Saturday, January 28, 2006

An Ode to Mr. Jones

Yesterday morning, I spent two hours with a Chinese Rheumatologist whose English was passable if not fluent; at the very least, what she lacked in fluency she made up for in enthusiasm. You learn quickly in medical school that rheumatology is (one of) the unloved medical specialities. Consequently, every rheumatologist takes it upon herself to convince you rheumatology is fascinating, subtle, and difficult--most doctors, however, disagree. Having now acknowledge this, I fully realize some twist of fate will probably make me a rheumatologist years down the road.

This post, however, is not about rheumatology.

I only brought my class up because, about half way through, one of my classmates skulked into the lab room, sat down at a table across from me, and put his head down in his arms. The enthusiastic Chinese rheumatologist asked him a couple of questions during class but his only response was to barely raise his head and mutter something about not knowing the answer. His eyes were sunken and his face gaunt, his skin, though dark, was pale.

The day before that, I almost walked into a lady who stood motionless behind her shopping cart at the Fresh Grocer. She had her arms crossed atop the back of her cart and her head lay limp on her arms, as if she did not have enough strength to move her legs of straighten her neck. I walked by her, paused, turned around and was going to ask if she was ok, but by that time she had lifted her head and was walking down the isle, apparently well enough to keep moving.

People like these make me think of Maynard Dixon's Forgotten Man paintings. If you have not seen them, the BYU art department actually has one hanging in the art gallery (by what coup, I do not know). The painting depicts a man, head bowed, seated on a curb. While he stares toward the street, crowds of by-passers do exactly that. Despite a flurry of pant-legs and shoes and even including the man who is the center of the piece, no face is visible in the painting. It is as if the crowd, by ignoring the forgotten man, rob both him and themselves of their humanity. Without compassion, everyone involved withers into a kind of faceless phantom--no countenance, no name, no identity, just a flurry of hurrying and rush.

Whenever I see that painting, whenever I face people like those I have met over the past few days, I am reminded of Mr. Folds' "Mr. Jones, Part 2:"

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark.
There's an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall.
He's cleared all his things and put them in boxes--
things that remind him life has been good.
Twenty-five years he's worked at the paper,
a man's here to take him dowstairs.
And I'm sorry, Mr. Jones, it's time.

There was no party, there were no songs,
Cause today's just a day like the day that he started.
No one is left here who knows his first name
and life barrels on like a runaway train.
And the passengers change but don't change anything--
you get off someone else can get on.
And I'm sorry Mr. Jones, it's time.

Streetlight shines through the shades
casting lines on the floor and lines on his face--
he reflects on the day.

Fred gets his paints out and goes to the basement
projecting some slides onto a plain white canvas
and traces it, fills in the spaces,
turns off the slides but it doesn't look right.
And all of these [people] have taken his place
he's forgotten but not yet gone.

And I'm sorry Mr. Jones, it's time.

Mr. Folds' song makes me melancholy because it reminds me how many people, despite lives filled with effort and desire, are left languishing is the gutters of the world. Some stay there only a few moments, but some seem to dwell there forever. It's hard to imagine a sadder scene than the one portrayed in the song (reminiscent, in its way, of Willy Loman's firing): a lifelong newspaperman finishes his career not to song and celebration, not to odes and farewells, but to nothing. He is merely replaced. In the end, it seems he was meaningless.

The disturbing part, of course, is that the world's forgotten men are only forgotten because we choose to forget. They are only forgotten because I--foolish, embarrassed, and sheepish--refuse to pay attention, care, or help. Caught up in the forward motion of my life, I at times rush by and fail to turn to face those who are languishing in the gutter. In the end, it takes so little to change the painting. If you have seen it, imagine the difference it would make if one of those passers-by turned, showed his face, and extended a hand to the faceless man who stares down toward the street--imagine.

