–the bad things that happen to people are survivable (except when they aren’t)–but God was clearly willing to defy our faith and realize our worst fears.

We had been disconnected and frustrated in our marriage, for so long that I had just accepted it. You can get used to almost anything. But when we heard about Sarai’s condition, we were one in our horror and confusion–and suddenly, connection was effortless. The loneliness and uncertainty was simply gone; and while the grief still comes and goes, there’s a steady hope that was not there before. We laugh a lot more than we did before, even when we were dating.

And while we’ve been shut in, we’ve been carried almost entirely by our family and the Church. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where we’d be if we didn’t have so many people willing to help–and about what I will do when it’s my turn to pick up someone else’s cross.

I don’t presume to know exactly what God is up to, but I feel like He gave me a glimpse. I think He knew how much closer we could be, and how much closer our children would need us to be–and so he sent us a little girl to make it happen. It probably sounds weird, but I’m proud of her. She was called to do a good, hard thing–to forego the blessings of this life (temporarily), to make life better for her family. And I would never want to go through it again, but I’m grateful for it.

The Myth of the Ignorant American

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People love to talk about ignorant Americans. Especially on the internet, we like to picture some unwashed, glassy-eyed behemoth squeezed into a shirt that says “These Colors Don’t Run”, trundling across Wal-Mart in a motorized shopping cart.

And while obesity, sloth, and poor fashion sense don’t have anything to do with a lack of education necessarily, the implication is as clear as you can make it. Particularly relative to our refined European neighbors, Americans are superstitious, medieval boors who think dinosaur bones are a Satanic deception.

And to be fair, we do have a curious belligerence toward scientific ideas that are uncontroversial everywhere else. With characters like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum on center stage in American politics, one might be forgiven for making a few uncharitable assumptions about Americans in general.

But here’s where it gets weird: Americans love science.

A higher percentage of Americans qualify as “scientifically literate” (able to answer basic questions about science and the scientific method) than their peers in Europe, Japan, and Russia. According to the National Science Foundation, the average American also holds a more positive view of science and scientists; they’re more likely to visit informal scientific institutions like museums, planetariums, zoos, etc., and to describe themselves as “very interested” in new scientific discoveries.

Americans file more patents, write more grants, and publish more peer-reviewed scientific papers per capita than the EU, Japan, or Russia. Of the world’s top 20 universities, all but 3 are American (that depends a little bit on who you ask, but the consensus is surprisingly strong).

The average American is still scientifically illiterate–but only because the average person is scientifically illiterate.

Interestingly, 86% of Americans describe scientific education as “absolutely essential” for one reason or another–but only 53% know how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. In other words, we’re crazy about science–as long as somebody else is doing it.

I’ll admit, it’s a little hard to believe that Americans could be as scientifically aware as our friends across the pond. After all, they haven’t been arguing about where dinosaur bones come from for over a century.

But while pseudo-scientific beliefs based on Biblical literalism are in decline all over the Western world–and Europe is definitely way ahead of us on that score–those ideas are not being burned away in the brilliant light of reason. They’re just being replaced with other pseudo-scientific beliefs.

Most Europeans accept, for example, that the Earth isn’t 6,000 years old; but they’re just as likely as Americans (or more) to believe in homeopathy, astrology, ghosts, elves, ESP, and the long-discredited theory that vaccines cause autism. (I was personally affronted to learn that the average European considers homeopathy “more scientific” than economics. Harrumph!)

So superstition is not the exclusive purview of Bible-thumpers; but, you also won’t hear EU lawmakers demanding that schools “teach the controversy” on horoscopes, or pressuring state hospitals to treat cancer with tinctures of cadmium salts. And there’s something to be said for that.

So why is the political climate so different in Europe?

While the average American and the average European are comparable in terms of scientific literacy, America’s intellectual landscape is far more polarized–due mostly to our embarrassingly top-heavy educational system.

While our universities are second-to-none, the state of American public education is dismal. Only 75% of Americans graduate high school, and those that do are generally ill-equipped compared to other industrialized countries. Our 15-year-olds are near the bottom of the barrel in math and science, and 62% of our high-school seniors can’t read at their grade level.

Unsurprisingly, only a few of us actually make it through that world-renowned university system, so the United States has become the most polarized, intellectually-unequal society on the planet. While Europe’s high-quality public schools and mediocre universities assure a relatively uniform distribution of scientific knowledge, American education is a “tale of two cities”, with educational outcomes cleanly divided along socioeconomic lines.

That’s why science starts fights in the US, and not across the pond.

