The 1990 romantic comedy movie Joe Versus the Volcano contained a line by the female lead “DeDe” (played by Meg Ryan) spoken to “Joe” (played by Tom Hanks), that is so profound I have sometimes quoted it in talks:
My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant, total, amazement.
This little gem in a quirky, mostly-forgotten, movie still manages to convey a great truth: most of us are blissfully unaware of the wonders around us, what I call the hidden worlds, beautiful symmetries and mysteries often hidden in plain view.
So much of the natural world is obscured from our view, sometimes literally. Our ancestors took for granted the great covering of stars overhead that are now usually masked by city lights and other pollution. Today, many of us grow up insulated from the challenging questions that the starry heavens force us to confront anew. And while the natural world around us may seem fantastic enough, we are finding that there is much, much more to see for those who open their eyes and minds.
Just as a simple rainbow displays the palette of colors hidden inside “ordinary light” and we press a button to access the invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum so we can talk on our cell phone, listen to radio or watch TV, much more lies waiting for us to discover and appreciate.
However, before pointing out some of these hidden worlds and aspects, let us remember that surely the greatest of them is one that our culture, even LDS culture, tends to avoid thinking much about, even though it is one we cannot evade forever.
Steve Job’s last words
This particular Hidden World story arises from the death of the much-admired Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, in 2011. At his memorial service his sister, Mona Simpson, movingly described his passing, surrounded by his family. That his many achievements and great wealth no longer mattered, and that family was all that was really important in the end, will come as no surprise. But what happened at the end of his journey is one of those sobering jolts that we all need from time to time to remind us of Reality:
Mona related that after gazing at his loved ones for a long time, he looked over their shoulders and then past them:
“Steve’s final words were: ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” 1
At the moment of death, seeing departed loved ones and the new landscape beyond is commonly reported and perhaps this is what happened here. If so, it is a stirring reminder that in our busy day to day lives we must never forget the reality of the great Spirit World, the original creation of our world from spirit matter, before the creation of coarser matter. It is all around us, right here, and only a heartbeat away. 2
Returning to the physical world around us, even what we think of as common elements such as water, grass, trees and sunshine, have many secrets still to be unlocked. None of this should particularly surprise those who believe that all forms of life, including vegetation, have spirits, just as humans do. That fact alone should alert us that there is much more going on than is immediately obvious. There is space here to only briefly touch on some of them:
Plant intelligence: Some of the most fascinating clues to the unseen have come a multitude of studies demonstrating that plants are not the simple inert life forms we think of, but have a much higher degree of intelligence than anyone supposed, including some amazing abilities. Without a brain as we know it, they can “hear,” “smell,” “remember,” and in some cases can move quickly, and so on. Various university studies indicate that plants were actually communicating with each other by exchanging messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules between them. In one case, a parasitic plant apparently instructed another plant to lower its defenses to become its host. 3 Other studies have shown plants alerting neighboring plants when a predator threatened by releasing airborne chemicals. This allowed some species to pump chemicals into their own leaves to make them bitter and unappealing.
Other plants studies show that plants are capable of adjusting the thickness of seed coatings to suit changes in temperature, enhancing the chances for its seeds to survive and germinate. 4 Expect much more to emerge as studies continue.
Animal intelligence: This category could fill many pages of Meridian. Most people are aware that we are finding that animals, of all shapes and sizes, are more developed and capable than we have recognized. Many long-term pet owners will have their own stories attesting to that. One area I find particularly interesting, because it is sometimes visible overhead, is possible bird telepathy. While we now have clues as to how birds navigate and migrate long distances using the earth’s magnetic field, scientists still do not know how huge flocks of birds can simultaneously change direction and fly unique, complex, patterns together without any lag and without any observable stimulus or signal. Some type of “telepathic” ability connecting the birds is considered by many as the most probable answer. 5
Human telepathy: I actually hesitated to include this because it is really such a common phenomenon that it is no longer controversial, even if we don’t yet understand exactly how it works. Most of us have somehow “known” what someone was about to say, or who was about to call us. Sometimes we “know” that something is wrong or that someone has just died. Most people have also had the experience of “feeling” someone out of sight looking at us or, conversely, looked at someone and seen them respond. These are all hints of a rudimentary ability we have to interact with others beyond our physical senses and perhaps something that can be developed and trained much further.
