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Magnets and Other Invisible Forces

updated July 9, 2022

My elementary school had a space problem: there were too many children to fit into the existing classrooms, and new classrooms couldn’t be built fast enough to accommodate the student population. As such, the administrators made some creative decisions. Portable classrooms consisting of classroom-sized boxes of corrugated aluminum with no air conditioning and cheap vinyl floors were brought in and placed on the soccer field. Classes contained the maximum number of students allowable under provincial law, and any remaining students after dividing the student body into these crowded cohorts were placed into a mixed classroom of students across adjacent grades. As an eight-year-old in the third grade, I was in one of these mixed classrooms and thus shared my learning environment with fourth-grade students as old as ten. To an adult, a two-year age difference is almost negligible and generally unknowable without comparing birthdates. To an eight-year-old, however, two years is 25% more life and almost 50% more conscious life–an extremely large difference. Us younger students looked upon the older students with reverence and were in constant competition to impress them with tall tales and exaggerated half-truths designed to impress.

I was an advanced and introverted child. My reading level was far beyond my age, and I found the coursework given to me in school to be tremendously boring. I spent most of my time at home in a fort that I had built in the crawl space under our basement stairs. There, I had a vast collection of books, trinkets, science kits given to me by family and family friends, and comfort items such as pillows, stuffed animals, and blankets. I would spend hours in my fort playing with these items. I was particularly interested in magnets and had a pair of shiny, oblong magnets that would vibrate against each other and make a satisfying rattling noise when pulled apart and subsequently let collide. I created a rudimentary electromagnet, following a diagram I found in a book, by coiling copper wire around an iron nail and connecting the ends of the wire to the ends of a D battery. This invention of mine worked perfectly until the battery heated up due to the short-circuit inherent in the design, and I disconnected the wires in a panic. I learned to magnetize iron nails by stroking rare-earth magnets against them until their atoms aligned and the nail became a weak magnet itself. The invisible force acting on magnetic objects captivated me. Here was something that I couldn’t see, influencing the world around me in a way that I could directly feel.

Like many introverted children, I found great solace in the nighttime hours. I would stay up well past my bedtime with a flashlight under the sheets, either reading a book or playing with my trinkets. The well-known sound of my vibrating magnets betrayed me to my parents many times, who always let me get away with pretending to sleep because they thought it would be good for me to explore these passions. With school being of such disinterest to me, they wanted to make sure that I was getting enough intellectual stimulation and let me be self-guided on this journey while providing me with the resources to do so.

My family was a liberal, Christian family. We regularly attended church in a rented room in a recreational complex meant more for banquets and fundraisers than religious services. Our pastor was young and passionate and attracted the same demographic: young adults in their twenties and thirties, many with children around my age, passionate about Christianity but desiring something beyond a traditional church community. I was enamored with the passion shown by the churchgoers and wanted to better understand Christianity so that I could participate in the tradition that was so meaningful to these people. I was desperately curious, to the point of annoyance, in berating my Sunday school teachers with questions. As in school, I had no interest in doing word searches, singing songs, or completing busy work. I had questions about how the world worked, and I wanted answers.

Religion interested me in the same way that magnets interested me. Christianity provided me with the knowledge that there was an invisible force guiding the world. Unlike magnets, though, I couldn’t feel the direct influence of this invisible force no matter how hard I tried and how desperately I prayed. However, I was sure that it was there somewhere. I just had to find it. As a six-year-old, I would pray after bedtime while lying on the cold, hardwood floor of my bedroom, fully naked with my legs straight and my arms out at 90-degree angles. I thought that if I crucified myself in the way that Jesus was crucified, I might finally hear something back from him. I never did. There was no question in my mind that the fault for this silence lay within me: everyone that I looked up to in church, including my parents, spoke of prayers being answered and asking God what to do in everyday decisions. I simply wasn’t a good enough Christian yet.

Somewhere between the ages of six and eight, I began to reckon with eternity as is required when dealing with the notions of Heaven and Hell. It seemed to me that my Sunday school teachers were throwing around these terms with reckless abandon. Heaven: eternal paradise and pleasure. Hell: eternal damnation and suffering. If you’re a good Christian, you guarantee your spot in Heaven; otherwise, it’s Hell for you. I was mortified with the idea that I might accidentally commit some sin so heinous that I would be condemned to an eternity in Hell. God wasn’t answering any of my prayers yet, so how was I supposed to know if I was being a good Christian or not? The uncertainty, and above all, the silence from God in response to my prayers, terrified me.

There was an older student in my split class in the portable classroom whom I desperately wanted to impress. He had taken a liking to my best friend as they lived near one another, on the opposite side of the school from my house, and I desperately wanted to be included with them. He tolerated me, but he knew that he was more powerful than me.

In January of that year, we returned from Christmas break and began trading stories. My friends had rich parents and were full of stories about the lavish gifts that they received: Xboxes, Playstations, and more. I couldn’t compete with these stories but still aimed to impress and so shared with them what I had done on Christmas eve: I had stayed up all night, and I had even heard my parents come and leave presents outside of my door. The older student couldn’t believe it. He said that I was lying, and when I protested, he made me swear on my mother’s grave or else she would go to Hell. I swore on it.

And so, I experienced doom for the first time. Truth be told, I couldn’t remember if I had really stayed up all night. I thought I had–but to gamble my mother’s eternal salvation on it? I became convinced that I had fallen asleep for a moment or two and not noticed. I began to see a mental image that would plague me for weeks to come: my mother, crucified and bleeding, surrounded by flames, crying out to me desperately and begging to know why I had condemned her to this eternal pain.

