Haunted

“It’s your fault! They told you the house was haunted, but you didn’t listen!”

Tod wasn’t convinced. Certainly a few strange things had happened since he and Joanne had moved in with their daughter Julia two weeks prior, but nothing that couldn’t be explained away.

The first incident had occurred on their third day in the house. They came back from the store to find a vase shattered on the living room floor. It had been in the kitchen. At first, they thought that they had been victims of a burglary, but a quick search through the house found nothing else amiss. Maybe it was a burglar—thought Tod—but one who had second thoughts and left without taking anything. Or perhaps a neighbor’s cat, or a wild animal, found some way in and out.

The following night Joanne and Tod had been awakened by a scream from Julia’s room. Somebody had tugged at her feet, she insisted, but nobody was there. Just a child’s imagination.

Over the next few days, Julia had developed a new imaginary friend: the ghost of a young girl named Emily. Emily, recounted Julia, had died of the flu about a year after her father and older brother both died in the war. Julia also met Emily’s mother, Elizabeth, who, bereft of her husband and her two children, died of a broken heart shortly thereafter. Tod was unsure whether he approved of the macabre direction in which Julia’s imagination was developing.

Tod was, however, extremely happy with Julia’s new school. After just a few days in the new neighborhood, Julia had memorized and often recited several poems by Emily Dickinson. Tod didn’t recall having learned of the great American poet as early as first grade, so the education system here must be doing something right. Julia, of course, insisted that Elizabeth had taught her the poems. The deceased matriarch seemed to have been a dedicated reader of poetry during her life, and named her daughter after her favorite poet. Julia’s favorite was “The Chariot,” though Tod was unfamiliar with that title. He had heard it referred to by its first line, “Because I could not stop for Death,” but that was, of course, a long time ago. In any case, Julia’s claims to have learned that particular poem from a ghost were amusing, and seemed nothing more than the regular operation of a seven-year-old’s imagination.

During their two weeks in the house, both Tod and Joanne had, at moments, thought they had seen some figure moving from the corner of their eye, but this was the most easily dismissed of all the occurrences.

The voice that evening, however, had frightened Joanne enough to momentarily drive off any doubt. Tod had heard the voice as clearly as she did—a woman’s voice advising Tod not to go to work on Monday—but notwithstanding such clear evidence, Tod was not inclined to start believing in ghosts. They had somehow experienced a mutual hallucination, he insisted. Whatever it was, Joanne was none too pleased about it, nor about the recently acquired house. With some persistence, and after a visit to each room of the house to ensure that nobody else, besides Julia, was there, Tod was able to convince her it was nothing. They settled down to sleep. Disconcerting as the voice had been, neither Tod nor Joanne gave a moment’s thought to its warning.

The following Monday, some time after Tod had left for work, Julia approached her mother. “Mom,” she said, “Emily says that you didn’t pay attention to her mother’s warning and now Dad is in trouble. But don’t worry. Her brother and her father went to help him, so he’ll be alright.”

Joanne was, needless to say, a bit taken aback by her daughter’s comments. She and Tod had not told Julia about the voice the other night, but perhaps she had heard it, too. Or perhaps it was all just a strange coincidence. “Don’t be silly,” she said to Julia.

A few minutes later she turned on the news. The main bridge into town had collapsed onto the freeway that morning. Several people had died, and a search for survivors was ongoing.

As if by instinct, Joanne picked up the phone. She dialed Tod’s number. No answer. She called the office where he worked. “He hasn’t come in yet today.” Joanne shivered. A sinking feeling took up residence in her stomach, and a pain in her chest as if her heart were attempting to beat its way out of it.

Julia noticed her mother’s agitation. “Don’t worry, Mom. Dad’s alright. Emily says so.”

Joanne wasn’t in the mood for her daughter’s games right then, but she admitted to herself that the words brought some mild comfort. She composed herself, and a few phone calls later found out that her husband wasn’t missing, even though he was on the bridge when it collapsed. He was in the hospital, but nobody could tell her what his condition was. At least they thought he was alive.

