And we hear our own voice demanding of ourselves a faith in no-path, when there is no faith at all.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
I sit in my favorite grey-green overstuffed chaise, a pillow at my back, a cat curled in a cat bed behind me on the back of the chair, my laptop on my lap with a slim volume of poetry by David Whyte titled Fire in the Earth next to my leg. A bookmark indicates the above passage. It’s a chilly, grey day. As I sit here the furnace hums and stops, hums and stops, keeping the temperature around 60 degrees. This house we bought in May has a brand-new propane hot water furnace, supposedly the most economical and efficient available. This week is the first time we’ve used it. What will propane cost this winter? Will electrical costs spike as much as predicted? Will it be a cold winter or a mild one?
Always, this question in my mind: “Will I be able to manage economically?”
Enlarging my own personal bubble, I ran errands this morning. A haircut from a friend, during which we talked about the coming winter, how costly it might be, how cold it might be, how effective foam and cloth barriers like rags and old blankets might be in chinks and cracks around doors and windows. How can we hold in the heat, keep out the icy fingers of cold reaching for our paychecks?
I went to the town dump with the recycling, plastic and cans. Does all this material really go for recycling, or is it quietly disposed of in earth or ocean somewhere out of sight? I try to have faith that is really is recycled. Eggs are cheaper when I buy 18 in a carton, but the carton is plastic. But the plastic is recyclable. Maybe. If they actually do it.
This is the kind of thing that preoccupies my mind. A lot.
The furnace clicks on again. How much would I save if I turned it down just 2 degrees?
After the dump, I went to the store. I bought a couple extra jars of salsa, a couple extra pounds of butter. I’ve read about the climate-change decimated tomato crop this year and to expect shortages. Ditto butter. I bought a turkey on sale. It’s early, but I’ve read turkeys will also be in short supply. Every time I go to the store, I’ll buy a tomato product for my pantry, a pound of butter for the freezer.
Enlarging my small city bubble, maybe the projected shortages aren’t real. Maybe it’s all hype, designed to keep people spending as recession fears rise and prices climb. Maybe we can’t believe anything we read or hear from anyone. It’s like standing on the beach in bare feet, feeling the waves pull the sand away from beneath my soles, the sand of common sense, the sand of objective reality, the comforting, warm sand of sanity and critical thinking. Maybe the tide is too powerful, the waves too forceful for most people to withstand. Maybe, by the end, we will really believe in … nothing. Our individuality will be erased. Art, science, and thought will be exterminated. Our lovely sexuality will be neutralized and sterilized. Our magnificent bodies will be surgically altered according to our whims or the dictates of the totalitarians in charge and, if possible, amputated altogether from our increasingly narcissistic and developmentally arrested minds.
From the bubble of my chair in this moment of solitude with my fingers on the keyboard to the world. It’s a grim journey.
I feel increasing pressure to bring in more money. More hours are not possible right now at my job. Another job? Two other jobs? I’ve sold everything I can. I budget every penny. How much of my anxiety is based in real conditions and how much is my longstanding fear of scarcity and tendency to catastrophize? Is it not a job I need, but to GET A GRIP?
I can’t tell. Ask me when heating season is over.
Of course I could get a side job. It’s what a normal person would do. Need more money? Find more work. But is that the right thing for me to do? (I do still claim the right to think for myself.) Would the extra money be worth the time, the energy, the fatigue? I don’t want to live to work and earn. I’ve never wanted that. I’m nearly 59 years old. If I don’t take care of my excellent health, I may not get it back. Is an extra couple of hundred dollars a month worth the strain?
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
I’d love to earn my living writing, but I believe it’s a less and less realistic dream. Traditional publishing is dying. Soaring costs and shortages, not the least of which is paper, are forcing change. Very few writers live by their writing alone. Very few. Many do earn some income from it, however.
I love books. I also love trees. If I must choose between a book in my hands and a tree, I’ll read on a digital device for the sake of the tree. Even now I never buy a new book, only used. I write – and people read what I write – on two digital platforms, this WordPress blog and Substack. Should I be monetizing those rather than searching for another job?
I’ve been having that internal conversation for years.
Would I rather avoid asking for donations or putting up a paywall and clean houses or something like that? Anyone can clean. No one but me can write what I write.
