The Lost Sapphire
(Appeared summer 1997 in the e-zine, The Empty Shelf, slightly re-edited, here).
I can’t recall how that giant blue sapphire first veered into the orbit of my life. Of course, even at five years, I knew it might not be a real sapphire; at least, that’s what my parents insisted. They called it “just glass.” But, they might just possibly be wrong, I secretly thought. After all, I could look into it forever. And, if I looked real hard, I could see the dim, midnight blue outline of things beyond and through the stone, transformed by the magic of the stone into something quite out of the ordinary; something heavenly, mysterious, almost certainly good rather than evil. Almost. And, so far as I could tell, my parents never actually saw the stone; certainly they never looked through it. They’d just glance at it and say, “Oh, yeah, it’s blue glass.”
Well, it seemed to me that it could very well be a real sapphire. Besides making things look beautiful, there was something else — something mom and dad never even tried to understand. It was this. If something happened I didn’t like; if I were sad because my dog was “put to sleep” or scared of getting a shot, I could look at this sapphire and it made me feel better! It made it all, “Okay.” If I listened carefully, it spoke wordless tales of wisdom and comfort. It was obviously worth a lot, lot more than my parents knew.
True, there was a tiny chunk broken out of one corner. But that didn’t really matter. The stone was still perfect…perfect: something to be kept forever.
Forever, that is, until Jimmy moved next door. Jimmy was ten years old and had a two-wheeled bike. Jimmy towered up nearly as thick and high as an adult. But Jimmy was still young enough to see the powerful magic in the sapphire. One bright Saturday morning, on the green grass of the “devil strip” between the white sidewalk and the forbidden black street where the deadly cars zoomed, I sat in the grass watching the magic sapphire, listening for its words of wisdom. Jimmy rode up and tossed his bike onto the devil strip and hopped off in one smooth move. He plopped down beside me. He flashed the red reflector from his bike in the sunlight. Oh, how it sparkled into my eyes!
“Do you want this ruby?” asked Jimmy innocently.
“Oh! Okay. Thanks!”
Jimmy handed it to me and let me flash it in the sun. It was so much brighter than the sapphire! It sparkled fire!
“Great,” said Jimmy, “Let me have the sapphire.”
He snatched it from the grass where I had lain it, jumped up sped away on his bike.
I stared dumbly at his vanishing figure, then back down at the red reflector in my hand. Maybe this was a good trade after all, I thought. It was really bright all right. And when you moved it in the sun, it made different starburst patterns. After all, it had come from a full-sized two-wheeler. But still…something was missing. Then, a buzzing filled my ears. I suddenly realized that the reflector was just pretty glass! There was no magic to it. It didn’t speak; it just buzzed its foolish empty buzz. I couldn’t look through it to other things. It had no depth. And worst of all, it could never make anyone feel better, not even a little bit. “I thought you meant…for a minute…” I said to the big kid now behind his own front door.
I considered telling my mom and dad. Maybe they could get the sapphire back! I hated telling them. You just don’t tell parents about kid troubles; it’s against the main unwritten law of being a kid. But maybe they could get my sapphire back! When I finally told them what had happened, they said, “Well, you made a trade.” I tried to get Jimmy to trade back, but he had none of it. Jimmy soon moved away, never to be seen again. But I kept the red reflector — not to look at — because that would seem somehow unfaithful to the spirit of the sapphire — but just in case Jimmy came by one day wanting to trade back.
And later, much later, I used my allowance to buy special clear marbles — called “Peeries” — emerald green and dark blue with bubbles in them, and my dad got me a cool science kit with a clear rainbow prism that threw color into everything, and then one day I looked into the deep, sparking blue eyes of a blond girl named Jennifer and later into the sparkling blue eyes of a beautiful woman named Wendy and then into real diamonds and computer screens and experimental results and statistical analyses and conclusions, insights, and science fiction. And all of those things were good and all of these spoke to me.
Still, I wonder where the blue sapphire is and how to get it back. How to get it back? The magic. Not clever illusion, not something made to look nice, but true magic. Are you out there, Jimmy? Because I still have your red reflector if you want to trade back.