Joanne wasted no time. Within five minutes she and her daughter were on the road. In less than half an hour they pulled into the hospital parking lot. In the emergency room lobby, they found out that Tod was in stable condition, and they received directions to the pod where they could find him.

Tod was conscious and in good spirits. The doctors said that, other than a few scratches and bruises, he had a concussion and a noncomminuted tibial fracture. No surgery would be needed, and he would be able to return home that day. The injuries were remarkably light in view of the accident, considering that his car had been completely crushed by debris after falling with the approximately twenty-foot-high bridge. The ambulance technicians had said that they found him a few feet away from his car, on a relatively flat piece of fallen stone rather than buried along with everyone and everything else. This had allowed the first responders to get to him and treat him quickly, while even at this time many people were still buried under the rubble.

Todd said that the events almost seemed like a dream. It doesn’t make sense, he confessed, but the way he remembered it, it was as if the bridge were still in mid-collapse when two men were pulling him out of the falling car. They wore curious outfits that made them look like World War One soldiers. But they were gone by the time the first responders had arrived, and no other witnesses had seen them.

Looking Backward

Steve’s feet sunk only slightly into the wet sand, just enough to feel it between his toes. Only the sound of the breaking waves interrupted the eerie silence. Not even a seagull graced the shoreline to provide a sign of life on the empty beach. As Steve pondered on the unusual emptiness, the shock of icy water hitting his feet jolted him out of his thoughts. He suppressed his reaction and continued walking, allowing the periodic flows to come and go over his steps, as if the ocean were breathing over them. It tempered the feeling of solitude, but only for a moment.

A set of footprints. Someone else had been on the beach. In the wet sand. Recently, since the tide had gone out. They extended southward, away from the houses and other signs of civilization. Nothing beside the single set of footprints. The lone and smooth sands stretched out as far as eye could see in both directions.

“There are no return steps,” Steve muttered to himself, “whoever was out here must still be on the beach.”

He took a step forward, almost involuntarily. A strange feeling compelled him to follow the footprints. Like the sound of the waves breaking and the crash of water against his ankles, the footprints failed to hinder the feeling of solitude. Step by step he followed them as the sun sank toward the horizon and the water shifted imperceptibly inward as the tide began to roll in.

Steve walked, lost not in thought, but in a strange thoughtlessness. Perceiving, not pondering. He was acutely aware of the water and the sand, the shifting tone of the sky as dusk approached, the houses no longer visible in the distance behind him. The angry sun beat down heavily on the sole trespasser in the void over which it ruled, as if bitter over its own impending disappearance at the rapidly approaching end of the day. Steve perceived but didn’t react. In his awareness without thought, he continued after the footprints, step by step.

He walked. He felt the sand between his toes. He felt the water washed away. He felt the non-presence of the mysterious person whom he compulsively followed, but who didn’t seem to exist.

The footprints shifted slightly inward, away from the water and away from the incoming tide. The mysterious being couldn’t be far ahead, but Steve still could not see him.

The sun hit the horizon. The footprints made an abrupt turn. Steve turned toward the water. Against the wide sun melting into the sea stood a man among the waves. As the icy water hit Steve’s feet once again, the chill ran up his spine and into his chest. He tried to call out to the man, but the mysterious figure dove into a wave and disappeared, just as the last of the sun disappeared below the horizon in a green flash.

Steve stood motionless, frozen solid. He waited. The figure did not rise back out of the water. He waited. The sky turned a deep blue and Steve could make out the first stars. He turned to head back. The squawk of a seagull interrupted the silence as the bird flew past Steve. He glanced back for a moment and saw the silhouette of a black dog in the distance.

After the sickness

My dear grandchildren, it is time you learn what happened when people started disappearing. They didn’t vanish all at once, you know. They began to flicker and fade away over time, as if they were a radio signal from a departing ship. The signal is strong and clear at first, but over time becomes lost in the static. So many people slowly departed this universe, and perhaps reality altogether, in this manner.

