Friday, August 01, 2014

Letter from Harrisburg: Fred, the Moon, and Me

Trust, suspicion and finding men on the moon

The first moon landing, 45 years ago last Sunday, must have been a very big deal, because we actually found out about it.

Or, at least, my brother Fred did.

A lot of minor news slipped past us when we were Amish, since we didn’t have a TV or radio, and we bought a newspaper only sporadically.

We five children shared a big bedroom upstairs in that old farmhouse in 1969, and that night Fred knelt by the tall, narrow window and gazed at the moon in the sky above the buggy shed.

Fred always gave you the feeling that he was in on something mysterious and astonishing. If you were really lucky, and really nice to him, he just might let you in on the secret.

“Yes,” he said. “I think I see something.”

We rushed to the window, my 8-year-old sister Rebecca and I, a year younger.

Fred was 11. He knew everything. He said, “People landed on the moon today. I think ... yes, I’m pretty sure I see little black dots moving around on the moon.”


We leaned in and looked hard at that big white moon. We squinted and focused and pretty soon we exclaimed that ... Yes! There they were! We could see them too!

To this day, I don’t know if he had fooled himself as thoroughly as he fooled us. Much later, disillusioned, we learned to be suspicious of anything Fred told us, after he had convinced me that the pig pellets in the feed room were good to snack on, Rebecca that he and she were actually twins, and my little sister Margaret that pennies smelled like pig manure.

It is comforting that everyone who knows Fred tells similar stories of believing the most improbable things, simply because he said it in such a way that you felt stupid and unkind if you didn’t believe him.

He once worked on a dairy farm and pocketed a diseased tooth that a veterinarian pulled from a cow. Providentially, he had a wisdom tooth pulled soon after.

The owner’s wife offered her sympathies when he returned to work after his dentist visit. Fred said, all seriously, “Would you like to see the tooth they pulled?” and pulled out the cow tooth, a vicious-looking specimen with curved roots 2 inches long.

He convinced the woman it had actually come from his mouth. He still has that mysterious magic that makes you want to believe everything he says.

I’ve found that the world is full of people like Fred. Not as charming, perhaps, but just as able to make you feel silly if you don’t believe them.

To be informed on current issues to any degree is to be almost forced to form an opinion, so while I would like to walk the narrow path of reason and truth, I often find myself in one ditch or another — overly trusting and gullible, or unnecessarily skeptical and suspicious.

Health, medicine, science, finances, politics, parenting, religion and many more examples — all have spokespeople who seem determined to persuade the rest of us to alter our lives to their theories. For every multi-degreed expert presenting his case as truth so obvious and verified you couldn’t possibly believe otherwise, there’s a counter-­voice urging suspicion of experts with hidden agendas and guesses presented smoothly as fact.

Strangely, while the Amish are sometimes a bit too eager to believe the claims of alternative medicine and similar fields, many of them were skeptical about the moon landings. I lived with an elderly Amish bishop and his wife after high school, and Noah with his deep preaching voice would hold forth on the subject. “They say they put ‘de mensha’ on the moon,” he’d bellow, “but it was all made up.”

Then he’d talk confidently about how they staged the scene to make the moonscape look real and took the pictures, even though he had never used a camera in his life.

Perhaps it’s because the Amish have been fighting the cultural current for centuries that I learned in that context to be suspicious of other­wise well-respected experts in science and government.

Or maybe it’s my age, having seen experts proved wrong.

Bankers in the 1970s urged Midwestern farmers to take out enormous loans and buy equally enormous equipment. This was how modern farming was done, they said. Tragically, many of these farmers crashed and burned financially in the early ’80s.

When my friends and I were having babies, our doctors always told us that no, there was no way that teething caused fevers.

But we were the ones up at night with fussy, feverish babies who recovered magically when their upper incisors popped through, plus we had a lot more babies than any of our doctors did. So we took their expert advice with a grain of salt and gave the counsel of experienced moms equal weight.

We learned about the four food groups in home ec in high school, and later the side of every cereal box told us that low-fat food was the way to be healthy, so we nibbled on pretzels for years, feeling tired and hungry, and then lost weight and felt healthier when we switched to steak and butter and veggies.

As a mom, minister’s wife and writer, I often think about influence and what it takes to change someone’s mind. What makes us form a belief? What solidifies it? What makes us change it?

For many people, including myself, it isn’t facts and logic that make the difference. Experience and emotion and relationships are the stronger influences. You don’t win the argument by making the other side look stupid.

I “saw” the astronauts on the moon because I wanted so badly to be as cool as my brother. Later, the humiliation of being fooled multiple times outweighed the satisfaction of being in on his schemes.

Today, I am slow to believe any of Fred’s stories. I squint at him just as I squinted at the moon years ago, but now with careful analysis — true or not true? Hmmm.

This pains him deeply, he says, playing on my compassion with large, sad eyes. It worked when I was 7 but fails to affect me now.

If emotions and experience make the difference, then, most of the time, nothing I say will change anyone’s mind, so I seldom engage in debate.
Plus, I have a burdensome ability to understand all sides of an issue and why people believe as they do.

Most things are not worth arguing about, and in 10 years many of the most outspoken among us will look really silly, time having proven them wrong. If you keep your opinions to yourself, you can quietly change your views as time goes on without having to endure the pain of publicly backtracking.

My faith is important to me and, as a believer, I’ve been accused of ignoring the facts. I understand this viewpoint. Yet, the deep-down intangibles are even more real and true to me — conscience, forgiveness, hope. How do you debate such concepts?

My influence depends largely on how I make people feel, a discouraging concept for noisy debaters but comforting to people like me, who hate arguments but would love to turn everyone down the path of kindness and responsibility, simplicity and faith.

I will no doubt believe the wrong people for the wrong reasons at times, and then wise up and change my mind, as long as I live. And so will everyone around me.

What I want to remember is that we are all a lot like that little 7-year-old girl looking at the moon: persuaded more by emotions than facts, more by empathy than condescension, and more by experience than information.
Others will be influenced more by who we are than by anything wise and logical we might say.


  1. I remember the moon landing like it was yesterday! We went to a friend's house who had just gotten a color TV. That in itself was pretty amazing but the whole idea of men on the moon was surreal to this then 9 year old.

    Our beloved pediatrician actually told me that babies get fevers when they are teething. He said that in med school they told him it could not happen. He was the father of six and said it had been so with all of his children.

  2. Beautiful, grace-filled thoughts. Thank you for writing and sharing.

  3. When I'm boldly told, "There is no scientific proof for that.", I claim that experience holds more weight to me than something in a petri dish in a lab! Louise