Fear of the Invisible: Viruses, terrorists, and the Danger of Over-caution

In the children’s book Henry’s Awful Mistake, a duck named Henry invites a friend over for dinner and spends the day carefully preparing a delicious meal. During the preparations, he sees a tiny ant in the kitchen. This is unacceptable. He cannot let his evening be spoiled by the presence of an ant, so he goes to work to eradicate it. At first, he considers reasonable measures: ant spray, and then a pan to smash it. But the ant disappears before he can control it. The thought of it invisibly lurking in his home is too much to bear, so Henry goes to work, tearing apart walls, smashing water pipes, and hacking away at his invisible enemy until the entire house is in ruin.  

Henry the Duck

This children’s story perfectly captures some truths of human nature. We love certainty and control, and will go to great lengths to achieve it. Invisible threats are almost unbearable. Horror movies understand this. We can cope with any monster or demon once it is visible and known. What is unbearable is not being able to see the thing underneath the bed or behind the closet door. 

The current pandemic has shattered the illusion of control. In our modern hubris, we came to believe that somehow we had finally conquered nature. With exacting science and expertise, the thinking went, we could carefully steer the machine of society to avoid just about any peril. If something goes wrong, then somebody messed up. There wasn’t enough of this. There was too much of that. Now that a virus has been let loose upon the world, it simply means that someone didn’t pull the right levers of the machine at the right time. 

The situation shares similarities with the threat of terrorism. Terrorists, like viruses, thrive by eluding detection. They exploit trust and openness and seek dense gatherings of people in which to work their destruction. Invisibility and unpredictability is the very source of their terror. I grew up during the Cold War and remember the horrific warnings about what might happen in a nuclear war. But the Soviet Union was a known threat–a threat that could be countered in rational and measured ways. And the consequences of overreaction–of doing too much in response–were so terrible that officials took great pains to ensure cues were not misread and missiles not launched unnecessarily. In the aftermath of 9/11, we did not have the luxury of a visible enemy. For all we knew, there were hoards of sleeper cells just waiting for the command to wreak havoc upon American society. The appropriate response to this threat was targeted intelligence gathering and careful police work. 

But at the time, that didn’t feel like enough. Invisible threats invite disproportionate responses. Like Henry, we tore the house apart (but this time someone else’s house), invading and occupying two sovereign nations at a cost of trillions of dollars and countless lives. At the end of the day, what was it that actually prevented future terrorist attacks in America? Not total war, but targeted intelligence gathering and careful police work. 

Faced with the invisible threat of a pandemic, the instinct toward similar overreaction is understandable. At least at first, we didn’t know how this virus behaved and what threat it posed. Caution made a lot of sense. After better data and more research, there is still much we don’t know, but some things have come into focus. The early models overstated the threat. This is good news. The population that the virus targets the most is also coming into focus, allowing us to divert protective resources to the vulnerable rather than the whole of society. This is also good news. Flattening the curve was the goal, and we have achieved that goal, so much so that more hospitals are underwhelmed than overwhelmed. Social distancing in most places can be relaxed while watching for hot spots and outbreak clusters. 

But for some, living with the threat is not good enough. Nothing less than full containment brought about by indefinite lockdowns will do. No degree of threat is tolerable. Floorboards and walls must be dismantled. If necessary, the house must be brought down if that’s what it takes to live in the comfortable illusion of certainty and safety. In questioning the soundness of this approach, one is accused of putting dollars before life, of being willing to throw society’s vulnerable under the bus out of a need to dine-in at restaurants or visit a salon (as if that is actually what is at stake).  

I sympathize with the fear of living with uncertainty. It’s a distressing fact that we live in a world where the possibility of death lurks around many corners. Every time I let my teenagers take the car out with friends, I shudder at the thought that it might, just might, result in officers standing at my door, hat in hand. Horrifying as that possibility may be, the alternative–restricting their freedom and keeping them home all the time–is no way for them to live life. Freedom comes with inherent risks. I believe this is why a major tenet of most religions is the concept of faith, the courage to continue living in the face of uncertainty. 

The need to balance risk and freedom is not a new dilemma brought on by the pandemic. As a society, we must make these calculations all the time. In the US alone, allowing people the freedom to smoke costs about 480,000 lives per year, 40,000 of which are collateral (second hand smoke). Allowing people the freedom to drink alcohol costs about 80,000 lives per year. Allowing people the freedom to drive their cars over 35mph costs an unnecessary 38,000 lives per year. The deaths caused by allowing people the freedom to eat poorly and not exercise dwarf all these figures. In all the above cases, the deaths could be prevented through absolute restriction and surveillance. But as a society we’ve decided that is too high of a cost. Of course we don’t go to the other extreme and pretend the threats aren’t real. Instead, we take reasonable measures to educate, to warn, and to take safety precautions. What we don’t do is bring the whole house down.  

I do not know what measures are and are not appropriate to fight a pandemic. I’ll leave that to experts and scientists. But the degree with which we implement recommendations and codify them into emergency declarations is not a scientific question; it’s a philosophical and political one. And it is the domain of every citizen to engage with these questions and not merely bow their heads when someone waives the banner of expertise and authority.

I believe it’s possible to find a reasonable balance between inaction and overreaction. I also believe finding that balance requires vigorous debate, not unquestioning compliance. We must be careful to not let our desire for certainty and safety lead us into extreme and harmful policies. I believe it’s possible to watch for the ant, keep the dinner date, and still live in a decent house at the end of the day.

Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers , story of one soul’s redemptive journey into the afterlife. Please follow new posts on this blog by submitting your email at the upper right on this page. 

Get Your Butt to Church

I’ve never really loved going to church. Of all that entails the religious life, the least interesting to me is the act of actually going to a building with lots of people and sitting through lessons and sermons. Sometimes the services can be engaging and even beautiful, but often they range from dull to ordinary. But the older I get, and the more I reflect on the benefits of a church-going life on one’s family and community, the more I realize that more is at stake than my personal whims.

According to recent research, an unprecedented number of Americans have stopped attending church or affiliating with any religion. I believe the choice to abandon religion is not only bad for our spiritual life, but damaging to our national civic life.

I want to address some common excuses for not attending church. I’m familiar with these excuses because I’ve used them (or wanted to use them) many times. But truth is a stubborn nag, and I’ve never been able to pull off these excuses for very long before they fall apart.