Naturally it was a frightening experience, even for those of us who remained. Those who disappeared were driven utterly mad in their final days. You have to understand, even our doctors didn’t understand what was going on, and a number of them picked up the vanishing sickness, too. I know of nobody who was cured before completely disappearing. I have heard of it happening, but if the cases were anything more than rumors, they were extremely rare.

I mentioned that a number of doctors picked up the sickness. In general, it seemed that the professional class was afflicted much more than tradespeople or unskilled laborers. And among professionals, perhaps doctors and engineers were the least affected. Scientists, lawyers, bankers, managers, and even teachers disappeared in large numbers. Virtually no politicians remained. Although the sickness was much less common among the working class, even they didn’t come out of the crisis unscathed. I remember old Joe, a plumber who used to live down the street. He was an alcoholic who regularly beat his wife. He got sick and faded away fairly early on in the outbreak. People began to say that it was those who had lost touch with reality who got the sickness. Maybe there is some truth to that. Almost no children picked it up, and the few who did were those who spent their time on smartphones and tablets.

Politicians? Smartphones and tablets? Yes, I realize those are strange concepts these days. We haven’t had much use for them since the outbreak. Or rather, we have been afraid of them since then.

Before the outbreak, there was a thing called government. It was an organization of people who made “laws,” rules everyone had to follow, and people who enforced those laws by capturing and punishing anyone who broke them. A government was necessary back then, because there were some few people who would steal, kill or hurt others, trick others to get power over them, and do other bad things. You can imagine it only takes one such person to ruin the peace of a community, so a main purpose of government was to discourage people from doing those bad things.

Even among those who didn’t do bad things, back then very few people would help out their neighbor when he was sick or hungry. Government sometimes tried to help people in trouble, but not always.

We have done well without government since the outbreak, but you can see that it was necessary before because of the nature of people. I don’t know if people can live without government when they aren’t terrified of an existential threat. Since your generation didn’t live through the crisis, it might be difficult for you to maintain the peaceful way of life we established after it passed. You might need to establish a government again. So you need to be aware of its risks and problems.

You have a lot of power when you are the one who makes the rules or the one who enforces the rules. Those who were or wanted to be rulemakers were called politicians. We had a government here that was set up in hopes of attracting the best people to government as a public service. We thought this a good thing because we had seen terrible things from other types of government, in which one person or a few people ruled for their entire lives, and in which rulers obtained their positions by birth or violence. Nonetheless, even in our system, power was too attractive to scoundrels who looked out for their own interests before the people. They would make laws favoring their friends and hurting the poor. Another class of people, lobbyists, tried to influence the politicians in favor of certain people, businesses or movements. Political movements tried to influence politicians by stirring up people to anger, so that they would pressure politicians to adopt certain laws. Things got so bad, that, as I mentioned, virtually no politicians survived the outbreak. As far as I know, no lobbyists or activists in charge of political movements did, either.

You learned about computers in school, right? We don’t use them nearly as much as we used to. Tablets and smartphones were small computers that were very common before the outbreak. Smartphones were small enough to fit in your pocket. You could play games on them, take photographs, watch videos, and communicate with people around the world on a world-wide computer network called the internet. The internet held so much promise, but boy did it bring out the darker aspects of humanity! People were so cruel at times that they drove each other to suicide. So much time was spent on pornography—I know you don’t understand the term, but it was an all-around degrading thing—and other things to satisfy one’s greed, lust, and self-interest. A concept called social media was the worst of it. People would mislead their acquaintances about how good their lives were, creating a never-ending competition of consumption and bragging that was perhaps more mendacious than real, but had the real effect of driving so many people, especially young people, into depression and despair. Not only that, but governments and commercial enterprises used the internet, and especially smartphones and social media, to track and monitor everyone. They became experts at using the information they acquired to manipulate and control people, without those people even realizing it.

Yes, it was incredibly convenient. People no longer wrote letters, because they could send a quick message or perform a video chat. People no longer visited the local stores, because they could order anything online and have it delivered to them–sometimes within an hour or two. So it sucked us in, and we were trapped in a comfortable, pleasure-filled hell. And in hindsight, a hell it was.