Many LDS people would simply ascribe these things to the operation of the Spirit, or even the abilities of our eternal spirits to “tap into” unseen realms and perhaps interact with the spirits of others. None of these viewpoints invalidate, or are invalidated by, the concept of them being natural, but undeveloped, human abilities. In the end it may simply be a matter of semantics.
“Superhuman” abilities: our physical bodies are not neglected either. We have all heard of people who transcend normal human abilities with strength, memory, puzzle-solving, numeracy skills and so on. Some rare individuals are born with abilities that the rest of us can only wonder at. Just one of many examples is a condition called tetrachromacy. This allows some people to see colors that are literally invisible to the rest of us. 6 Until now, science only knew of certain birds, fish, insects and reptiles with this ability.
All of it suggests, I suspect, some of the enhancements we can look forward to with a perfected physical body inseparably connected to our spirit.
Consciousness: While much about the functioning of the human body is now known, science has yet to understand the existence of what we term “consciousness” and the fact that it somehow operates independently of the physical brain. Because mainstream thought still ignores the dimension of the spirit it cannot account for consciousness, considered by many to be the greatest mystery still to be solved. The subject of consciousness surfaces most commonly with Near-Death Experiences (NDE’s) that continue to be consistently reported across cultures and religions. The claim that NDE’s are merely brain-induced hallucinations is increasingly being demonstrated as inadequate.7
Water: we were all taught that the incredible liquid we call water, now being found across the universe, exists in three states, solid, liquid and vapor. Evidence now argues that there is a fourth state, one that can be found throughout nature, including our bodies. It explains many of the puzzles this everyday liquid presents us. If that intrigues you, a clearly written paper can be accessed online that explains this new state and why it is important. 8
There are many more examples that could be discussed. It’s heartening to see some mainstream scientists and institutions accepting that we have much left to explore in this beautifully complex world of ours. What used to be the domain of cranks and hobbyists is increasingly being probed by credentialed serious researchers. 9
The Most important aspect
And that leads me to the last “hidden world” that there is space to mention, and surely the most important of them all: our Human Potential. Many of the world’s ills would vanish if we had a clearer concept of who we really are and who we may become. The restored Gospel teaches what our potential is, but it has also been glimpsed by some of our greatest minds. My favorite quote remains that by the great English theologian C. S Lewis:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature of such grandeur and glory that you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ordinary people.You have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit -immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. 10
As the children of Deity, each of us has potentials beyond even our ability to imagine.
So the next time you step over a line of ants marching in perfect unison…communicating complex information to each other by tiny vibrations, or watch a rainbow reveal the colors hidden inside “ordinary” sunshine spare a thought for them and for all the wonders we are still discovering all about us. Keep alive in you the unlimited potential we have as children of God. Then, as DeDe in the movie, you will have joined the few who are truly awake.
- The eulogy for Steve Jobs can be read online at: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/opinion/mona-simpsons-eulogy-for-steve-jobs.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
- See the discussion at “DEATH COMETH: The big change we all face, but rarely talk about” at www.latterdaysaintmag.com/lds-gospel-study/article/1/11112.
- www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-plants-think-daniel-chamovitz/ is a general introduction to the subject. Many more scholarly sources exist, such as “Genomic-scale exchange of mRNA between a parasitic plant and its hosts” published in Science Magazine, 15 August 2014, vol. 345 no. 6198, 808-811, see https://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6198/808.abstract
- A good introduction is provided in “New research on plant intelligence may forever change how you think about plants” at: www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-09/new-research-plant-intelligence-may-forever-change-how-you-think-about-plants. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_perception_(physiology) has a comprehensive list of links.
- A good place to start reading about bird navigation and telepathy is https://animalnav.org/
- Tetrachromacy features in the story of one woman, accessible at: www.bbc.com/future/story/20140905-the-women-with-super-human-vision. This article contains several links to scholarly studies.
- An especially valuable analysis comes from a highly skilled neurosurgeon, an agnostic, who tells what he experienced during a prolonged period of clinical death; see Eben Alexander, “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeons’s Journey into the Afterlife (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2012).
- 8. See Gerald H. Pollack, “The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor” at scientificexploration.org/edgescience/edgescience_16.pdf (2013), 14-18.
- For a useful overview of the many fields of knowledge, including expanded human potentials, that are being studied, see the website of Dr Rupert Sheldrake www.sheldrake.org/research. Sheldrake is representative of credentialed scientists questioning old paradigms and publishing peer-reviewed papers. Another useful website is www.opensciences.org/
- C. S Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York City: The Macmillan, 1890), (emphasis added).