“I don’t need religion to be spiritual.”  This is like saying “I don’t need schools to be educated.” It’s absolutely true, but it misses the point that spirituality, just like learning, is best fostered in a supportive community with structure and accountability and guidance. Theoretically, the world’s knowledge is contained in books and online resources, and can be studied all alone in the woods. Yet imagine if, based on this fact, we were to abandon all the schools and universities. Without the discipline and guidance that comes from structured education, worldwide learning and literacy would plummet. Similarly, it’s easy to dabble in spirituality–a little prayer, a little meditation, a little yoga–but a more earnest pursuit of the Divine is greatly enhanced with the discipline and ritual that comes from a community of fellow seekers.

“I have doubts; I’m just not sure I believe in all that stuff anymore.”  Welcome to the club. Very few churchgoers blindly and zealously gobble up all of their faith’s claims. Doubt should no more keep us away from church than illness should keep us away from the hospital. Yet this is an imperfect comparison because it suggests it’s the role of church to “cure” us of doubt. In fact, doubt is part of faith. Faith, which has often been compared to a seed, arises from a place of doubt and uncertainty like a plant rises from the soil. Church isn’t a place to go once doubts have been resolved; it’s a place to work through them.

“I cannot support my Church’s stance on social and political issues.”  At a time when society is dividing itself into like-minded tribes, I can’t think of a better antidote than intentionally going to a place that challenges our particular worldview. Maybe your political or social cause is good and just. But maybe, just maybe, you aren’t quite as correct as you think you are. Even if you are right and your church is wrong, maybe your voice of dissent can provide a needed balance to those who have become too comfortable in their own stained glass echo chambers. Attending a church does not require or imply endorsement of its stance on every issue. It does mean, however, that you are willing to give priority to local community over divisive national issues.

“I had a bad experience at church.” This is a tough one because the cases range from trivial (someone was rude to me) to tragic (sexual or physical abuse). Without addressing every possible issue, I can only say, give it another chance. People are human, which means in addition to being capable of love and kindness, they can also be rude and abusive. Such people exist in all institutions, secular and religious. While we want to think of church as a refuge from such things, often it is a kind of proving ground where the universally spiritual ideal of forgiveness is put to the highest test. And your story of healing could benefit many others who share similar experiences.

“People at church are hypocrites.” Fair enough. But are you sure that you aren’t a hypocrite, too? Do you live your ideals perfectly? If so, then your standards are pathetically low. Anyone who claims to consistently live their ideals is either a liar or has incredibly low ideals. Yes, people should be held accountable for egregious forms of hypocrisy, but most religious folks are just doing the best they can and falling hopelessly short in the process. But it’s better to be in the game trying to do one’s best than sitting on the sidelines, sneering at those who try to be good but fall short.  

“People at church are judgmental.” Before you harshly judge supposedly harsh judgers, ask yourself: Is it possible that you have something you feel self-conscious about and are therefore hypersensitive to any tiny little thing that could possibly be construed as judgment? (That person just looked at me funny. I know what they must be thinking…” Of course, judgmentalism is a real thing; that’s why all the great religious figures have preached against it. But in my own life, there have been many times when I thought I was being judged only to discover that it was my own extreme self-awareness that was at play. If you actually are being judged, then think of yourself as giving another imperfect person a chance to embrace difference and question their stereotypes.

Some Benefits

Research points to many social and psychological benefits of regular church attendance. However, I’d like to point out a few less tangible and less measurable benefits—positive things that church does that are in short supply these days.

The Big Questions

Church is one of the last few places where, in an earnest and systematic way, people engage the big questions of life. What is my purpose? What is truth? What is beauty? What are my obligations to my neighbors? If you hope that such questions can be engaged in a secular setting such as a university humanities department, I have bad news. Most of them gave up on truth a long time ago. In fact, to even talk about “Truth and Beauty” would seem embarrassingly quaint and old fashioned in most philosophy or English departments these days.

In a day of soundbites and memes and “hot takes,” church invites us to study ancient texts that connect our lives to people who lived thousands of years ago and struggled with questions similar to ours. Church sits you down on a bench and invites you to look inward to ask yourself the big questions. It invites you to assess how you are doing, and resolve to do better. Could this be done privately? Of course. But seriously, in the busyness of life, how often do we get around to it? And what about the insights you gain when asking and answering those questions? Maybe your ideas could benefit others in your faith community.


Perhaps most importantly, church helps point our attention to transcendence and mystery. We live in a world that doesn’t much like mystery, and that is too bad. Have we become so arrogant as to believe that science is really on the cusp of having it all figured out, that once we have the Theory of Everything in the bag we can explain it all from beginning to end and close up shop on mystery? It takes more faith than I can muster to believe that our little three pound brains are capable of comprehending ultimate reality. Mystery keeps me humble and works against naive materialism. It’s true that some religious fundamentalists reject mystery for the easy comforts of certainty; so do dogmatic atheists. But the vast majority of religious folks have a healthy reverence for mystery and doubt. Church reminds me that we understand only a small fragment of the big picture, and promises an eternal unfoldment of wonders and glories our minds can scarcely imagine.  

I am not advocating for any particular religion here. If memories of your childhood religion give you the heebie jeebies, then find something that works for you. By “works for you” I don’t mean one that is easy or that perfectly mirrors your worldview or that makes no demands upon you. I mean one that challenges you to reach outside your comfortable bubble, one that calls upon you to make sacrifices for something greater than yourself.  Think of it as an experiment. Give it a solid year. And if on your way to church you see me loading up the fishing boat, you can accuse me of hypocrisy. You wouldn’t be wrong, and I might just set aside a couple hours and join you.


Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers , story of one soul’s redemptive journey into the afterlife. Please follow new posts on this blog by submitting your email at the upper right on this page. 

Evening on the Teton

There is a spot along the Teton river not far from my home where I like to stop and contemplate the water. I go on my motorcycle in the evening. Lately, I have been eyeing the water for fishing, checking on its readiness, watching to see if trout are rising for the caddis and mayfly hatches that splatter my windshield and helmut. This is the stated excuse, but really I just like to watch the water for its own sake.