Yet we exposed our children to it from infancy. Even as some psychologists and other prophetic voices cried out against the harm we were doing, we convinced ourselves that technology was the future, and that our children needed as much exposure to it as possible to prepare them to get ahead in the world. We convinced ourselves that we were doing the right thing, and that the fact that these toys kept our children entertained so we didn’t have to give them our attention was just an extra benefit. We would never admit we were just lazy and self-centered.

I mentioned that the few children who got the sickness were from among those who spent most of their waking hours with these devices. Many other children also suffered even after the sickness was gone. They had become dependent on the gadgets and were too young to understand why they were suddenly taken away. They are from your parents’ generation, by the way. Your mom and dad can probably tell you more.

I don’t mean to trouble you with my warnings, dear grandchildren. I just want to help you understand why things are the way they are. The traditions of our community are based on experience. They aren’t arbitrary. And the disease that made people disappear was one of the most terrible experiences that humanity has gone through. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before, so I can at least hope it never happens again, but it has influenced us. It changed us. For the better, I hope, even though my generation, and to some extent your parents’ generation, will always bear the scars. Even though I think we are better people now, the pain, the existential dread, the sorrow never goes away completely. It is a part of me and everyone else my age.

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t change the traditions. Every generation does to some extent. Some generations go so far as to throw out their past and culture entirely. And some things need to be changed. We once had a tradition, long before I was born, that allowed people to buy and sell other people. A stubborn resistance to change required a lot of bloodshed before that tradition was taken away. So my advice is to be open to change when necessary, try not to make it so people have to die for good change to be brought about, but also be cautious about it. But I don’t know if my advice is good. Constant uncertainty is one of the long-term effects of having lived through the crisis.

Do what you want, then. You now understand why our traditional ways of doing things are the way they are, so you can make informed decisions. Hopefully they will be wise decisions. Either way, your grandmother and I will always love you. Nonjudgmentalism is another long-term effect of having lived through the crisis.

Objective reality

According to quantum mechanics, a particle is in multiple states, called a “superposition,” until an observation (e.g., a measurement of its position or momentum) is made, at which point its wave function “collapses,” reducing the particle to a single state. A couple of years ago, physicists performed an experiment that showed that an observer could collapse the wave function of a photon, yet a subsequent experimenter could find the photon in a state of superposition. A writer for MIT Technology Review reported on this experiment and concluded that it means “there’s no such thing as objective reality.”

One could instead interpret the results as meaning that science is inherently unreliable, something we have known for some time already.

Nobly

How you proceed must be as noble as the cause you seek.

The turn of phrase is fantastic. It lends itself to meditation, or to ponderous and solemn thoughts. It occurs in the middle of a discussion of people taking upon themselves the role of Satan, accusing others and thereby “causing jarring, contention and strife.” Moreover, the discussion suggests that this role is played even by people “who desire a good thing” and have well-intentioned hearts.

So what does the phrase mean? What is the cause being sought? Is it related to learning to live in peace with each other? What does “proceed” mean here? Is it our actions, particularly those we might think are productive in favor of “the cause [we] seek?” And what is “noble?” Is it intended to contrast with accusing and causing jarring, contention and strife? Is it related to “lov[ing] one another, not begrudgingly, but as brothers and sisters indeed?” Or to “align[ing our] words with [our] hearts?

“Noble” and its derivations appear in a few places in T&C. 138:18: “How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God than the vain imagination of the human heart?” 139:7: “[T]he pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under your hand.” 146:20: “[T]he truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent.” What does the word mean in those places? Is it related to its use in the phrase quoted at the beginning of this post?