I don’t know whether society can trade back either. We used to have some kind of balance between competition and the other valuable things about life. We seem mainly to have traded it in on a newer model. In the new model, money is the only thing that matters. Winning is the only thing that matters. Math definitely does not matter. People who are rich and powerful can pretty much get away with anything. The only exception would be someone like Bernie Madoff who was silly enough to include some wealthy people among those he bamboozled. But the Bernie Madoffs of Wall Street that sunk the economy in 2008 walked away scot free.
“All that glitters is not gold.” The normal interpretation of this means that not everything that glitters (like gold) really is gold. Normally, this is meant in a metaphorical way but based on the real phenomenon of “Fool’s Gold” (Iron Pyrite) which does glitter like polished gold but is of far less conventional value.
I like to consider a different interpretation: What if all gold is “Fool’s Gold”? Naturally, I’m not denying the existence of metallic gold. I’m wearing a (mostly) gold wedding ring. So, I believe in real gold. What is meant is that striving after gold is itself a foolish thing to do. If that’s true, then, it’s all “Fool’s Gold” whether or not it’s Iron Pyrite or Real Gold.
How could this possibly be so? Isn’t life a contest to see who can make the most money? Isn’t money (and before that gold) an easier way to exchange goods and services that having to strike each deal uniquely? It is indeed easier. Does that necessarily mean it’s better?
Society is growing more and more differentiated. We do vastly different jobs from each other. For example, for many centuries, farming was a common occupation. In the USA in 1900, for example, about a third of the entire workforce were still farmers. Now, that percentage of farmers is about a tenth that. It isn’t only that there are now many different fields such as computer science and forestry. Even within a field such as computer science or forestry, there are more and more subspecialties. It’s as though the tree of humanity is growing larger and larger and branching out farther and farther.
At the same time, this entire enterprise called “society” is not stable. It is spinning; spinning faster and faster. This means that this whole enterprise will eventually fly apart — unless, the cohesive strength of the whole enterprise continues to increase. Unfortunately, it seems that just when we need to increase that bonding strength, it is weakening.
What is the real gold? Anything that strengthens the ties is real gold. Anything that weakens the ties will tend to cause the entire enterprise to disintegrate. Even if some bars of heavy shiny metal accrue to those who strive to break us apart, they are causing overwhelming harm to others, including generations and generations of their own offspring. The last time, the European Dark Ages occurred, it last centuries. Science, engineering, agriculture, learning, medicine — all these things were worse for a half millennium before they started to get better again. Meanwhile, the toll in terms of human misery was immense. And for what?
Our fall from the advanced civilization to the next Dark Ages will be a much harder fall than what much of Europe experienced after the fall of Rome. People in a Roman society were closer to the land and to the world of real things than many people are today. Many moderns in the so-called Global North have no idea how to live off the land, plant a garden, hunt or fish. Even if they did, we wouldn’t be close to being able to feed 7 billion people without modern agriculture, distribution, knowledge of crops, irrigation systems.
My history lessons focused on Western Europe and the United States, so when I think of the “Dark Ages”, I think in terms of Western Europe. But we should remember that that minimal impact, for instance, on most of the people of the planet at that time including North and South America, Australia, most of Africa, and most of Asia. This time, it would be different. Such a catastrophic Dark Ages would today be global. No-one would really escape.
No-one would escape the new Dark Ages and that includes extremely rich and powerful people. Yes, they could have more absolute power over other people as a Newmedieval Tyrant than as the leader of a democracy. And, granted, that may be the most important thing in the life of that kind of person. But it isn’t the only thing. They have no idea how inconvenienced every other aspect of their life would be if civilization fell.
We, as a species, are not “set up” for the Dark Ages. There are way, way too many to feed without the science and engineering behind today’s agricultural processes. There are way too many to obtain fresh water without modern infrastructure. Of course, it isn’t just that we are physically unable to deal with this kind of downfall. We are nowise prepared mentally either. Most of the knowledge we currently have for living in a complex, technological society would be completely useless and we’d know very little of what we should actually know in order to survive.
Maybe hell is not the punishment for one person’s life of sin, but the collective punishment wreaked upon all of our descendants for the collective current sins of humanity. After all, isn’t extinction a kind of hell for the species? We wouldn’t be the first extinguished species. Not by a long shot. Most of them were “hit without warning” by the after-effects of a meteor or a met by a human-powered bulldozer clearing away amazing rain forests for a few more bars of fools gold.
I know one thing for certain. Jimmy’s not coming back to trade you back what you really care about for that shiny red reflector that caught your momentary eye.