It would be wrong to say that the water is peaceful. This time of year, it swirls and boils with energy as it tries to drain the still snow-laden Tetons whose peaks rise to my east. The fields of hay and spring canola in full bloom might be described as peaceful, especially in the light of the setting sun. But this time of year the river is a writhing snake hiding beneath the cottonwoods and willows, dangerous and alluring all at once. Since my childhood, whenever I see waters like this, I imagine what it would be like to fall in. What would it feel like? What branch or rock could I cling to? Would my muscles seize in this frigid water that only days earlier was mountain snow?

But tonight, as I think of fish and flies and dark water, something else is on my mind. A news report that two young teen boys were playing in the shadows of the ruined Teton dam, just miles upstream from my spot. One boy, age 14, attempting to cross the river, disappeared under the water, and was not seen again. Authorities are searching for his body.

So when I watch the water this evening, the unhappy thought occurs to me that I ought to keep an eye out for a sign of the boy. “Sign of the boy” is a way of softening the haunting image that swirls in my mind, the horror of seeing a child drifting in the cold, murky water. And yet, there would be some relief to the mother and father who just yesterday received a phone call that turned their world upside down, and now wait for another phone call that will not lift the burden but will at least allow them to grieve in a more complete way.

This is the way tragedy happens. The morning starts like any other. And then by nightfall, you live in a different world, a foreign land with no map to navigate, with well wishers and sympathizers trying to reach across a gulf, but the water too deep, the gulf too wide to make contact. When the Teton dam failed 42 years ago this month and flooded the valley with eight feet of water, that is how it happened. “Just a regular June morning,” the survivors repeat with a sense of wonder. Then by evening, farms and homes and businesses filled with brackish water, some homes detaching from their foundations, floating away like rafts. And for 11 families, there were loved ones whose remains would not be recovered until the waters receded.

This evening, my children are accounted for. Two are kicking a soccer ball in the yard. One is on a date at a local play, the other, I believe, is watching TV. For my family, this is a normal evening like any other. I think of the unknown family who grieves tonight and feel for them. I cannot feel a fraction of their pain, but my thoughts are unsettled like the water that churns beneath the willows. I know that tomorrow, for me, will start with a normal morning, just like any other.

When I Thought I Would be Taken

There is, in my memory of my childhood, an event I’m not sure how to think about. It’s about a time when I was almost kidnapped. At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s such an extraordinary claim that now, as an adult, I question whether or not things really happened the way I remember them. Did the van really turn down the dirt road after me? Were they just regular folks whose following me was merely coincidental? Were my kidnappers just teens pranking a little kid? What is clear is that to my 10 year old mind, I was nearly kidnapped and was saved by prayer.

Two miles from our rural home in Heber City, Utah, the Provo River passed under a bridge and emptied into Deer Creek reservoir. I rode over this bridge every day on the school bus to Midway Elementary. The waters under the bridge moved slow and deep, and fishermen often dotted the shoreline. At this time in my life, I was crazy about fishing. Although my dad took me out a fair amount, I hated relying on his schedule. I longed to go fishing alone, where I could take my time, try different lures, and work the holes in my own way without supervision. So one summer day, without permission I packed up my rod, hopped on my bike, and headed to the bridge.

Not a soul was there. It was perfect. I dropped my bike on the side of the road and slid down the bank to the water. After several minutes, the initial excitement wore off as the fish were not attacking my bait as they had in my fantasies. I decided to try the other side of the bridge. That is when I noticed a white van parked near the bridge (yes, a white van). The driver was staring at me. Another man stood on the bridge, pretending to take in the view, but glanced my way.

It was the 1980s, the decade of milk carton children, of learning to never accept rides or candy from strangers, a time when friendly neighbors hung McGruff the Crime Dog signs in their windows to indicate their home as a safe haven. My heart pounded. This was it. This was what I had been warned about in all those school assemblies.

I got on my bike and pedaled hard. The man on the bridge jumped into the van, and they followed me. I pumped the pedals, my fishing rod, gripped with the handle bars, bouncing wildly with each motion. I glanced over my shoulder, and they still followed. Fear entered my muscles and my pedaling felt weak. On my left were some older, pioneer era farm homes. Should I go to one of those homes? The lawns looked kept, but I had never seen anyone there. Perhaps there would be no one to offer safety and I would be trapped at an empty doorstep. More than that, the embarrassment of knocking a stranger’s door somehow made my second option more appealing.

Ahead, a dirt road on the right led toward the lake. I took it, breaking off the main road where the van still followed. The van turned down the dirt road. My legs weakened. I raced down the path, which veered left again to follow the lake shore. The rains had been heavy that spring, so the weeds and field grass were over four feet tall. At full speed, I turned and rammed into the wall of grass, ditched my bike and pole, sprinted several yards, and then dove deep into the thick grass.

I kept my face down and breathed hard but quietly into dirt. It was late afternoon, and the sun cast long shadows across the valley. A breeze rustled and swayed the tops of the grass. Could I hear the van passing, searching? Could I hear footsteps or was it only the wind? I braced for hands to reach down and take hold of my shoulders and warn me not to scream.  

I prayed into the dirt, over and over, please let the bad guys not find me. Please God, I will be good, just don’t let them find me. I waited and prayed. And waited, and prayed. Time passed–half hour, maybe an hour–and the sun dropped to the mountain peaks now. I slowly stood above the grass and scanned the horizon. The van was gone. I was safe.

At home I told no one for fear I would never be allowed to go anywhere alone again.

A Quorum of Strangers: On the isolation of Mormon men

“Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism.’ … It unites the human family with its happy influence.” – Joseph Smith

A group of men in white shirts shuffle into a room of folding chairs. Just one more hour, the home stretch. First, the announcements. Bro. So and So is moving and could use some help next Saturday. As far as activities go, there’s a thing coming up in June but details are vague and it isn’t clear who was in charge of making the phone calls. The end of the month is coming fast, so don’t forget about home teaching. The time is turned over to Bro. K who has the lesson this week. He’s subbing again, but no one really knows who the regular teacher is. And since it was a last minute thing, he says, he was hoping the announcements would take longer, so he’ll be relying on lots of comments from the group to take up the time.

But the group has already checked out. They are staring despondently at their feet, or pretending to find the lesson on their phones while they check the latest scores.

Meet the Mormon patriarchy having all the fun running the Church.  