Like so many markers of class and status, certain non-scientific beliefs have become a kind of rallying cry for people who feel disenfranchised–particularly (though not exclusively) lower-class American whites. Rejecting “elitist” science is a way to establish membership in a bullied and martyred tribe–and when you’re on the losing end of so many impersonal social forces, feeling bullied and martyred can impart some dignity to your suffering.

But the important thing is, it’s a political phenomenon, not a religious one. Populists like Michele Bachmann don’t reject the scientific consensus on climate change and vaccinations because the Bible has anything to say about those things; she rejects them because rejection of elite consensus is part of her brand. It’s a powerful channel for populist resentment, and American politicians have been making hay with it for over a century.

Note that our most vitriolic debates on science (the Scopes-Monkey Trial, IVF, climate change, etc.) haven’t come in periods of great religious revival; they’ve come in times of extreme inequality: the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the mid-70s and 80s, and the present.

European pseudo-science, on the other hand, isn’t accompanied by stark economic inequality, so it isn’t a convenient political shibboleth–and in most cases it’s mildly tolerated, and quietly believed. (Though the rising anti-vaccination movement has lately given France and the UK a taste of aggrieved, tribal pseudo-science.)

Why does all this matter?

First: Because mocking people for their lack of education is counter-productive, and it also makes you look like an entitled prick. But most importantly, life is just too short to make fun of people for not knowing things.

Second: Because reason and faith are not locked in an age-old struggle for the soul of humanity. What now seems like a natural, inevitable conflict is only about a century old, and it’s a gangrenous part of our culture that needs to be cut out–along with the persecution complex and the smirking, willful ignorance that comes with it.

I’d like another mission, please.

the_wire_1

Watching The Wire is a great way to feel miserable about the state of the world in general, but it’s also gets me thinking about what I did (and didn’t do) as a missionary.

The Wire‘s Baltimore looks a lot like Memphis the way I remember it; they’re about the same size (~650,000 people), with about the same demographics (60% black, 30% white), and have most of the same problems–a dying shipping industry, entrenched political corruption, grinding poverty, and violent crime so endemic that it’s almost not a problem to be solved anymore, but something you just plan around, like the weather.

And it isn’t an abstract, diffuse kind of misery.

The strength of the show is that it creates complex, fully-realized characters–people you could know and like–and then chews them to pieces in the teeth of that society. And I know that the grim vision of Baltimore depicted in The Wire is essentially true to life, because I’ve walked around in it.

I met the people who were raised in generations of poverty and abuse–whose parents sold their clothes to buy drugs. I knew kids whose only hope of belonging and safety was to become a “soldier” in some street gang. And virtually everyone I spoke to had a child, or sibling, or parent “in the system” in one capacity or another.

The thing that troubles me is that these fictional characters on television seem more real to me than the actual people for whom that world was a reality–mostly because of my own incuriosity.

I really did care about the people in Memphis–but we were told (in so many words) that they were not our problem to solve; that we were there to look for people who were “prepared”, and should keep moving until we found them.

So for me, the misery I encountered really was hazy and impersonal.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do more–I just believed (somewhat sensibly) that I wasn’t a therapist, or a lawyer, or a social worker. I couldn’t rescue anybody.

There’s probably some practical wisdom in that; a bunch of kids from the suburbs probably don’t have any business trying to play white savior in inner-city Memphis. But it also seems a little too practical for people in our line of work.

Of course, in hindsight, if we were looking for undamaged people in that environment, we may as well have been looking for leprechauns. But I’d been told that that was the way to go, and I didn’t have any better ideas–so I spent most of my mission interacting with most people at a pretty superficial level. We’d do a little small talk, deliver the pitch, and see if anybody was interested (they weren’t).

For two years, all I did was meet new people–and in all that time, I found out hardly anything about them as individuals.

We got to know people who needed their electric bill paid–they were eager to tell us their problems. But the average person just listened politely, thanked us for coming, and sent us on our way.

Occasionally, when someone invited us back, we got to know a little bit about their challenges–usually in the context of explaining why they missed this or that appointment–and then their troubles were a mild annoyance, an obstacle on the road to conversion.

Some of these people had a child in prison. Others were mired in abusive relationships, or drugs, or gangs. Many had been to prison themselves, and couldn’t find work. And rather than ask myself how I could help, I usually thought, “This probably isn’t going to go anywhere. We should move on.”

I know that sounds callous. I certainly didn’t mean to be. I loved those people–at least, as much as I knew how. I wanted them to be happy, and, all cynicism aside, I really believe that’s why I was out there. But I felt like I only had the one thing to offer them–and if they didn’t want it, I didn’t know what else to do.

