The Formal System We Live In
There are rules we don't know because they can't be broken
“Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil.”
—G. K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy 1
Nothing makes me happier than Chesterton’s admissions that he believes trees can come to life and move at will, maybe snatch up a little dog named Toto. That there are fairies and gnomes all around us. That a grown and serious man such as Chesterton enjoyed revealing his firm belief in what cultured society considers fantasy.
I enjoy Chesterton’s flights so much because my mind is far less able to comprehend such mystical possibilities. Rarely do I expect a tree to come to life and follow me home on a dark night, its roots acting like a thousand tiny feet, perfectly synchronized to move quickly and silently. Why, an ambulatory tree could stop on a dime at the slightest hint I might turn around and catch him in motion.
“Didn’t I pass that tree ten minutes ago?”
On rare occasions, I can imagine the trees watching me and discussing me. Their words sound like rustling leaves, but I know they’re more than that. To other trees it’s language. A highly developed language. And they’re using that language to talk about me. Perhaps to plot my demise.
As I walk through the woods in the dark, I begin to imagine worse things. “If the trees are talking about me, they can pass intel to trees up ahead.”
The trees I’m passing now are mere scouts. Spies. They report my course and speed to the predator trees up ahead, closer to my destination.
“I must keep the trees in mind,” I think at such times. But in a minute, my mind has jumped to a new subject completely unrelated to trees.
When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o'clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a "law," for we do not understand its general formula. 2
Thus, from Chesterton I learned that we are always vulnerable to tree attacks, and there’s nothing we can really do about it. Luckily, my imagination only occasionally recognizes the animated malice of trees. But my mind sees something else we cannot measure: systems.
Specifically, formal systems. Formal systems that control the universe of which we are not aware. Formal rules that appear to humans as happenstance or oddities but are actually patterns imposed by that formal system.
Last night my wonderful step-daughter went home after work to find her dog had died. Bruno was only about six years old and seemingly in good health. She was devastated, of course, and guilt-ridden. (Please say a prayer for Sam and her husband who brought the dog with him when he and Sam were married.)
Tonight, my wife informed me that two of her colleagues’ pets died suddenly and seemingly without cause in the last 24 hours. She only learned of them tonight. “WTF?” she asked in her text.
We lost our precious Yorkshire Terrier, Coco, in September. Coco was fine and normal Friday afternoon, a little “off” Friday evening, and gone Sunday despite three trips to animal emergency rooms and 24-hour attention.
I’ve had dogs all my life, and and cats since 1988, and I’ve had pets die. Most were very old or had a long bout of a diagnosed disease. Only once before had a pet of mine died out of the blue—my first cat, George, who liked to eat peas from my daughter’s highchair tray and came in and out of the house through the window over the sink. George also sat in front of the house near the sidewalk meowing at passersby for a pet, and he followed me and my Labrador, Molly, on walks around the neighborhood as if I’d put a leash around his neck. On my 27th birthday, our neighbor knocked on the door around 9 a.m. to tell us George was in their backyard dead. No apparent injuries.
When Angela texted me about the odd pet deaths her friends experienced in the same 24-hour period in which Samantha lost her dog, Bruno, Angela’s “wtf?” made me think: what if we reached our limit on pets?
What if there is a law in this system, and those pets were its victims?
During the pandemic, Americans bought more pets than at any time in history. Covid was the great pet-adoption windfall. Pet food companies, pet stores, and veterinarians had a field day, as did breeders and rescue organizations. Everybody wanted an animal to weather the virus.
What if there’s some limit on the total number of pets humans can have at one time? Suppose a law of the cosmos allows for up to 3 pets for every human. Those cat ladies you read about are only possible because of the number of people who have no pets at all. Livestock doesn’t count, of course, even if the farmer’s little girl names all the chickens, pigs, and cows she can see. They’re not really pets, just food animals lucky enough to live near a little girl.
Before you dismiss my theory out of hand, consider this: pets are a luxury requiring an historically ridiculous surplus of wealth. A dog in America costs as much to raise as a child in Calcutta, and probably a lot more. Vet visit are $100. Then there’s heart worm preventive, blood work now and then, food, beds, leashes, collars, flea blocker, and thousands of other expensive pet items. Yet, 2021 was the best year in the history of pets, and Christmas 2020 saw a national dog shortage.
For most of human history, people simply couldn’t afford 3 pets per person, or whatever the limit might be. When I was a kid in South St. Louis, owning one healthy pet was a sign that your dad was doing pretty well. The poor kids would bring home a stray when they could, but it would be gone in a couple of weeks, usually without explanation.
“What happened to your dog, Joey?”
“Ah, my dad said he ran away.”
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial