As we struggle, collectively, through month five of this pandemic, I have felt compelled to consider my own—our own—complicity in its creation and perpetuation. I suspect that each of us can think of a time when we knew about the dangers of this disease and yet continued with the normal pattern of our lives, confident that we would not have to suffer the disruption and discomfort we saw others enduring in Italy, China, and elsewhere. Even after the disease had arrived in the United States, communities and individuals only took measures such as masking and social distancing seriously once the disease was affecting their own states and cities. Until we saw the reality of COVID deaths for ourselves, we were unwilling to act.
But there are scores of dangers like COVID, which we cannot or will not take seriously until it is too late. Some of those dangers are social (like COVID), threatening a broader community; some of those dangers are personal, threatening individual bodies and souls. Each of us, to one degree or another, is susceptible to these dangers. That is one reason I am so grateful for living prophets, whose calling is to safeguard us from dangers as yet unseen. I have felt anew the urgent truth of these words, spoken in October 1998 by Elder Henry B. Eyring:
Because the Lord is kind, He calls servants to warn people of danger. That call to warn is made harder and more important by the fact that the warnings of most worth are about dangers that people don’t yet think are real. Think of Jonah. He fled at first from the call from the Lord to warn the people of Nineveh who were blinded to the danger by sin. He knew that wicked people through the ages have rejected prophets and sometimes killed them. Yet when Jonah went forward with faith, the Lord blessed him with safety and success.
We can also learn from our experiences as parents and as children. Those of us who have been parents have felt the anxiety of sensing danger our children cannot yet see. Few prayers are so fervent as those of a parent asking to know how to touch a child to move away from danger. Most of us have felt the blessing of hearing and heeding the warning voice of a parent.
Prophets rarely teach what is comfortable or socially acceptable. That’s why they are so often rejected, even—especially—in their own countries. (Just as the warning voice of parents is rejected in their own homes!) The pandemic is, for me, a reminder of the need to seek out those who can see what we cannot and to consider more carefully the implications of dangers (social, political, personal, spiritual) that others warn about but that we cannot yet see.
What we know can hurt us, if what we know is untrue.
Like Elder Eyring, the celebrated scholar and risk analyst Nassim Taleb has admonished that the most valuable warnings we receive concern future events we currently consider unlikely, or even impossible. In his 2007 book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Taleb notes that the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 was so devastating precisely because it was unforeseen: “Had it been expected, it would not have caused the damage it did—the areas affected would have been less populated, an early warning system would have been put in place. What you know cannot really hurt you.” Since there are limits to what any of us can, individually, know, we are always well served by seeking out the perspective of those with expertise in fields other than our own.
Of course, even that which we know, or which experts know, is subject to revision. As David Epstein demonstrates in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, we live in “wicked learning environments,” in which “the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” As an example, Epstein offers an anecdote about cadets enrolled in calculus classes at the Air Force Academy. Counterintuitively, the cadets who scored well on the Academy’s standardized Calculus I exam struggled in Calculus II, while those who struggled on the first exam went on to succeed in the second course. In this case—and others Epstein documents—test scores were actually inversely related to the long-term retention of course material. The prevailing wisdom that performance on an exam indexes student learning is unreliable at best. Furthermore, what we know can hurt us, if what we know is untrue.
From 2001 to 2007, the invention of new financial instruments led mortgage lenders to offer more credit to home buyers and homeowners than ever before. Collectively, as a society, we knew that we could afford a better standard of living. Today, in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis, we have come to realize that the prevailing wisdom of that period—that all Americans could afford to buy bigger and more expensive houses—was both wrong and dangerous. Prophetic counsel offered in the decade before this crisis, from 1998-2007, repeatedly warned against debt of the sort that spurred on the housing crisis. During that ten-year period, at least fourteen different sermons offered in a General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints warned against the dangers of debt. Nine of those fourteen sermons were given by members of the First Presidency, and four were given by President Thomas S. Monson—who was sustained as the President of the Church just before the crisis began. His warning against “the advertising I see and hear advocating home equity loans” was clear, but too many believed that the “danger of losing his home” was not real.
Today, as in years past, there are dangers largely ignored by society. Today, as in years past, there are voices—isolated, unfashionable, ridiculed, perhaps—warning against those dangers. I am first and foremost grateful for the warning voice of prophets but also for secular warnings, from those with a different perspective than mine, with expertise outside my own. We would do well, I think, if we more regularly asked whether there is a kernel of truth in the fears and warnings of those who see society from a vantage point other than our own—especially if that vantage point is located on higher and holier ground than we customarily frequent.