Reforestation

I was looking into an idea that was put into my head by an acquaintance a couple of years ago: that trees attract rain. I wondered if this was true, and, if true, how it works. Certainly this may be a mechanism by which the desert could be made to blossom as a rose. What I have read includes an article in the journal Bioscience explaining for the educated layman a hypothesis about how forests may be acting like “pumps” that bring about rainfall, and an article from CIFOR (a forestry research organization) on the potential of forests to mitigate drought. I expressed the following thoughts on the matter on Facebook:

Trees’ complex interactions with the atmosphere can help prevent both drought and flooding. But you need a lot of them. One gentleman, who died well into his 90s in the early 2000s, recalled his parents or grandparents describing vast forests that covered most of the United States only a couple hundred years ago; they had been instrumental in cutting those forests down. (The term used was “rainforests,” but I am not sure whether we would use the word the same way today.) In hindsight, clearing large amounts of forest to make room for farms, ever so popular in the 1800s, was a poor decision. It may be that we would have been better served by clearing small amounts of trees as necessary, and developing methods of agriculture that coexist well with the forest.

It would be interesting if we could cover the country in forests once again. Doing so could alleviate part of the stress we have put on the climate, at least partially alleviate problems in water supply in parts of the country, and improve agricultural fertility in arid or semi-arid regions, which would allow for greater local self-sufficiency throughout much of the country.

The political right ought to see an opportunity for greater liberty and national strength by improving self reliance throughout the country, while the political left ought to see the environmental advantages of having to transport less food over large distances. The left should see forestation as a way to combat climate change, while climate-change skeptics among the right should still be able to enjoy the beauty and clean air provided by the ubiquitous forests. Moreover, greater local self-sufficiently would make it possible to reduce or pause travel between regions during a pandemic (such as at the present), slowing the spread of the disease while avoiding restriction of movement within communities. If an individual region is able to provide for its own needs, a temporary restriction on travel to and from the region, but allowance of travel within the region (to visit friends, local parks, etc.) may be more palatable to the general public than the restrictions against which they are chafing at present.

Indeed, fads like “permaculture” and “urban farming” attract adherents from both the left and the right, indicating that both take an interest in the environment and food security, though perhaps for different reasons. That should give reason for hope that there’s at least a small chance that we could persuade the nation (and the world) to undertake a large reforestation project. Perhaps such a project, by reconnecting us to the Earth and her natural cycles, would also improve our collective mental and social well-being.

The chance, however, is small: Good sustainable agricultural practices, the type that would coexist well with universal forests, are not nearly as profitable as the soil-depleting computerized factory farms of big agriculture. Either extensive community participation in local agriculture, or an acceptance of higher food prices, would be needed.

Liberty and life; captivity and death

The Book of Mormon uses the word “liberty” more than any other volume of scripture. “Liberty” is associated with “eternal life” while “captivity” is associated with “death” (2 Nephi 1:10). Curiously, famine and poverty resulting from a deprivation of liberty are poised to kill far more people than the deprivation of liberty was intended to save.

Although the Book of Mormon has examples of preserving liberty through a limited amount of bloodshed (see, e.g., Alma 20:12), it also includes examples of escaping captivity without bloodshed (Mosiah 11:10-11). It seems that the Lord would prefer the latter for us in our day (T&C 50:7). Either way, if we are not capable of living in liberty, forceful overthrow of the government would be futile, as it would merely lead us from one captivity to another; nor would it make sense for the Lord to give us the liberty that our lifestyle shows that we don’t want. At the very least, if we desire freedom, we should be capable of living and interacting with each other in a way that government is superfluous.

There are plenty of people laughing at those complaining about the loss of “mah freedumb.” Ironically, among those mockers of freedom appear to be many who previously complained about the current president being a dictator. Let them laugh, and seek to peacefully persuade those who can be persuaded to pray, vote, and live in a way that will bring liberty. That, it appears to me, is the best way to both stand up to and show love for those who use dishonesty and manipulation to try to keep the rest of us in captivity. To the humble, an honest voice will stand out against the ubiquitous deception.

A show of force is not necessary; brandishing weapons in front of government buildings will at best bring temporary results, and may backfire. There are other ways to boldly support liberty and life in the face of captivity and death. Abinadi, held in bondage, loved Noah enough to die for him, and as a result brought Noah’s people out of captivity and into a new life in Christ.

Social virus

The current pandemic has revealed much about ourselves and our relationship to the government and to each other. An already-existing wound has been deepened, and at this point it is unlikely that it will heal.