Sometimes I imagine and then wonder if I can do the same for someone, somewhere, today. Indeed, I was surprised once to note that, as I walked through the BYU art gallery I was confronted first by The Forgotten Man and then, in the next room, by Christ Healing the Man at Bethesda. Here was another forgotten man, a leper--hidden, actually, beneath a tarp. But here also was the Savior, as He always does to every forgotten one, lifting the cloth extending his man, and healing the one left alone by the rest of us. While I cannot reach everyone, and while I cannot heal like the Savior, for someone today perhaps I can remember and in remembering restore his face, his name, and his hope.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Alternative Explanation

Elder Maxwell once commented that most who are not members of the Mormon Church are eager to accept any explanation for the restoration of the church and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon--except the one Joseph Smith gave. I have included here a link to an article from a dearly beloved local journalist who will remain nameless, but whose name sounds an awful lot like Meggy Petcher Snack: This article deals with a Mr. Shugarts, who is writing a book to help readers decode the sequel to The Davinci Code (an interesting strategy since the sequel, of course, has not yet been released). In any case, Dan Brown's new book focuses on the Masons, and part of Shugart's book describes the little-known links between Masonry and Mormonism.

Among other things, Shugart apparently claims that Joseph Smith dug up the idea for the gold plates, as well as the method of their translation, from Masonic legend. This, I admit, is a new one for me. I had heard of apparent Masonic ritual/Temple ceremony similarities before, but not of this explanation of the Gold Plates. What strikes me as amusing is that I accidentally came upon an anti-Mormon web-site the other day which offered another, perhaps complementary, explanation for the Book of Mormon: Joseph wrote it and lifted many of its pages and lines from famous works written before his time. We can, of course, add this to a list that has long included the Spualding manuscript theory as well as many other naturalist explanations I am sure exist but of which I am not aware.

I wonder, though, if the purveyors of these theories pause to consider the implications of the irexplanations. Are we really to believe that Joseph, while sitting in a Masonic meeting one day, thought ya know, I could use some of these ideas, twist them a bit, and then pretend to the whole world that I have found a magic book and magical glasses with which to translate it? That he then went through the rigamarole of pretending to lug around a set of plates and of convincing his family he actually had something to physically hide when the marauders came? That he then hypnotized both the three and eight witnesses in order to make them believe they heard God's voice (especially the three witnesses)? And, finally, that he collected (from the nearby library?) some of the great literary works of our time--including a number of Shakespeare's plays--and sat behind the curtain dictating without pause to a number of scribes while lifting lines from the Bible, Shakespeare, et. al?

Forgive me, I vent. I understand sophisticated authors like Fawn Brodie have offered detailed, nuanced, and subtle explanation for the doings of the Prophet. And I know their explanations deserve more credit than I offer in the hopelessly straw-man-like argument I outline here. Still, I really do believe there are many anti-Mormons (especially with the advent of the internet) who put no more thought into their writings than the supposedly thoughtless and Lemming-like Mormons they pretend to lambast. In the end, I think I agree with Elder Maxwell: perhaps the most sophisticated and nuanced explanation is the one Joseph offered, "Wherefore, [The Book of Mormon] is an abridgement of the record ot the people of Nephi...written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation...written and sealed come forth by the gift and power of God."

Sunday, January 08, 2006


"Know" causes much consternation in the Church. On the one hand, small children are sometimes taught to profess knowledge they may or may not yet posses. On the other hand, most wards have a member who, upon bearing his testimony, will carefully remind members: "I cannot say I know these things, but I want you all to know I believe these things..." "Know" is a word we use often in the Church, but as I sat in Fast and Testimony meeting today I pondered what it means, for me, to know something.

As a medical student, I spend the majority of my time learning scientific "konwledge." We know many of the details about evolution, genetic mechanisms, biochemistry, pathology and physiology. Indeed, underlying everything I learn in medical school is the scientific method--a carefully cultivated theory describing the acquisition of knowledge. According to this theory, we gain knowledge in tiny increments. In Gospel-speak, we learn "line upon line, and precept upon precept." Only Gospel-speak is not really appropriate for describing the scientific method because in science we do not really know anything.