A recent article in the Atlantic points out that men, especially middle aged white men, are increasingly dying from lives lived in isolation and addiction. I would like to believe that Mormon men somehow buck this trend. After all, aren’t we part of a tight knit community capable of self-organizing in a moment’s notice? Just hand us a natural disaster and we’ll show up with rakes and shovels. But despite the Church’s obvious strength in organizing labor, it’s my observation that Mormon men lead surprisingly isolated and lonely lives. 

There is very little in LDS culture that fosters male friendship. Mormon men have no equivalent of going out for a beer, one of the few socially acceptable male reasons for getting together in American culture. Any free time outside work and church callings should be spent at home with family. Period. I remember an EQ president who berated the quorum for hunting or fishing or playing sports with friends. The time for high school buddies was over, he said. Now it was all about taking care of our wives and children.

When women make time to be with their friends (as they should), it’s billed as a much deserved “Girl’s night out.” The male version is much less common. Because men are “out” all day at work; why should we need time away? And research shows that men in general simply have a harder time maintaining deep friendships than women, despite the fact that such friendships can increase life expectancy by as much as 22 percent.

I don’t want to paint a picture of victimization. We men have no one to blame but ourselves. It’s easier to not make that phone call, to not reach out, and instead numb out in front of the TV or the internet or whatever happens to pop up on the phone. It’s especially easy to not go to that once-a-quarter (if you’re lucky) EQ activity, which are often so poorly attended that they feel like support groups for misfits.  

We also have our excuses: :

“My wife is my best friend, and my kids are priority in terms of free time.” Yep. Me too. Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back for being such committed family men. But can we admit it still isn’t enough, that friendship is as important to a full life as family? Isn’t the “family man” excuse just alienation masked as nobility?

“I’m just too busy.” This excuse may not be a lie, but it’s beside the point. Busyness has nothing to do with connection and fulfilment. Some of the most bored, disconnected people in the world are those with schedules packed full of commitments.

So what should be done? I don’t have any easy answers, but the discussion seems more interesting than “Did you do your home teaching last month?” or “Everyone turn to lesson 22.” Like any change that happens in a community, it must become a cultural priority. The Amish, for example, understand very well that a single machine could cut and gather more hay than the work of 12 men. But they wonder, wisely, what would become of the friendship and camaraderie of those 12 men if they weren’t working together?

An acquaintance of mine who attends a support group for “sex addiction” remarked about what a sense of brotherhood he feels there. The men in the group share their deepest struggles and see one another as allies in strengthening each other.

I’m not officially addicted to anything, so I wouldn’t know what such a group is like. I have never belonged to a quorum of elders that tried something that looked like honesty and vulnerability. And why should they? Beneath the “Hey how are ya?” facade, an elder’s quorum is too often a room full of strangers.


Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers , story of one soul’s redemptive journey into the afterlife. Please follow new posts on this blog by submitting your email at the upper right on this page. 

Sex Ed


One spring day when I was in the fourth grade, I came home from school and placed in open view an “Important Note to Parents.” I wanted him to find it without me present. The note contained oblique references to the need for children to understand their maturing bodies in a healthy and supportive context. It was the 1980s and sex education was a new and—at least in the religiously conservative valleys of Utah—controversial program. The note explained that this sensitive topic would be discussed in the presence of a parent who could answer his or her child’s questions afterward. If possible, fathers were to take their sons, and mothers their daughters.

At this time in his life my dad was a tough and brooding kind of man, having left the police force, disillusioned and depressed, just years earlier. This was not his sort of thing. I knew he would want as little to do with it as I did, but the letter required a signature and yes or no response. It had to be confronted. I put the note where he would see it so he could do as he pleased.

It was my mom who eventually brought the note to his attention, and his reply was a dismissive “Hmmph.” As expected, the note was not signed and no response given. I was relieved from the prospect of sitting in a room of moms and dads staring at their feet while a hapless school nurse presented drawings and diagrams and spoke delicately of perfectly normal urges.

I paid little attention when the evening of the Special Talk came. My friends were going and had expressed their regret at having to do so, and I felt lucky to be home on a couch watching Three’s Company. My relaxation was interrupted when my dad came in the house and said, “Why don’t you come with me,” as a command, not an invitation.

Outside, he led Molly, our gentle black mare, into the horse trailer already attached to the truck. Molly was a placid and compliant horse. As I lacked any cowboy instinct, she was to me, the horse-that-wouldn’t-buck. I felt safe riding her with my sister around the pasture, sometimes venturing into the foothills above our home. My dad said simply that we were going to have her bred, but having often tagged along with my parents on various errands, I didn’t take much interest in the business at hand.

I was no stranger to the reproductive instincts of animals. We owned a large and muscular Chesapeake who had sired, without consent, a litter of puppies with a female down the street. And on more than one occasion he mounted my small statured neighbor friend, taking him to his knees as he cried for help. Only kicking the dog where it counted most could dissuade him from his confused lust.

From this experience I did not draw the natural conclusion that a much larger animal would produce a much grander spectacle, or that it even need be a spectacle. When our dog propagated himself, he simply disappeared for several days—we thought he had been stolen—before emerging from the neighbor’s shed refreshed and ready to resume his usual duties. Horses, I would discover, had no such privacy.

We drove across Heber Valley toward the small town of Midway. I enjoyed any excuse to ride in the quiet cab of the truck. We rarely said much to each other; watching the passing landscape of hayfields and small neighborhoods was enough. It was late afternoon and the sun was already casting long shadows across the valley floor. The hayfields were green but the higher mountain ridges were still capped in snow.

We pulled into a farm with large red stables and a series of corrals. A burley, gray haired farm wife wearing a flannel shirt met us at the fences.

“Well, he’s ready!” she told my dad after some small talk through the truck window.

“He,” I could now see, was a beautiful dark stallion prancing around the corral in great anticipation. When Molly obediently backed out of the horse trailer and came into full view, he galloped in circles, kicking up clouds of dust, shaking his mane, whinnying impatiently. Molly trained her ears in his direction, eyeing him nervously. But this was the last she saw of him. The farm lady placed a cloak around Molly’s head, shielding her eyes, allowing only her ears to poke through, which now shifted in all directions in search of some clue of her fate. In a moment, I would envy her blindness.