Conservatives’ eyes have been opened to see a government engaging in tyrannical overreach approaching the degree that conspiracy theorists have warned about: not just by liberals, but supported by conservative governors, and even an institution—the police—that they have trusted, praised, and upheld as heroes. They see liberals as foolishly supporting that tyranny, insufficiently self-aware to realize their bondage in the universal house arrest or the upcoming economic catastrophe.

Liberals’ eyes have been opened to see a conservative movement intent on activity that will kill people, and that the government must suppress the movement by force in order to save lives.

To conservatives, liberals are a threat to freedom and cannot be reconciled to reason. To liberals, conservatives are a threat to people’s lives and cannot be reconciled to reason. The logical conclusion for either side is that force must be used to bring the other side into submission.

The hatred may fester for a while, perhaps years, in mutual toleration, but without a fundamental change in people’s character, the inevitable result is going to be violence. Unless a group of people decline the invitation to hate those who don’t think like them, sooner or later violence will be unavoidable.

If you choose not to hate, sooner or later you will be hated for your choice. Choose it anyway. Love your neighbor, even when he hates you.

Laying a snare

The Book of Mormon describes in detail the ruses that the wicked use to entrap the righteous. When Alma and Amulek spoke at Ammonihah, “there were some among them who thought to question them, that by their cunning devices they might catch them in their words, that they might find witness against them, that they might deliver them to the judges, that they might be judged according to the law, and that they might be slain or cast into prison, according to the crime which they could make appear or witness against them.” Alma 8:4. The same tactic was used against Abinadi (Mosiah 7:16) and Nephi (Helaman 3:16). It is interesting that the wicked use questions in order to dispute. It leaves a sort of “plausible deniability” because they can claim that they only want clarification or are merely seeking more information, despite the true intent “that thereby they might make him cross his words or contradict the words which he should speak.” Alma 8:5.

These ruses are “the foundations of the Devil” and the result is always “the utter destruction of this people.” Alma 8:5. Both the fact that this devil-inspired tactic seems to be the normal method of argument in our day, and the promised results of it should trouble us. “Yea, and I say unto you that if it were not for the prayers of the righteous who are now in the land, that ye would even now be visited with utter destruction. Yet it would not be by flood, as were the people in the days of Noah, but it would be by famine, and by pestilence, and the sword. But it is by the prayers of the righteous that ye are spared. Now therefore, if ye will cast out the righteous from among you, then will not the Lord stay his hand, but in his fierce anger he will come out against you; then ye shall be smitten by famine, and by pestilence, and by the sword. And the time is soon at hand except ye repent.” Alma 8:5.

Christ taught that “there shall be no disputations among you.” 3 Nephi 5:8. I think it would be wise advice to simply speak the truth plainly. When you disagree with someone about a matter, and your inclination is to respond with a question rather than directly stating that you disagree, it would be wise to consider whether you are following this tactic, which the Book of Mormon identifies as “the subtlety of the Devil,“ whose purpose is “that he might bring you into subjection unto him, that he might encircle you about with his chains, that he might chain you down to everlasting destruction according to the power of his captivity.” Alma 9:1. I certainly would not want to be part of the “utter destruction of [my] people” (Alma 8:5), particularly when “it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished, for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed.” Mormon 2:1.

It is particularly interesting that just as the Devil inspires the wicked to ask questions in some contexts, in other contexts the hard-hearted fail to ask questions when they should. “And I said unto them, Have ye inquired of the Lord? And they said unto me, We have not, for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us. Behold, I said unto them, How is it that ye do not keep the commandments of the Lord? How is it that ye will perish because of the hardness of your hearts? Do ye not remember the thing which the Lord hath said, If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you?” 1 Nephi 4:2. I think I will make an effort to try to avoid disputing with questions, but at the same time I will try to bring more questions to the Lord. The choices seem to be that you can either help cause the utter destruction of your people, or you can be the reason that they are spared, at least until they get rid of you. Alma 8:5. If possible, I would rather choose the latter.