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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Guest Post: Fresh Asparagus and Sweet Oblivion

I recently travelled to a meeting in Boston and on the last leg of the trip sat next to the original Chatty Cathy. I would never classify myself as being good about steering a conversation towards a gospel discussion—I'm usually the guy with his nose in a book. But on this occasion Cathy opened the door so wide that even I couldn't avoid taking the plunge.

We discussed many things, but spent a fair bit of time talking about was how different individuals can experience the very same events, and one will come away moved and inspired while the other will be completely un-phased by the experience. She was also Christian and I pointed out the challenges all Christians have in recognizing the hand of God in the mundane details of life. It was a really enjoyable flight. I think we were both enriched by the experience, having each resolved to pay more attention to these things.

As I've thought about that conversation, I am reminded of a couple of endocrine analogies to missing the clues that are all around us. The first is the drug propylthiouracil. PTU is a drug that is used to treat hyperthyroidism. One of the properties of this drug is its incredibly bitter taste. For most people, no matter how fast you swallow or how much water you chug with the pill, it tastes horrible. Yet a genetic polymorphism causes a subset of the population to taste nothing—even if they chew it. Another good example of this phenomenon is a genetic polymorphism that prevents some people (myself included) from smelling ketone bodies on the breath of a patient with diabetic ketoacidosis. This fruity smell is a dead giveaway and allows some endocrinologists to diagnose a patient without even checking the blood glucose.

I think the best example of all is the smell of urine within minutes of eating asparagus (here for a good article). Asparagus contains large amounts of asparagusic acid, which generates a volatile sulfuric metabolite that creates the unforgettable smell of asparagus urine. Strangely enough 50-75% of asparagus eaters smell nothing unusual after even the largest helping. Once again, these folks lack the genetic coding that allows them to detect that pungent aroma of asparagus pee.

So how does all this rambling relate to my conversation with Chatty Cathy? In each example, something very real can be present that people have a variable capacity to detect. Whether it is PTU, or acetone or the sulfur-rich metabolites of asparagusic acid, something is there—we just don't always perceive it. In the case of asparagus urine, everyone that eats asparagus makes it, it's just that most people are oblivious to it.

In 3 Nephi 9:20 the Lord parenthetically commented on a group of Lamanites who were baptized with the Holy Ghost and never realized it. They had gone to the Lord in faith, with broken hearts and contrite spirits. In return they were rewarded with this great blessing, but never knew it. They were oblivious. If they could miss it in spite of their devotion and commitment, then imagine how much of this stuff goes unrecognized amongst the masses.

I believe that every person has the genetic machinery necessary to feel the workings of the Spirit. But doing so is a learned skill that must be carefully refined. To be good at detecting these trace elements in our environment requires paying close attention, concerted effort and lots of practice. So the next time you turn your nose up at someone in the spiritual urinal next to you that seems oblivious to something that is so obvious to you, cut the guy some slack. It is easier for some than it is for others. It may also be worthwhile asking yourself what kinds of clues you are oblivious to yourself.
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Reid is an endocrinologist from Henderson, Nevada. Reid is blessed with a wonderful wife and three great kids. He counts it miraculous that his eclectic interests (family, travel, museums, history, Imperial Roman coinage of the Flavian Dynasty, fly fishing and cycling) are actually shared by at least one member of his family. Reid enjoys blogging on every-day occurrences as seen through his Mormon sunglasses. Check out Reid's previous guest post.
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