Molly was led into a separate corral and then into a narrow stall where my dad and the farm lady restrained her on both sides. They either considered her a flight risk or thought she was in danger of doing harm to the stallion. Once secure, the stallion, now prancing and shaking and bucking at the gate, was released into Molly’s pen.

There was no time for pleasantries or romance. In an instant I was witness to the stallion’s passions in all their raw power. I backed away from the pen, wondering if I should look away yet unable to even if I wanted. Molly thrashed against her tethers, tugging at the metal fencing.

The farm lady determined the stallion was not performing satisfactorily. The mounting was easy, but there was difficulty in the actual coupling, which required a precision of aim that, perhaps through no fault of his own given the awkward circumstances, the stallion was incapable of achieving. Again, I wanted to look away, but just then the farm woman grabbed the stallion’s enormous errant member and guided it to its intended place.

When the act was complete, the stallion’s passions were spent, I trembled at the spectacle just witnessed and was relieved for both Molly and myself it was over. When they removed the mask from Molly’s eyes, she looked around wildly, as if trying to make sense of what happened. Before she was released, the stallion, now calm and settled, was led to his separate corral. Money was exchanged for the encounter, and there was talk of hoping Molly would “take.”

On the way home the cab was silent. We passed Midway Elementary where, perhaps, the meeting was still in session. While my classmates listened to delicately phrased euphemisms about the sacred powers of procreation, I was witness to the brute physicality of the act. So this was the thing that prompted such anxiety from church and state. This was the thing that could barely be contained with Special Talks and fences and ropes and blinders.

That Molly’s servicing coincided with the evening at the school was no accident. My dad spent his life with animals both wild and domestic, and he was often fascinated with the similarities between human and animal behavior. But to make sure the lesson was not lost on me, he broke the silence of the cab.

“So what you saw tonight,” he said, pausing to search for the right words. “It basically works the same with humans.”

“Okay,” I replied, looking straight ahead. I was glad when he did not follow up with further questions or advice. The lesson was over, my education complete. Silence filled the cab for the drive home. The valley was darker now, the animals grazing in their pastures barely visible in the twilight.


Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers

Away Without Leave: The day I ran from my mission

By Sheldon Lawrence

The thing that kept me from snapping sooner was shame. I didn’t want to be “that” missionary–a delicate case requiring special handling, the homesick momma’s boy who couldn’t handle it. So I quietly endured the first two months of my mission to Santiago, Chile, without complaint, slogging through the muddy streets of the poorest neighborhoods, withstanding the jeers of children, and struggling to comprehend a new language. But the shame didn’t go away; it was a private shame between me and the Lord whom I was supposed to be serving.

In that two months a great chasm grew between what I was supposed to be feeling and what I was actually feeling.

I was supposed to feel grateful to have been called to Chile because, we were told, Chile was a special place in the Lord’s vineyard, and we were special missionaries. This was the preparation ground for the Church’s future leaders. The field here was ripe and ready to harvest, and the numbers proved it. Santiago North, my mission, was the lowest baptizing mission with a mere 500-600 baptisms per month. The other Santiago missions baptized between 1000-1500 per month, and they taunted us by faxing their reports to our office.

I was supposed to love the people. That was the mantra, learn to love the people. But I didn’t love them. I didn’t know why, only that this was a spiritual defect. My companion loved the people. He joked and laughed and gave them high fives on the street. He knew how to work a crowd, and I would watch him in awe, feeling exhausted that this was the thing I should aspire too.

He would almost apologize for me to his admirers. ”He’s new,” he would explain. “Just arrived from Los Estados.” But in private, he would do his best to get me on board. “Dude, you gotta get PUMPED!” he would say, generating enthusiasm or “animo” from thin air. I soon realized he was merely repeating the rhetoric of our monthly zone meetings.

At my first zone meeting, the chapel was cold with tile floors and concrete walls. Steam rose from the twenty or so missionaries that gathered in a damp clump in the front pews. They greeted one another with cool handshakes and hugs. It was like they were part of a secret club I wasn’t sure I wanted to join but still envied. The zone leader, a grizzled looking veteran missionary sporting a hat and mittens made of alpaca wool, drew a grid on a chalkboard with the name of each companionship on the left. At the top of the grid were the numbers we were to report–contacts, discussions, and, most importantly, baptisms. He labeled the grid “Weekly Comparativo.” This was the routine throughout the mission, putting up the numbers for the zone to see.

He went down the row, alternatively celebrating big numbers and questioning, with a tone of concern, the lower numbers. It became clear that “loving the people” meant baptizing them, as many and as quickly as possible. And why shouldn’t it? “Todos nececistan un bautismo.” Everyone needs a baptism to get into heaven. Besides, the South and West missions were getting cocky; we needed to step up our game and reach the mission goal of 800 baptisms.

One companionship had a good month. Fifteen baptisms. “Look at this, Elderes,” he said, slowly circling the number. “Let’s hear some animo!” The missionaries shouted and cheered as the meeting took on the feeling of a football pep rally. I tried to fit in. I shouted and smiled and gave high fives and got pumped, for worse than the shame of pretending was not pretending and being discovered as a dud missionary.

After the meeting I found a rare moment when I could be alone and wonder why I was not on the Lord’s side, why I couldn’t get pumped about this great kingdom building work, and why all I could think about was the mountains of Montana I left to come down to the bottom of the planet where the seasons were backward and even the angle of light was wrong.

“It hugs the northern horizon down here, the winter sun,” I said to my companion once.

“Huh…never noticed,” he said.

I could not admit it, not even to myself, but I wanted out. I knew it was a sin to want to leave, but I wanted it more with each day. It never occurred to me that something was wrong with the mission. The mission was from God. If I didn’t like it, there must have been something wrong with me. I was a soldier in God’s army fantasizing about desertion–a secret I couldn’t share with anyone. Not my fellow missionaries, not the mission president, and especially not my proud family back home, for whom “having a missionary out” was the one bright spot in their otherwise unstable life. So I kept my dislike of the mission a secret, a guilty secret.

