When I was in medical school, I was treated by my wife to a fascinating and gripping performance by Tom Hanks in the movie, castaway.  While I can’t say the movie was profound or life changing, I found its depiction of isolation and loneliness was quite powerful.  In the movie, Tom Hanks works for FedEx, where the plane he is riding crashes into the ocean.  He is the sole survivor marooned on an Island. 
     It is a very basic man vs. Nature plot, as he creates fire, steps on bad things, hurts his hand, bleeds, has a basic cavity volcano into a horrific abcess in the absence of a dentist, etc. al etc.  In the midst of all this, washing up on the shore of the Island with him are a few FedEx packages, one of which containing Wilson volleyball.  It happens to be nearby when he mauls his hand in a firemaking attempt and he smears blood on it.  A little later he fashions the stain into a face, cleverly calling it by the moniker splayed across the ball itself, Wilson. 
     The amazing part of the movie is that as Hanks feels more and more isolated, he anthropomorphizes the ball more and more.  He converses with it throughout the movie as a friend and confidant.  After some years, he escapes the Island on a makeshift raft, Wilson in tow.  As he sleeps, the ball falls off the raft and floats away.  Hanks is besides himself, grief stricken, and forlorn, and wails pitifully for the return of Wilson.  The audience themselves (well me, anyway)  experience this surprising sense of loss as well.  We grieve as He grieves.  Thus, the intrinsic human need for other human contact is put on bright display.  It is a need so powerful that in its absence we will create it out of contact with the inhuman, even the inanimate.  It turns out humans have a basic need for each other. 

Castaway, the story of a plane wreck survivor and the volleyball he loved. (now that's lonely)

    Most religions function in an important social context, bringing a group together and binding it a a community, forging an identity.  This is so powerful that in some cases the mere membership of that community becomes stronger than actual faith or belief in its teachings, church and nationality fuse into one indistinguishable ethnicity by which people are defined.  To leave the group for another religion in these conditions is seen as a profound rejection of family, heredity, and the entire community.  This causes exceedingly raw feelings and palpable tension.  It can tear families apart.  In extemis, some groups declare leaving the established religion illegal, even punishable by death.

     It is clear to me that something deep and profoundly human is going on here.  We need family.  We need community.  We will fight with all he have to protect both.  Far from rejecting any of this, Mormonism kicks it up a notch, weaving this right into the very fabric of its doctrine. 

    We believe that no individual can receive the fullness of exaltation and all the rewards of heaven alone.  In addition to the central contribution of Jesus Christ himself through the atonement, we teach that Man and woman must be sealed together to reach the highest kingdom of God.  The family is written into Mormon doctrine as absolutely central and essential to life’s purpose.  In fact, Mormon Scripture teaches that God’s work and glory are in his bringing to pass the eternal life of his children, his own family. 

    In essence, the vision of Mormonism is the redemption of the whole human family, all who will agree to become part of this grand enterprise.  In Mormonism, family doesn’t just extend forward but backward also.  We have a unique slant on the prophecy of the return of Elijah by Malachi in the Old Testament, as revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith,  

1 Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. 
  2 And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.
  3 If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.
Doctrine and Covenants 2:1-3 

  In other words, our hearts have to turn to our ancestors for the end of the Earth and purpose of existence to have any meaning.  We have to remember and devote ourselves to those who came before us. 

   Like most other tightly bound communities, we still struggle with those who would leave.  We are also walking the doctrinal tightrope that refuses to compel anyone along the right path and respects the individual, requiring he find his own way in life, and yet resists and mourns severely when others decide to leave the fold.

     The paradox is that we depend upon each other.  Society, and mankind in every aspect can only grow and achieve building upon those who have gone before.  We start life out entirely dependant upon others for food, clothing and shelter.  Everything we learn has its foundation in what we have been taught before.  Every scientific discovery and breakthrough is an elaboration of a previous one.  The science, engineering, Arts, literature, philosophy and technology we have today was built by standing on the shoulders of giants.  It grew line upon line, discovery upon discovery until it is too vast for any one person to master the whole of it.  Civilization is greater than the sum of its parts. 

     Mormonism extends this to spiritual truth and salvation as well.  This is central to Joseph Smith’s concept of Zion, a community of God’s people, that are of one heart and one mind.  Mormonism seeks not just save souls, but to create a people of God, worth saving, that we may all become something greater, much the same way as Christ taught as he prayed for his disciples, and all who would joint them, “Neither Pray I for these alone, but for those that believe on me through their word, That they may all be one father, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may be one in us…” 

     John 17:20-21  

    This is also part of why I find Asperger disorder so puzzling in the eternal scheme of things.  While the bond that unites us as families, tribes, society and humanity can have a repressive, dark side, on the whole this is an extraordinary redeeming and important feature of mankind. 

    This brings me to the latest RadioLab podcast, where they Jad and Robert explore the mysterious phenomenon called emergence.  This is the natural phenomenon seen when you take thousands of ants with really no intelligence at all and put them all together and they form an organized, intricate, purposeful colony.   This is the phenomenon of the hive mind.  It is also in evidence when cities develop spontaeously into neighborhoods and burroughs with their own flavor, and is the secret behind the google follow the people formula for better web searches.

     It seems to be in evidence when a big collection of chemicals in a lipid membrane called a cell becomes a smooth running factory, or a group of cells assemble into a complex organism.  It can even be used to explain how a bunch of individual neurons with a few simple rules releasing chemicals in reaction to electric stimuli, create what is known as the mind, and the mysterious phenomenon of consciousness, when grouped in large quantities.  The real mystery is why this happens at all.  Why can a large group of people take a wild guess as to the number of jelly beans in a jar and come up with a better answer when averaged in aggregate than any one individual?

    I don’t really know.  It is very mysterious if you think about it.  I agree with Robert who called the whole thing absolutely mystical over Jad’s objections, who thought that spoils the magic for him.  It does seem a very strange phenomenon in a universe where the natural order of things is supposed to be entropy, or moving from order to disorder in any closed system.  I think emergence illustrates the potential that exists for we poor, imperfect humans to unite as a society and become something much greater than any one of us alone. 

    I know the failed social experiments of the past 200 years are supposed to have made “utopia” a bad word, the dream of fools. Yet, I believe there has to be a reason why the drive for us to unite and interact with others is so very powerful, so central to our existence.  My faith is that this is God given.  We cannot perfect ourselves in a vacuum.   We desparately need eachother.  I’m not afraid to admit it, my hope and faith will always lie with Zion.  In the end, It isn’t good to be alone. 

 

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