Graven Images

I am the Lord they God. Thou shalt not have false gods before Me. ~ 1st Commandment

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Proverbs

"Come in here quick. You’ve got to see this," said my wife, as I passed by the family room. I came in and sat down before the TV, to which she was pointing. A local station’s roving reporter was standing in front of a high school, and speaking about evacuations, and the canceling of the exams scheduled for that day.

"What happened?" I asked. "Somebody spilled some mercury," she replied. "What?" But she was right. Some mercury, presumably from a barometer, was found on the floor of a closet in the school. So what? So the school was evacuated, with hundreds of students sent outdoors to wait further word. The fire department was summoned, and men in those space suits used for hazardous waste removal carefully cleaned up the approximately eight ounces of mercury that was on the floor. Ambulances were summoned and standing-by. A fire-department spokesman solemnly informed us that mercury was highly toxic, even to the touch. The clean up was accomplished without any mishaps, but the students were sent home, and the final exams cancelled. My wife and I recalled similar episodes in our own lives.

When I was a schoolboy, our family doctor, during the course of a house call, had some sort of mishap with his sphygmomanometer, and the mercury spilled out. I remember him and my mother pushing the little balls of mercury onto sheets of paper, and then using the paper as a crude funnel to try to pour the mercury back into the instrument. Of course, they didn’t retrieve it all. When we got the doctor’s bill, there was an extra charge for replacing the mercury. Dad got a chuckle out of that! My wife recalled a time in high school when some mercury was spilled on the counter in a science lab, and she and her classmates used their fingers to push the little mercury globules into a larger one, and then into a beaker. Miraculously, there were no serious illnesses resulting from these hazardous experiences! And we didn’t have any ambulances standing at the ready, or men in white overalls and helmets to assist us.

How absurd must life become before we begin to see things in their proper perspective? We’re kept trembling with fear from possible exposure to Alar, or DDT, or cyclamate (but never fluoride!) or Saddam Hussein, or some other pipsqueak tyrant (but never our own government!): the ogre du jour. If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we have reached the moral sophistication of snails — -which, I am sure, someone will eventually warn us to avoid. "Don’t touch that escargot!" There seems to be some sort of deep-seated human instinct to be afraid of things: a fear upon which our rulers capitalize with gusto. But we seem oblivious to genuine danger ("Depart from me, ye wicked" — ), allowing ourselves, instead, to be afraid of shadows, or the possibility of the threat of shadows!

We kneel, in our fear of phantoms, before false gods: not simply graven images, but grotesque and ridiculous graven images: so-called "science," the respect of our fellow men (although we may despise them), money, health, beauty (especially our own), and, of course, sex, which, if not absolutely perfect, sends us rushing to therapists, for treatment! And our deepest bows are before the god of education, so that, at the end of interminable schooling, we may have no wisdom at all! Our parents, fortunately not so extensively schooled, knew enough to come in out of the rain. We come in from the rain, also, because we’ve been told it’s toxic. They ate what they pleased and lived to an old age quite happily; we eat what we’ve been told is good for us, and then worry when we’ve told that what was good for us yesterday is a health hazard today. And we worry even more when we’re told that worrying isn’t good for us. Off to the therapist!

The proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude that we were the first people ever to inhabit this planet — unsure of ourselves, without direction, and lacking guidelines. If we have any fixed principle at all, it is that yesterday’s fixed principle will be replaced tomorrow; and if we don’t know what to do, or how to live, science, or the government, will straighten things out, although the manifest failure of this belief stares us in the face.

Our society appears to be totally bereft of right reason. And it is.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.