I did not know at the time that I was part of a phenomenon in Chile that Salt Lake would later come to see as a problem that needed special clean up. The baptizing heydays of the 1990s in Chile produced such a vast wasteland of rushed or questionably baptized people that the Church took the unprecedented step sending Elder Holland in 2002 to personally oversee the effort to clean the records of “chueco” (crooked) baptisms and refocus missionary efforts on reactivation and retention. In the decade of the 90s, membership in Chile grew by 211,000. By comparison, during the following decade membership grew by a more manageable 54,000.

The pressures this environment produced were immense. A hard working missionary in Germany, for example, would produce the same results as a lazy missionary in Germany–that is, practically nothing at all. But in Chile, if you did not baptize every month, it was conspicuous. Something was wrong. And the wrongness and the shame of it were on display for all to see.

If you wanted to get promoted, you had to produce baptisms consistently. A couple months of double digit baptisms could get you to Zone Leader as well as special attention from the mission president. A couple of dry months, and you were treated with special care, with the president’s assistants doing splits to train you in the high powered sales tactics that got results.

I was often witness to sincere spiritual seeking and teaching and was deeply touched by it. But too many times the thing that secured the baptism was the charisma and relative handsomeness of the missionary (and yes, this was a man’s mission. The few sisters there were not part of the numbers race, for reasons that would require another essay). When young Chileans, even children, found themselves lavished with the attention of sparkling, white shirted gringos, it was hard to resist. Jesus got baptized. Didn’t they want to follow Jesus? They would have their chance at the chapel the coming Saturday. That they had, technically speaking, become Mormons in that process was not always obvious to them or their parents.

The thing that kept me going was a sense that I had to pay my debt to my culture. I wanted a good Mormon wife, and a family, and roast beef on Sundays. Those blessings didn’t come free, so I had to earn my place.

But I still wanted out.

The tipping point came when I was transferred to the country, a move I hoped would be a rest from the crowded, dog infested streets of Santiago. For the first few weeks it was. But then the “Mamita” who hosted us in her home decided our rent was not sufficient and gave us notice to find a new place. I was with a native Chilean companion at the time who had zero sympathy for culture shock or homesickness. He was also relatively new to the mission, and this was the first time he lead a companionship and could make a name for himself. He fantasized about Pentecostal-like conversion of the small town of Curacavi.

My companion arranged for our new accommodations without talking to me. We would be moving to live in a squatter’s settlement on the outskirts of town with chickens, goats, and open sewers. We would live at the residence of a man the missionaries nicknamed Gargamel, after the Smurf nemesis. This was the same man whose infamous fresh-squeezed juices (from an orchard irrigated with contaminated water) was believed to be the source of a previous elder’s Typhoid fever.

I found out about the housing change when the zone leaders arrived from Santiago to help with the move. Something happened in that moment. Something took over. I needed to go away. It was as if I was no longer making decisions. I watched myself get on my bike and ride past the zone leaders and my puzzled companion.

“Where are you going?” asked the zone leader.

“Away,” I said, for that was all I knew.

I had no plan, only a vague sense that I needed to grab hold of something solid, reach out to something familiar. I rode my bike away—out of the gate, onto the street, then toward town on the highway. My flight was not calculated like a prison escape, but was more like that of a criminal caught in the act. I knew they would be in pursuit, so I pedaled hard.

I had a vague notion of needing to reach a phone, and I knew there was one at the town’s only bank. I ditched my bike and ran inside. At the phone, I contemplated my options. I couldn’t call my parents and tell them I had become a deserter in the army of Helaman. Nor could I confide in my brothers, both decorated mission veterans who earned accolade of “AP.” I couldn’t call my nonmember friends who thought I was on some kind of study abroad program picking up girls.

I decided to try my inactive sister. This was a risk. She was already a little suspicious of my mission, and I was afraid she would catch the next flight to Chile and demand my release. The phone rang. No answer.

For a brief moment I imagined running into the hills and building a hut in the Andes Mountains until I could gather myself. But everything was falling apart. I looked outside and saw the zone leader and companion approaching the bank like police.

I had nowhere to run. The game was up. It was time to turn myself in. When I walked down the steps and saw the missionaries eyeing me nervously, my arms went numb. I grew dizzy and my breathing became irregular—a sort of hyperventilation that frightened both myself and my approaching comrades.

To my horror, I was coming undone on Main Street in the full light of day. In an instant I changed from the quiet greenie who kept to himself, to something I had never wanted to be: a special problem to keep at arm’s length. I could already hear the mission gossip: Dude, when we found him he totally started freaking out.

When, after a few moments, my soul reentered my body, the zone leader took me to a park bench and bought us each a cold Coke. I told him everything, that I didn’t like the work, that I didn’t know if I belonged there. And there was something else, something I hadn’t told anyone.

“My dad is sick,” I said. “He has some nervous system disease that is only going to get worse. I don’t even know if he’ll be there when I get home.”

He said he would talk to the president and see what could be done. Now the president would know about me. Everyone would know. I felt shame, of course, but there was also something liberating in it. The breakdown and fleeing were the most honest things I had done on my mission.

We moved to Gargamel’s house right away. The new housing would not have been approved by the mission office, but I knew the office didn’t know the details. We were at the outer reaches of the empire; my companion was Col. Kurtz and was not entirely under the rule of mission law.

The new housing provided an opportunity to plan for a seemingly honorable escape, for this was the house where a missionary had contracted typhoid fever during just a brief visit. Still depressed, one day I asked Gargamel for a sample of his legendary orange juice, a request he happily and quickly obliged. For one who was teased as a “germ freak” and who would not share a can of soda with friends or family, the will power required to drink the diseased potion was significant. But I believed the unsanitary blender, unwashed hands, and foul-smelling orchard would do the dirty work of getting me home.

When he produced the juice, I raised my glass and toasted in English so as not to offend my host. “To home,” I said, then downed the concoction as if it were a shot of hard liquor. But nothing happened. Days passed without the drink producing so much as an upset stomach.

The mission president offered to send me home. But I stayed. One more day. One more week. Then a month. I was soon transferred to a better situation, and slowly the fog lifted. In time I gained the confidence to resist chueco missionaries, even if only in passive aggressive ways. And there were good times, times when it felt right and good. And there were turning points. I remember a moment in prayer when I said to God for the first time “Let thy will, not mine, be done” and meant it. Then there was the moment I chose to stay no matter what, an act of defiance more than devotion. Somehow the power to run, the power to leave, made the decision to stay mean something.