It wasn’t that they weren’t worth my time–I didn’t think I was worth theirs. I couldn’t get their kids out of prison, or find them a job, or erase their debts, or cure their addictions, or pull them out of the cycle of abuse and victimhood.

I had this set of truths that I believed (and still believe) could change their lives–but no one seemed interested in that, and any other comfort I could offer seemed meaningless in the face of their problems.

I thought hell must be something like Memphis.

One of my earliest memories of teaching was in a big, dilapidated house on the corner–suspiciously big for an unemployed single mother of three, but I didn’t think about that at the time. Everything had that sticky dampness of squalor about it, and as I sat down, I saw a cockroach out of the corner of my eye, perched on the sofa a few inches from my shoulder.

She had three kids, somewhere between ages five and nine, who were shouting and chasing each other around the room as we bravely soldiered through our lesson. She tried to ignore them for a while, but after a few minutes she snapped, and charged over to them, screaming and cursing and swatting, and sent them upstairs. As she sat back down, she muttered, “I can’t wait ’til y’all go to jail.”

What do you say to that? “Families Can Be Together Forever”? What does a 19-year-old kid have to offer in that situation?

That’s a dramatic example, and I’m not sure anyone could have helped her without professional training, but we met an awful lot of people who seemed just as out of reach to us. And that’s a strange place to be, for a kid who honestly believes he has The Answers that can make everything all better.

Missionaries dealt with that in different ways.

Some figured that we were failing because we weren’t righteous enough–so they’d flagellate themselves (and everyone else) about regulations and dress standards, hoping that eventually the offering would please God and He’d trust us with all the “prepared” people He was hiding. Others basically gave up and phoned in the rest of their missions.

For me, I think the solution was detachment, and a pretty dark sense of humor. I hear EMTs talk that way–when it’s your job to help, and you spend so much time around people you can’t help, it’s tempting to dehumanize them a little (or a lot) just to make your world make sense. We weren’t dealing with corpses, but sometimes it felt that way.

Of course, while I was busy despairing on their behalf, agonizing over the impossible task of saving them, I missed a lot of pedestrian opportunities to make things a little bit better. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t be so quick to give up.

Most of life is little, incremental tasks, and it’s so much slower than it seems like it ought to be–at least to those of us who grew up watching Daniel-san learn karate in a 30-second montage. I wish I had figured that out sooner.

The day I met my kid

baby2

A few days before we were scheduled to have our first ultrasound, Karissa came in from the bathroom, sobbing, in the middle of the night. She said she had started bleeding and cramping, and was pretty sure she was having a miscarriage.

I had given her a blessing a few weeks earlier, saying that the baby would be healthy, and that everything would be fine. Ordinarily, I don’t have the courage to make big, falsifiable claims like that in a blessing, but the thought wouldn’t leave me alone–so I said it.

Immediately after giving the blessing, and for a long time afterward, it occurred to me that I might not have heard correctly. I may have just wanted it so badly that I wasn’t really listening. To be completely honest, I may have been demanding it.

So you understand: Karissa placed her first child for adoption four years ago, and that sacrifice has been with her every day since. She’s never regretted it–and I won’t speak for her any more than that–but it’s enough to say, you can know perfectly well that you made the right choice, and still grieve what it cost you.

So it’s been difficult, for both of us, from day one. And I know enough to admit that some pretty awful things happen in this world–I wouldn’t presume to play “suffering olympics” with anyone–but I just couldn’t believe that after so much pain, and such a brief window of hope, we’d have to do it all over again.

Before we went to the hospital, I gave her another blessing–but this time, I felt nothing. I tried to say what I had said before–or to offer some comfort for the loss–but the words wouldn’t come. I just stood there in silence, assuming He would surely give us something; but after a few minutes I gave up, and closed the blessing.

As we sat in the emergency room waiting for our doctor, I was convinced that the baby was gone. I wondered if there was a God–and if there was, what could possibly justify this. I wasn’t angry, exactly. I don’t think I believed in Him enough to be angry. There just didn’t seem to be any moral to the story, or anything we could learn that we hadn’t already been learning for the last three years of marriage.

At the time, I framed all of this as heroic compassion for my poor suffering wife–hasn’t she been through enough?–but mostly I was thinking about what her loss would mean for me. I pitied myself just for having to be in the same house as that much pain; for how lonely I would feel, and all the crass, unsatisfied wants that I would have to get used to while I waited for her to dig herself back out again.

As the nurse pressed the probe against Karissa’s belly, I tried to prepare–both for the sight of something still and lifeless inside my wife, and the grisly practicalities that would follow.