My nightly prayers grew in desperation as I begged for forgiveness. With no response from God, I began bargaining: I offered my soul in exchange for my mother’s. I cried out each night from the very bottom of my being, begging for a sign, begging to hear that I had not doomed my mother. God never got back to me. I gave up hope entirely. I stopped eating and sleeping, and I faked being sick so that I wouldn’t have to go to school. My parents knew that I wasn’t sick–I had no consistent symptoms–but they knew that something was wrong and so let me stay at home for a week.

The eventual solution to my misery was avoidance. I accepted that God wouldn’t answer my prayers because of what I had done. I was completely and irrevocably doomed, and all that I could do now was live out my days and try not to do future harm until I had to face the eventual consequences. I returned to school shortly thereafter, having missed ten days or so, and life took on some semblance of normalcy once again. My nights, previously full of curiosity about the world around me, became moments where I had to try to soothe myself to sleep–and often failed.

At Easter, my family attended a special service at a church attended by my grandparents. Unlike our church in the recreational complex, this was an archetypal building complete with pews, an altar, and a vivid statue depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. I had been around churches like this before, though not since the incident, and this proved to be too much. As I left my parents to go to Sunday school, I was suddenly struck with the newly familiar feeling of doom. All that I could think to do was to run back to my parents and cling to them until the feeling subsided. This was my first panic attack. I became further convinced that I was irrevocably damaged and completely undeserving of a happy life.

In the eighth grade, a girl who had a crush on me told me that she was going to kill herself because I didn’t love her and sent me a picture with pills in her hand. She told me that she took the pills and subsequently stopped responding, though it later turned out that this was a lie. In the ninth grade, when I broke up with my girlfriend of three months over a petty fight, she stopped coming to school for weeks until showing up with cuts on her arms. In my senior year of high school, a former track-and-field teammate two years my senior contacted me randomly to send me both naked pictures of herself and, when I expressed no interest, pictures of her cutting her arms. In my freshman year of college, I had a panic attack while running a workout and had to leave the facility. In my junior year of college, I was approached by an acquaintance from high school who claimed that he had a secret formula to becoming a trillionaire and later said he was losing brain matter through his nose before being hospitalized for bipolar disorder.

When I was a child playing with magnets, the invisible force of magnetism captivated me because it was one that I could not explain. Why are certain metals attracted to magnets and not others? Why can some magnets act through my hand and others not? I tried to come up with answers to these questions, and so I would create simple rules that would eventually be proven wrong when I learned more about magnetism, such as in high school physics class. This elementary physics-based explanation was wrong: it failed to explain such phenomena as superconducting magnets, as I learned in college. The more complicated explanations today, such as quantum electrodynamics, are incompatible with the explanations of forces such as gravity. To date, there has been no unifying explanation for the invisible forces that govern our Universe. Our best laws for explaining tiny things and magnets fail to explain how massive things work. We can explain the vast majority of occurrences to a satisfactory degree, but we fail to explain what happens at the fringes of activity.

Humans have an instinct to create rules to explain the world around them. We so desperately crave order that we invent religions and assign supernatural consequences to those who deviate from them. And yet, just as Physics fails at the fringes, so too does every religion. Christianity provided me with a strong moral basis for the majority of my life, but it almost destroyed me when it failed to explain what I was feeling at the age of eight as the result of a slightly strange interaction with a classmate. As I dealt with my subsequent mental illness and the mental illnesses of those around me, I craved further order in an explanation for human behavior. I turned to Psychology in college to attempt to understand what was happening in my brain and those brains around me. I was deeply disappointed at how our attempts to explain the inner workings of the brain fail at the fringes of behavior.

Huxley says that the brain acts as a reducing valve for the “Mind at large” in limiting our conscious perception to that which can directly aid in our survival and day-to-day life. The tendency to focus on those things immediately in front of us and try to understand their behavior can indeed be seen as a rudimentary sort of survival instinct. If we can create rules for human behavior, we can rest easier about our neighbors not bashing our skulls in with rocks. Yet, sometimes, people do wake up and bash in the skulls of their neighbors with a rock. There is an element of chaos in the Universe that cannot be predicted by applying rules to observations.

I got in an argument with my mother last Christmas when she made me attend her church’s Christmas eve service. I made a comment about how I didn’t believe that children should be taught to recite such heavy passages without understanding them and went on to explain what I had experienced when I was younger. It was my first time telling her that I had condemned her to an eternity in Hell, and she laughed. She thought it endearing that I had so dramatically blown the situation out of proportion as a child. I also thought that it was somewhat funny to look back on the absurdity of the situation, but I don’t fault myself. I was doing what every human does: doing my best to explain the world around me by applying the rules that I had been taught to my observations.

Magnets were entirely predictable as a child until I would suddenly learn of new phenomena such as electromagnets or inducing magnetic fields. As I scrambled to understand these new mysteries, I felt no shame that I hadn’t previously understood them: I only felt curiosity and an urge to learn more. There was similarly no shame in trying to understand those dysfunctional brains around me: I wanted to understand them because I wanted to help them, not because I felt ashamed that my previous understanding of behavior was wrong. I recognized intuitively that these rules were flexible because they were only my best guesses. No authority had taught me that these were the final rules and that to deviate from them would result in condemnation. I wish that this was how I had been taught to live a good life. I wish that my parents had told me that the rules set out in Christianity were only the best guesses of very wise people. I wish that I had been told that Heaven and Hell do not exist and that we can only do our best to do good in the limited time we have to be alive. Absolute truths do not exist, but that doesn’t mean that goodness does not exist. A good life does not require a complete set of rules; a good life requires the humility to admit that one will never attain a complete set of rules and the will to persist in spite of this.