My kids recently pointed out that I rarely talk about my mission. Apart from sharing a few funny anecdotes, it’s true. I grew in those two years in ways I could not have done otherwise. I do not regret my mission, and even feel gratitude for it. But I still don’t understand it. In some ways, I’m still in that bank, phone in trembling hands, wondering who to call and wondering what to say when they answer.

Moving Mormons

Though I have spent, in my religious life, hundreds of hours in church sponsored service projects, I have never participated in such Instagram-ready activities like feeding the hungry or digging wells in remote villages. By far the bulk of my service has been spent in truly one of the more unpleasant tasks of human life. Moving. But not just any kind of moving. Moving other Mormons.

I imagine those digging the village wells or ladling soup into bowls clutched in two-handed gratitude feel the warmth of human connection that comes with such acts of goodwill. There is a finitude, a completeness, I imagine, about such service. Even in the case of a soup kitchen–yes, hunger will come again in just a matter of hours. But to provide immediate relief to one truly in need is a kind of service that has so far eluded me.  

I understand that true, sincere service isn’t about the effects upon the giver. It’s about meeting the needs of others. I get the correct philosophical stance. But if we assume (or admit) that service has to do with the quality of experience for both the giver and receiver, then helping someone move their belongings from one home to another must be one of the least gratifying experiences for both parties. If you have money to spend and want to cast your alms before men, then take that orphanage vacation to South America and post your photos on facebook. Avoid at all costs delving into the muck of middle class American consumption.  

For moving a neighbor is a glimpse into the embarrassment of riches of American life, if richness is to be determined, as it appears to be, by the accumulation of suff. This is part of the problem with moving as a service project. You feel about as much satisfaction for having changed the world as you might from waxing someone’s Mercedes. Unlike rendering aid to the hungry and homeless, moving someone is a problem made worse through gratuitous consumerism.

I’m a snob when it comes to getting rid of stuff; my wife is, too. Some marriages are beset with conflict when a keeper and a get-ridder fall in love. But one thing my wife and I have always agreed on is the need to purge junk from our life. We love throwing things out, and feel some pride when dumping–or…donating–our surplus at Deseret Industries. Not that we consume any less than our peers, but I like to believe we practice a Zen-like detachment to the material goods of this transient existence, letting them flow in then out of our lives.

This is how we like to think of it. But in reality, even a relatively uncluttered home appears, when moving, to belong to a hoarder. During one relatively recent move, we carefully cultivated the image of the clean and uncluttered family I’ve always dreamt of being. We donated mounds of stuff. Threw away even more. The things kept were tucked neatly in taped boxes. Yes, there was a furniture problem. But our four children had to sleep somewhere.

The hapless band of church volunteers showed up on moving day and all was going well until one guy said, loud enough for others to hear, “Wow, you guys have a lot of stuff!” It was the kind of throw away comment I should have ignored, but I was hurt and became defensive. If he thought this was a lot, well, then he hadn’t moved very many people. And did he know my wife taught preschool once and might again someday? You don’t just throw out crafts and lesson plans. And the trailers were small, so it just looked like a lot of stuff.

In hindsight, maybe we had kept a few superfluous things just to keep our options open. And I think this has something to do with the psychology of keeping. To keep something feels like leaving a door open to possibility, while getting rid of something means closing the door on an experience we’d like to believe may still happen. Keeping means we do not have to admit the failure of the possession–the unread book, the guitar in the closet–while letting go means the death of a good intention, an admission that the guitar will never see lessons or the light of a campfire. The dusty tennis rackets and golf clubs–well, we might play again someday once life calms down a bit.  

To be on the receiving end of moving service requires a certain amount of courage, or more likely, desperation. It’s the sort of task that one would prefer to do one’s self because moving involves putting your life on display and inviting others to see that life in its greatest disorder. Your preferences, your style, the dresser drawers that had to be removed at the last minute to lighten the load, socks and underwear spilling over–all open to public view.

Only the enormity of the project forces one to invoke the teachings of Jesus to recruit help. When the call goes out at church that so and so will be moving this Saturday at 10am and could really use the help, men shift uncomfortably in their folding chairs. The choice now is to proceed with the weekend plans with a nagging sense of guilt or to help a fellow hoarder in need, and still feel guilty about it.

For another problem with moving is it does not have a definite beginning and end, and therefore offers the Lord’s servant no sense of having provided a tangible improvement to another’s condition. When I help someone move, I feel I leave them in a worse state than I found them. The job is never  finished; it is only abandoned. And even if I am the last volunteer to leave the scene, I have the feeling of deserting the family to the wreckage that has become of their material existence.

In the ideal move, boxes will already be packed and stacked, waiting for the volunteers to load them into a spacious moving truck. Volunteers will be so thick they can almost form a chain, passing boxes from one set of arms to the next. A skilled person will stack the boxes for maximum effectiveness.

I’ve never been on such a move; it still exists as an elusive ideal. Mormon moves are rarely so simple, especially because they always involve a piano and, worse, hundreds of pounds of “food storage” mystery containers whose contents would only be eaten under conditions so apocalyptic and miserable that even the purest saint would have wished to die in the initial calamities.

The worse move I ever did was for an elderly couple several years ago. Everything about it was wrong. I showed up a little late hoping to jump into a project already under way. But volunteers were standing around, arms folded. Women from the ward were there to help pack boxes, but the elderly sister said some of it had to stay, and some of it had to go, so they couldn’t just go boxing up everything. When pressed about what should stay and what should go, she became visibly distressed, like she was being bullied.

I wouldn’t call them hoarders, but they were old, and that is often the same thing, especially for those who lived during the depression. Many from that generation do not get rid of stuff, not if there is the slightest possibility of needing it when the world economy collapses. Such was this home. Rooms were filled with old magazines (“still might read’em”) and cool whip containers filled with rubber bands (“Why throw away a perfectly good rubber band?”).

I tried to help.

“We have a lot of muscle here,” I said. “You don’t have to lift a finger. All we need is someone to say ‘Take this, take that’ and we’ll do all the work.”

“Well I can’t be the one to say that!” she said. My heart sank as my Saturday melted before my eyes.

“Where’s your husband,” I asked. “Maybe he can be the one.”

“Oh, he’s not here. All this stress isn’t good for his heart so he checked into a motel room.”