The scientific method describes our attempt to arrive at our best approximation of reality. That is not in any way to disparage the scientific method, I am simply recognizing that the very pattern which sets the SM apart is one of attempt, mistake, retry, mistake, retry (and closer this time to the truth), and so on... In the end, then, I do not believe science seeks knowledge.

Religion, however, deals with both knowledge and belief.

"To some, it is given to know..." I believe knowledge comes we know not how. Some general authorities, like President Hinckely, have described a gradual dawning of knowledge. These men cannot pinpoint a moment in which knowledge came, they seem simply to know. As a person does not mature at any one time, so knowledge may grow unnoticed until one day, concerning some specific subject, a person simply knows. Others, like Alma Jr. in his moment of greatest dread, come to know like lightning. In a moment, something unknown a moment before becomes known.

I suspect people in both categories would have a hard time describing the origin or basis of their knowledge. Search both scriptures and journals and you will find various attempts to put into words the process of knowledge, but I do not think any suffices--both because everyone experiences the dawn of knowledge differently and because, try as mortals might, the process of knowledge reception is--like Christ's prayers on behalf of the Nephites--simply beyond words.

I know Joseph Smith is a prophet. I have tried, through the years, in many circumstances and to many people to explain how I know. Most of the explanation is both easy and relatively unimportant. I can relate the circumstances and the consequences. I have the accompanying scriptures memorized and I can even call upon my dad's testimony for corroboration, as he was there.

The story, however, turns on my moment of truth. The instant occurred while I sat on the couch in my living room at 1451 Yuma. I was reading Joseph Smith's story. I can recall and describe perfectly all the events leading up to that moment; but that moment I can only recall--I have never succeeded in describing it. I have tried imagery as varied as waterfalls and flames, but nothing conveys the transofrmation adequately. It is, to use a lame analogy, like describing a sunset to a man born blind. The colors, the hues, the harmony are all meaningless unless you have seen them.

I do not know how I know. I only know I know. I only know in that moment I knew. Minutes before, I believed, but in that moment something changed and I knew. And I still know. That's about as far as words can take me, the rest, I suppose, can only be learned by experience.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Body of Knowledge

Having just finished our gross anatomy course, I have mixed feelings about the use of cadavers in medical training.

Before our final exam on Monday, we visited with our "lady" one last time. I know the scene sounds strange, even macabre, but there was a certain reverence there. Her body, I am sorry to admit, is only the tattered remains of what it once was. We have dissected much and it is difficult now to look at her and remember she once was a person.

The hardest day for our group (I work with two Jewish students and one deist) was when we uncovered her face. Before that day, we religiously assured her face was hidden behind the opaque cloth we use to cover the body. As we prepared to learn about the veins, arteries, nerves, and muscles of the face, however, we had to remove the cloth. It had previously been fairly easy to forget she had once been a person, but as we uncovered her countenance, we remembered with acute sorrow that this woman had once been alive.

I think her eyes were most haunting. The eyeballs had been preserved and, though they were robbed now of light, they still had an eerily human look to them. I realized then, as I had not before, this woman has a family, and probably friends. There was likely a funeral and someone certainly shed tears when she passed away. Indeed, this was all more poignant for me because my grandfather passed away in the same month I started my class.

Still, as we met in the lab the other day to say "goodbye" and to pay respects, we each took a turn audibly saying thank you. Odd? Perhaps. Incongruous? I'm not sure.

Certainly, there was something strange about trying to hallow that formaldehyde-soaked room. And yet, as I reflect on that experience, I cannot help but think her gift was not in vain. Now, when I look at someone play the piano, or run, or stand, or blink, or speak, my mind can see the muscles and blood flow and neurons working in a kind of miraculous harmony.

I have no doubt this will change the way I practice medicine. Whether I practice surgery or not, the lady who donated her body forever changed my manner of viewing human health and disease. I believe--or at least I hope--I will be both more empathetic and more skilled because of her posthoumous gift to me.

Indeed, with her gift she extended the legacy of her life by allowing us to become more capable of improving and extending the lives of others. I hope not inappropriately, we are thankful to her and the many others who have sacrificed for the betterment of those left here after the deceased pass away.