I recently picked up a couple of used books of David Whyte’s poetry. The first poem in the first book I opened contained the above excerpt. I was sitting outside in the weakening sun when I read it a couple of days ago. I put the book down and cried.
Oh, Mr. Robert Frost and his road not taken. The well-traveled roads. The less well-traveled roads. The once travelled but now overgrown roads. The paths we tread, following others, and directed by others. The faint game trails that peter out in the wilderness. The well-paved roads and paths that lead to Hell. And now Whyte asks if it’s time to leave the path altogether. Not only that, but to have faith when I have none. Faith in the no-path.
And aren’t we there, at the no-path? Civilizations have collapsed before, but not as the planet was undergoing its own collapse. Well, maybe that’s not right. Maybe in eons past it’s all happened before – relatively abrupt climate change, enormous die-off, cataclysmic geological and oceanic reshaping, and reemergence into a new normal, healthy, planetary system.
If there were paths humans could tread through all that, they’ve been lost.
But let’s make the bubble smaller again. I can’t choose your path, or anyone else’s. Is the right path for me the no-path? The money path is clear. Work more, spend less, have more money. We all know it. Most of us have walked it. It’s well-signed and well-traveled. There’s an equally well-signed and well-traveled path into theft, fraud, extortion, etc., but none of those are options for me, so let’s not complicate matters.
What’s the no-path? Oh, that would be the writing. Always. Whatever our creative work is, it takes us on to a no-path, because creativity is unique. We’re always breaking trail, one way or another. We may follow, for a time, the paths of others, or intersect their trails, but we’ll make our own unique track, worn by our footsteps as we go along, unrolling in front of our feet, existing only because we turned off the main road into a no-path … and made a path.
Faith in a no-path when there is no faith at all. What a strange, dream-like, impressionistic phrase, balancing on the edge of holy foolishness and divine wisdom. It would take a poet of Whyte’s caliber to – well, to take that path.
Right now I’m pausing, considering my options, thinking, feeling, reading and writing my way forward. I don’t have a map for these times. Does anyone? Perhaps faith isn’t necessary, just determination and choosing the next step.
Wherever we go we can only take a step from here.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
It’s good to be reminded of the no-path. The six-lane highway we’ve been following has led to climate change, increasing political and social tensions, and worldwide social and economic instability. Who knows where a no-path might take me; it could hardly be much worse. At least it would be my own path, chosen by me. My feet would define it, my choices shape it. My sweat. My challenges. My journey. No guarantees, but no lies, either. Lonely, perhaps, but I’m no fan of doing what everyone else does, just for the sake of it.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Or maybe it’s not a question of travel at all, at least not all the time. Maybe it’s a question of standing still, like a mountain, like a tree. Standing still is an art we’re losing as a species. Maybe there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do; everything is just as it should be, no matter how uncomfortable or fearful. Maybe I have enough.
Maybe I am enough.
And standing still, saying I, and the small vision I have -is enough, becomes the hardest path of all.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
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This is my third post exploring happiness. The first and second posts are here and here.
We’ve defined happiness as a feeling of contentment and peace, which inadequately expresses its complexity. Positive psychology scientifically examines the human experience of peace and contentment more deeply, with surprising results.
In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., carefully differentiates between transient and enduring happiness. Transient happiness is what I call happy. It’s the joy I feel when dancing, swimming, sitting outside in the sun, or looking forward to something pleasurable. Enduring happiness, or our general level of happiness, is our baseline feeling of peace and contentment. Can we increase our enduring level of happiness, and if so, how?
Our genetics play a part in this, as I mentioned before, but circumstances do, too, and we have some power over our circumstances. It turns out there are three decades of research and data on external circumstances and how they affect our experience of happiness.
Now we are in territory heavily influenced by social politics and our consumer culture. Everyone knows more money and things make us happier. Anyone in doubt need only sit in front of a screen and absorb advertising for 30 minutes.
A cross-national survey of tens of thousands of adults does indicate life satisfaction and overall national purchasing power are closely correlated, but only to a certain numerical point. After that point, the correlation disappears. This means people in a comparatively wealthy country may generally have a higher overall experience of happiness than people in a country who live in life-threatening poverty, but there are many exceptions, and social scientists are not sure why. In addition, as purchasing power has increased in wealthy countries, life satisfaction has not.