I wasn’t sure whether to hate the man or envy him.

We did what we could, then several hours later it came to a standstill and we were dismissed. I left and felt bad about leaving, but my own heart wasn’t fairing all that well.

I still don’t know how it all turned out. I never looked back. My spiritual reward for service rendered was a vague feeling that God was disappointed in me for not staying until I had made sure they were comfortably situated in life.

Let’s end on a happier note–the best move I ever did: helping my then fiancee move from her childhood bedroom to our first apartment. Such moves have a celebratory feel and do not require the help of reluctant volunteers. The amount of stuff is relatively small compared to what will come. Even so, my bride-to-be came with a dowry of possessions that easily quadrupled my own.

Before I met her, I took pride in the fact that my my worldly goods fit into the back of my small Mitsubishi pick up truck. It was just me and the open road, able to put down and take up my journey with the greatest of ease. When we met during summer jobs in Montana, she lived out of a suitcase like the other temporary workers, but in her Utah suburban home tucked in the basement were heirloom furniture, racks of clothing, a porcelain doll collection (which she showed me with great pride), and a staggering array of shoes.

As a professional necessity were several boxes and a filing cabinet filled with lesson plans and teaching activities for her some-day school room. Her possessions were orderly and of good taste, no junk, but still far more than my little truck could handle.

It took a long time to get it all packed up, but not because of the amount of stuff. Many items came with stories to be shared. And herein lies one of the few pleasures of moving–the way in which the past is uncovered in layers, like an archaeological dig. Out from the deepest layers come drawings, homework from grade school, and handmade “pottery” that became earring holders. Work comes to a standstill, not for frustration, but because yearbooks and photo albums open up, and now you are sitting side by side on a bare mattress, flipping through the pages.

There is something intimate about seeing into the past of the one who will be your wife. The time you have spent together is the most recent addition atop the stratified layers of a lifetime. And each page of the photo album peeled back reveals a new layer, a new stage in her evolution revealing a new dimension, a whole person. The gangling mud-covered limbs of sisters playing in the mud. School pictures with conspicuous braces and lace collared shirts. Sisters on a beach flexing their bony arms. The birthdays, the sports, the first dates and “also ran” boyfriends. The short hair, the long hair, big bangs, no bangs. A portrait of change, of movement, but constant throughout is that stunning smile, the same one that made me look twice and that led me there, to that moment in the basement, packing boxes of dolls and filling a trousseau that once belonged to grandma, gathering the material that would fill our first apartment, until the last box is carried out and the door closed, almost all the way.  


Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers



By Sheldon lawrence

You can tell me about the neuroscience of memory. How memories aren’t the real thing, but sensory input encoded into neurons, chemical reactions falling into place like a rube goldberg machine in the brain, allowing us to later reproduce certain sensations. And I will pretend to believe you to avoid argument.  

It was 1988 in West Yellowstone, Montana, and I was 12 years old and Yellowstone was engulfed in flames. The town had been taken over by firefighters and soldiers acting as firefighters. My dad managed a gas station and laundromat in town. The firefighting agencies that camped at Old Faithful contracted with the laundromat to have their yellow and green soot covered uniforms washed and delivered.

We had a truckload to deliver, and my dad asked me to come along. The west entrance to the Park was closed. The ranger at the gate said the fire was crossing at Seven Mile bridge, and the road was restricted to necessary traffic only. We convinced him we were on official business, that they were anxiously awaiting the fresh clean uniforms at Old Faithful basecamp, and so he let us through.

The plume of smoke was easily visible from town, but now as we drove east into the park it rose high overhead, blocking the noonday sun, adding to an unsettled feeling I had all summer, that surely these were the last days of something–Yellowstone, at least. Maybe the whole world.  

I could not see the top of the column of smoke, the part that turned from brown to white in the high atmosphere, unless I pressed forward and looked up from the windshield. I could not roll down my window to poke my head out. The ranger told us to keep them shut tight.

A firefighting crew stopped us at Seven Mile bridge, and hesitated before letting us proceed. The light now was an amber haze giving the charred forests an apocalyptic feel.The fire had crossed the road, jumped the river, and was now climbing the hill. The forest was still burning, and a few firefighters looked displeased that we had been let through.

That is when I felt the heat of the flames just off the road and pressed my hand against the window, the glass now hot to the touch.

The heat began as a nuclear reaction in the core of the sun, then escaped as light, making the eight minute flight through space to enter a pine forest in Yellowstone. The heat, the light, absorbed into the evergreen needles, becoming dormant energy as sap and wood fiber. And then, on that August day in 1988, it turned into energy again, released from the tree like a prisoner taking its chance to flee, only to enter my body, my eyes, and my hands against the glass.   

You can tell me it’s just a memory, that I’m not really feeling heat again when almost 30 years later I drive through with my wife and children and tell them the story, looking out at the new growth. But the heat is still inside me, and when I say, look, kids, this is where it crossed when I was with my dad driving through this very spot, I can feel the heat rise up in me, like it knows it’s passing a familiar place, like it too wants to look out the window and see its old home.



Seek stillness. Close your eyes, relax in the lotus position, and breathe deeply. But hold on tight. Search every corner of the cosmos and you find only a universe in motion. Everywhere bodies and matter interrupt one another. Everywhere stars and planets and forests and cell tissues are born. Everywhere they die.

The Earth you sit upon rotates on its axis at 1000 miles per hour, and the planet will, by the time you go to sleep tonight, fly over 800,000 thousand miles along its orbital path. The sun, planets in tow, plows through space in its journey around the Milky Way at 52,000 miles per hour as the Milky Way itself careens toward the Andromeda galaxy at 68 miles per second. In about 4 billion years their glittering spiral arms will embrace one another in tangled webs of gravity.

Still your mind. You will think about not thinking, and your brain will light up like a starry night as thoughts sparkle and pulse through neural networks at the speed of light.

All you can do is make friends with the flux. Observe the churning cosmos and feel the blood coursing through your veins. Watch your breath, rising and falling, insisting on the continuation of life. Accept the hum of the freezer in the next room. Embrace the sound of footsteps and the skinny pajama-legs of a little girl who climbs into your lap and says, “Dad, are you meditating?”

Interuptions was originally published in the Small Things column of River Teeth Journal.