But when she found the fetus, there was a tiny, thrumming dot, right in the center–and it created this wave of furious energy in me. It wasn’t exactly love, or joy, or even relief; it was violence. I wanted to find something that threatened that little thrumming, and beat it to death with a rock. I wanted to tear flesh with my teeth.

But that would have been inappropriate. So I laughed, and hugged my wife, and thought of how helpless (and useless) that savage creature is. In an emergency room, there is no dragon to slay, no grenade to jump on. Things just happen, or they don’t. Until we saw the heartbeat, Karissa had a 50/50 shot at carrying the baby to term, and not even the doctors could have done anything about it.

I believe that God honored His promise; and when He gave us silence during that second blessing, He was asking us to trust the first. I don’t know what I would believe if it had gone the other way; I only know that it has gone this way.

There’s No Such Thing As Orcs

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I’m a sucker for arguing on the internet–partly because I have this superstition that if I can find the right combination of words, almost anyone will be able to see things the way I see them. It’s been proven wrong a lot, but I keep believing it. (That’s what makes it a superstition.)

But I’m also intrigued by how toxic these debates can be under cover of anonymity. People say all sorts of things that they wouldn’t say face-to-face at a party–and I wonder if they are being more true to themselves, or less.

If angry people on the internet are mostly saying things they don’t mean, then I think society is doing all right. But if all that internet rage is an expression of people’s genuine, unspoken feelings, then I think we have a problem–because it seems like an awful lot of people see me, and people like me, as essentially monstrous.

Do we still believe in orcs?

In the Tolkien universe and most of its derivatives, orcs are a force of pure chaos and corruption, evil and irredeemable to the core. They live only to kill and enslave in the name of their wicked masters.

You don’t owe any moral obligation to an orc. They have no women and children, no conscientious objectors, no honest soldiers doing their duty. A dying orc won’t weep, or pray, or call out for his mother, or beg for his life.

This is handy for stories full of glorious battle, because it allows the heroes to slaughter without introspection. If you want a morally-costless “good war”, you pretty much have to be fighting orcs.

Our orcs are different

Of course, there’s no such thing as orcs, and we like to think of ourselves as having outgrown the idea–at least, we don’t imagine them among other nations and races anymore. But I think we still harbor some suspicion that there are orcs among our political opponents.

When you sort your enemies ideologically (rather than racially or nationally), it’s a lot easier to despise them. After all, a person can’t help their skin color or their hometown, but they choose to be Democrats/Republicans/bigots/atheists/whatever. And who would choose that, if they weren’t somehow morally or intellectually deficient?

In fact, the clearer your worldview seems to you, the harder it is not to believe in orcs. After all, the answers are so simple–why else would so many people stand in the way, if they weren’t vicious or stupid?

You can’t learn from an orc (and why would you try?)

None of this is to deny the existence of evil. In fact, the worst thing about assuming that your enemies are orcs is that it robs them of moral agency; you don’t have to think about how a real, human person could believe and behave that way.

You won’t respect their arguments well enough to refute them, and–more importantly–you won’t recognize yourself when you start to resemble them.

Hence Godwin’s Law: we have no sense of who the Nazis really were, other than “bad guys”; so when we see new bad guys, we say, “Aha! Nazis!” They’re a secular Satan, not a historical, human institution from which helpful inferences might be made.

We still believe in orcs–we’re just more polite about it.

I’ve never been in danger by virtue of my beliefs, but as my political and religious opinions become less and less popular, I find myself more and more frequently being compared to boogeymen like the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, Westboro Baptist, etc. In other words, at least in the internet’s candid opinion, I am becoming an orc.

That could mean all sorts of things.

In all seriousness, sometimes I wonder if I really am a bigoted monster, and this is just what that feels like. (I’ve never been anything else, so I can’t say for sure.) Maybe all those comparisons are apt. I can’t make myself believe it, but I suppose it could be true.

It could also mean that we’re in for some rough treatment in the years ahead. That’s certainly the suspicion lingering at the edges of most political conversations I’ve had with other Mormons. On some level, everybody wants to be a martyr. But I don’t really believe that either.

Maybe it means that we’ll just be marginalized, like the Klan, the Nazis, and Westboro Baptist. That seems less enjoyable than being fed to lions or run out of town at gunpoint. There’s a dignity in persecution; it would be harder simply to be shunned, and loathed, and left alone in peace. I think that’s what I’m most afraid of, to be honest.

Of course, it could also just mean that people are sometimes not very cool on the internet.

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