It appears how important money is to us is a more powerful factor in our happiness than the amount of money we actually have. More materialistic people are less happy. In this, of course, we have power. If we rearrange our priorities and reduce the importance of money in our lives, perhaps we can intentionally increase our happiness.
Other factors that have been extensively studied as ingredients for happiness include marriage (or other long-term, committed bonds), education, social networks, health, age, biological sex, intelligence, and where we live.
As I think about happiness, I reflect on all the reasons I’ve heard people (including me) say they can’t achieve it. It’s interesting how we all make excuses for avoiding happiness. I wonder why that is. What are we up to? Are we afraid to be happy? Is the pain of “losing” happiness so terrible we reject the condition entirely?
Data invalidates many of our excuses. External circumstances such as moving to a sunnier climate or getting more education are not correlated with greater happiness. Race and biological sex are also neutral factors in happiness, as is intelligence.
It does appear living in a comparatively wealthy country; strong social networks, including a healthy primary relationship, as in marriage; and creating or participating in spiritual/faith practices are positive influences on happiness.
Interestingly, health is an influence much like money, in that how we feel about our health is more important than our objective health as a factor in happiness.
As I write this, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we are awaiting final results in the 2020 election and facing increasing COVID numbers. These external factors and the stress and anxiety I feel over them certainly seem barriers to anything like happy.
A couple of weeks ago I was part of a conversation in which someone asked me if I’d heard Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas were “cancelled.” He was angry, bitter, loud, and hostile. I exited the conversation after telling him quietly I hadn’t heard, but I’ve thought about it ever since.
Is happiness cancelled because of our current external circumstances?
Of course not. As many others have pointed out, family, love, tolerance, generosity, and the holiday season are not “cancelled.” Many of us will (or have) changed the way we approach these celebrations and expressions, but change doesn’t have to be an atomic bomb wiping out every tradition and good feeling, unless we make it so.
I, and I suspect many others, feel the fate of the world rests on the outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election. The endless political rhetoric certainly encourages us to believe that. When I really think about it, though, no matter who is in the White House we’ll still be a deeply and hatefully divided nation. We’ll still have a pandemic. We’ll still have climate change, broken healthcare and educational systems, and a faltering economy. We’ll still have to deal with immigration, racial injustice and violence.
The president, whoever he will be, will not have the power to destroy our individual happiness. He may be a fine scapegoat, along with a million other external circumstances, but in the end I believe our happiness is in our own hands and no one else’s.
I find this a particularly unpalatable realization right now. I spend a lot of time being a professional, being an adult, and striving to be positive and supportive with others, but deep inside I struggle with an ungodly mix of rage and despair. I have moments in which it’s all I can do to just walk away from the headlines, the ignorance, the selfishness, and the toxicity of others without screaming and tearing their throats out. I’m constantly fighting down tears. I feel unsafe, hypervigilant, and bone tired.
I know I’m not alone. I have the most superb self-control of anyone I know, so I will not relieve my feelings with public tantrums or assaults, but the feelings are there and these times are bringing them close to the surface for everyone.
To write about happiness or even think about it right now seems idiotic. Upon further reflection, though, I wonder if it isn’t the perfect time, after all. There’s so much going on that we can’t change; perhaps now it’s more important than ever before to pull our gaze away from those things and look at where we do have power. We have the power to intentionally choose happiness, even if only for a second. We have the power to choose between connection and division. We have the power to love, even in the midst of rage.
If I told you I’m happy this week it would be a lie. When the final votes are counted I won’t feel happy, either, no matter who wins. I’m hoping my sleep will be less broken and I can stop trying to crawl out of my skin with anxiety, but happy? No. Relieved would be good. Let’s aim for relieved.
But what if the truth is that happy is right here, sitting on my shoulder, or waiting patiently in the corner, and all I have to do is give it my attention and open my arms to it? What if I could feel happiness today? What if the most useful thing I could do for myself, for my loved ones, for the world, is choose happiness, no matter how fleeting?
This morning we took our two old cars into our mechanic. They both need some routine maintenance, and this seems like a good time to take care of it. I saw a poster on a telephone pole in town offering a reward for information about a lost cat, and I felt sad for the family, searching and grieving for their missing pet.
