"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
February 22, 2013
To Not Even Touch
by Jeff Lindsay

When I was a chemical engineering student back at Brigham Young University, the safety instructions I received from a chemistry professor made a deep impression on me. We learned that allowing even a small amount of some substances to enter your body or contact your skin can be dangerous. Later, while working in an R&D group for a large corporation, I would learn that a chemistry professor died when a small drop or two of a mercury compound landed on her latex gloves, which she believed would provide adequate protection for the experiments she was conducting.

Details of that story are now told in Wikipedia’s article on Karen Wetterhahn, a professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College. She was a specialist in toxic metal compounds and understood the dangers, or so she thought. She was following the accepted safety procedures for the compounds she was handling: she wore latex gloves to protect her skin, conducted the experiments in a fume hood to keep vapors away, and followed standard safety procedures. Yet a few drops of a colorless mercury compound, dimethylmercury, fell on her latex glove. She thought nothing of it, but months later began showing signs of mercury poisoning, and then it was too late to do anything, though strident steps were taken over the coming weeks to battle the poisoning. It was an awful and tragic death.

Scientists were shocked by this poisoning and investigated the cause, finding that dimethylmercury can quickly penetrate latex gloves, contrary to the accepted wisdom of the day. Once the poison diffused through the glove, a process that took only a few seconds, it then swiftly entered the body through the skin. Scientists then realized that their generally accepted safety procedures—the world’s best wisdom at the time—was flawed and that latex was inadequate protection for a compound that proved to be far more dangerous than scientists had known.

Like dimethylmercury, there are some things that we simply should not touch.

Dr. Wetterhahn’s story came to mind after hearing another story involving chemical substances and skin. This one comes from the October 2012 General Conference, when Bishop Gary E. Stevenson, Presiding Bishop, spoke to young men in the Priesthood Session. Here is an excerpt from his talk, “Be Valiant in Courage, Strength, and Activity”:

Some years ago, John was accepted at a prestigious Japanese university. He would be part of the international student program with many other top students from around the world. Some enrolled with a hope to deepen their understanding of the culture and language, others viewed it as a stepping-stone to an eventual profession and employment in Japan, but all had left home to study in a foreign country.

Soon after John’s arrival, word of a party to be held on the rooftop of a private residence spread among the foreign student population. That evening, John and two friends made their way to the advertised address.

Following an elevator ride to the top floor of the building, John and his friends navigated the single narrow stairway leading to the rooftop and began mingling with the others. As the night wore on, the atmosphere changed. The noise, music volume, and alcohol amplified, as did John’s uneasiness. Then suddenly someone began organizing the students into a large circle with the intent of sharing marijuana cigarettes. John grimaced and quickly informed his two friends that it was time to leave. Almost in ridicule, one of them replied, “John, this is easy—we’ll just stand in the circle, and when it is our turn, we’ll just pass it along rather than smoke it. That way we won’t have to embarrass ourselves in front of everyone by leaving.” This sounded easy to John, but it did not sound right. He knew he had to announce his intention and act. In a moment he mustered his courage and told them that they could do as they wished, but he was leaving. One friend decided to stay and joined the circle; the other reluctantly followed John down the stairs to board the elevator. Much to their surprise, when the elevator doors opened, Japanese police officers poured out and hurried to ascend the stairs to the rooftop. John and his friend boarded the elevator and departed.

When the police appeared at the top of the stairs, the students quickly threw the illegal drugs off the roof so they wouldn’t be caught. After securing the stairway, however, the officers lined up everyone on the roof and asked each student to extend both hands. The officers then walked down the line, carefully smelling each student’s thumbs and index fingers. All who had held the marijuana, whether they had smoked it or not, were presumed guilty, and there were huge consequences. Almost without exception, the students who had remained on the rooftop were expelled from their respective universities, and those convicted of a crime were likely deported from Japan. Dreams of an education, years of preparation, and the possibility of future employment in Japan were dashed in a moment.

Now let me tell you what happened to these three friends. The friend who stayed on the roof was expelled from the university in Japan to which he had worked so hard to be accepted and was required to return home. The friend who left the party that night with John finished school in Japan and went on to earn degrees from two top-tier universities in the United States. His career took him back to Asia, where he has enjoyed immense professional success. He remains grateful to this day for John’s courageous example. As for John, the consequences in his life have been immeasurable. His time in Japan that year led him to a happy marriage and the subsequent birth of two sons. He has been a very successful businessman and recently became a professor at a Japanese university. Imagine how different his life would have been had he not had the courage to leave the party on that important evening in Japan.

There is much to glean from this story, told to Bishop Stevenson by John. There are insights on listening to the Spirit, acting on impressions, living with faith, and having the courage to maintain standards. Yet I was especially struck by the importance of not even touching that which was unclean and improper. John could have appeared to maintain his standards by remaining at the party but not inhaling, just passing the cigarette on. Only later would he understand that merely touching the cigarette would bring ruin. The danger was not in prolonged inhalation, but in the slightest contact, even a momentary touch on nothing but the very tips of his fingers. He was in a setting where there was only one safe option: flee. Fortunately, he listened to the warnings of the Spirit, with wisdom far beyond his own and that of the world, and fled.

Bishop Stevenson, in his compassion for the young people of the Church, goes on to draw the analogy to Church standards on morality and the dangers of pornography. I applaud the Church for its outspoken stance against this toxin in our society and for the wise counsel that we should flee from it and not touch it, not touch it at all. The widely accepted and standard safety procedures taught by the wise ones of this world inform people that they can view pornography in perfect safety and, in fact, that pretty much anything goes when it comes to our sexuality as long as one uses a little latex at times. The standards are grossly flawed and continue to bring ruin and pain into the lives of those who accept them. There is a much higher standard required for us to be protected, and it is found in the standards taught vigorously by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are not alone, and can be grateful for other good people of other faiths seeking to bless the lives of mankind through inspired moral principles, but collectively our numbers are still few, and the need for clear and effective teaching by word and by example grows stronger each year.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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