Appendix–Prophets Counseling Against Debt, 1998-2007:
“Be modest in your wants. You do not need a big home with a big mortgage as you begin your lives together. You can and should avoid overwhelming debt. There is nothing that will cause greater tensions in marriage than grinding debt, which will make of you a slave to your creditors. You may have to borrow money to begin ownership of a home. But do not let it be so costly that it will preoccupy your thoughts day and night.”
“We must be careful about the misuse of credit. The use of credit cards in many places had increased consumer debt to staggering proportions. . . . Contemporary society rushes headlong to accumulate the material goods of this world. This leads many to think they can alter the law of the harvest, reaping rewards without paying the price of honest toil and effort. Wishing to prosper immediately, they speculate in high-risk financial schemes that promote instant wealth. This all too frequently results in economic reverses, sometimes even financial ruin.”
“So many of our people are heavily in debt for things that are not entirely necessary. When I was a young man, my father counseled me to build a modest home, sufficient for the needs of my family, and make it beautiful and attractive and pleasant and secure. He counseled me to pay off the mortgage as quickly as I could so that, come what may, there would be a roof over the heads of my wife and children. I was reared on that kind of doctrine. I urge you as members of this Church to get free of debt where possible and to have a little laid aside against a rainy day.”
“Enticements to the demon of debt are thrust upon us many times each day. I quote the counsel from President Gordon B. Hinckley: “I am troubled by the huge consumer installment debt which hangs over the people of the nation, including our own people. . . . I recognize that it may be necessary to borrow to get a home, of course. But let us buy a home that we can afford and thus ease the payments which will constantly hang over our heads without mercy or respite for as long as 30 years.’”
“In 1998, President Gordon B. Hinckley raised a voice of warning to the Saints of this church as well as to the world at large. He uttered that same warning last night at priesthood meeting. He said: ‘I am suggesting that the time has come to get our houses in order. So many people are living on the very edge of their incomes. In fact, some are living on borrowings. . . . I am troubled by the huge consumer installment debt which hangs over the people of the nation, including our own people.’”
“Remember this: debt is a form of bondage. It is a financial termite. When we make purchases on credit, they give us only an illusion of prosperity. We think we own things, but the reality is, our things own us.”
“The lessons learned in the home are those that last the longest. President Gordon B. Hinckley continues to stress the avoidance of unnecessary debt, the fallacy of living beyond one’s means, and the temptation to let our wants become our necessities.”
“Debt is bondage because ‘the borrower is [the] servant [of] the lender.’ Some debt may be necessary, such as to acquire a home and get an education. The Lord’s counsel on the subject is to ‘pay the debt . . . [and] release thyself from bondage.’”
“Next I address the subject of debt. . . . My brothers and sisters, I’m appalled at some of the advertising I see and hear advocating home equity loans. Simply put, they are second mortgages on homes. The promotion for such loans is designed to tempt us to borrow more in order to have more. What is never mentioned is the fact that, should one be unable to make this ‘second’ house payment, one is in danger of losing his house.”
“Teach [children] the importance of avoiding debt and of earning, saving, and wisely spending money. Help them learn responsibility for their own temporal and spiritual self-reliance.”
“The holy scriptures, as well as the local and General Authorities of the Church, provide a safety net of counsel and guidance for the people of the Church. For example, all my life the Brethren have from this and other pulpits urged our people to live within their incomes, stay out of debt, and save a little for a rainy day, for rainy days always come.”
“Blessings come as we obey the counsel of the prophets and live within our means, avoid unnecessary debt, and set aside sufficient of life’s necessities to sustain ourselves and our families for at least a year. This may not always be easy, but let us do our ‘very best,’ and our stores shall not fail—there shall be ‘enough and to spare.’”
“My brothers and sisters, avoid the philosophy that yesterday’s luxuries have become today’s necessities. They aren’t necessities unless we make them so. Many enter into long-term debt only to find that changes occur: people become ill or incapacitated, companies fail or downsize, jobs are lost, natural disasters befall us. For many reasons, payments on large amounts of debt can no longer be made. Our debt becomes as a Damocles sword hanging over our heads and threatening to destroy us.
“I urge you to live within your means. One cannot spend more than one earns and remain solvent. I promise you that you will then be happier than you would be if you were constantly worrying about how to make the next payment on nonessential debt. In the Doctrine and Covenants, we read: ‘Pay the debt thou hast contracted. . . . Release thyself from bondage.”
“If we make choices that put us deeply in debt, we will lose our agency to meet our wants and needs or to save for that inevitable rainy day.”