I imagined, for a minute, posters on every fence, pole and bulletin board in the world, each one imploring for the return of our lost lives, not only those who have lost their lives due to this pandemic, but the “normal” lives we’ve all lost. Is anyone, anywhere, untouched by the coronavirus?
It’s slowly dawning on me that normal is gone.
Normal was different for each of us, but it certainly included jobs, schedules and income. It included being able to get our teeth cleaned, our hair cut, and routine healthcare appointments. Normal was an evening out at a bar, restaurant or the movies. Normal was travel plans and vacations, day care and school years, community and family celebrations and events. Normal was our sense of predictability and security.
Change is always with us, and it’s continued to flow through our lives during the last three or four months, but I’m no longer feeling as though we’ve simply paused for a while before returning to what was.
In mid-March, one day I was at work as usual looking at the headlines during a break and worrying about coronavirus, and just a few days later we were shut down. We knew something catastrophic was happening, and we knew it was one of the biggest events we’d ever experienced, but we couldn’t have anticipated all that’s happened since then. We didn’t know, in those last days, they were the last days of that normal. There wasn’t time to say goodbye, or have a sense of closure, or wish people well.
I’m not even trying to anticipate what might happen in the next few months, but I’m quite sure “normal” will be absent.
During the shutdown at the rehab center pool where I work (worked?), the powers-that-be decided to renovate. The money had been earmarked before the pandemic, and as we were having to close anyway, I suppose they thought it was a good time to do it.
I understand the logic, but a three-week renovation project is now in its twelfth week or so, and there’s a long way to go. Supply chains are disrupted. Shipping and delivery are slowed. Everything is in chaos, including the contracting company.
We’re longing to go back to work and resume some sort of normalcy, but the facility is not ready, and we don’t know when it will be ready. When it is ready, will anyone come to use the pool? With so many out of work and losing their insurance, will we have patients? Will we be able to open to the public? Will we be able to open the locker rooms, which are presently gutted and nothing but construction zones? Will any of us be able to work normal hours, and if not, how will we manage economically?
Will we follow the rest of the country, and open only to close again as the virus surges?
And those are only the coronavirus questions. What about the November election and rising political and social tensions and violence? What about accelerating climate change? What about the collapsing economy, education system, post office, and healthcare system?
What about our failing democracy?
Now and then I wonder if I’m sitting in a movie theater watching a big screen apocalypse thriller, maybe starring Will Smith or Matt Damon. A terrible natural event, an evil AI, or a malignant genius wipes out most of the human race, but approximately two hours of thrilling heroism, special effects and against-all-odds story line save the day.
That’s how we think the story should go. Tight plotting, a clear goal and lots of stunts. An unambiguous beginning and end. Roll credits, bring up the lights, everyone comes back to the real, normal world and gropes for their belongings, feeling satisfied.
It plays better than it lives, doesn’t it?
I’m not in despair. The old “normal” was good for a few people, but for most of us it was inadequate education, inaccessible and overpriced healthcare, and increasing pressure and manipulation by the Overlords of consumerism. For many, business as usual meant institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. Business as usual was destroying the planet. Many of us had no part in the “thriving” economy and very little hope of financial security. Those are not the things I grieve for.
I miss working. Yes, I get unemployment, but frankly, I’d rather work. I miss my sense of contribution to my community. I miss teaching. I miss swimming. I miss earning a paycheck and feeling financially independent. I miss my team and our work, play and training together.
Most of all, I miss the feeling of day-to-day security. I never worried about food shortages, or how many people were in the store, or how close I was standing to someone else. I thought frequently about family and loved ones who are far away, but I didn’t wonder every day about how they’re doing, if they’re taking care, if they’re well. I could count on my weekly schedule at work. I could look forward to eating out now and then, getting a massage, or catching a movie.
The good old days. About twelve weeks ago.
We’re not going to go back. We can only go forward. The world has changed. We’ve all changed. Perhaps some of the current chaos will create a better “normal,” more just, more equitable, kinder. Perhaps we’re remembering we’re social creatures who do best in small, cooperative communities. Perhaps we’re remembering what’s really important in life and thus reducing the stranglehold of consumerism. Perhaps we’re rediscovering our humanity.
Now, wouldn’t that be something?
I wish I’d had time to understand what was happening and say goodbye to it all, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m only just now really getting my head around the fact that we’ve left the old world and ways behind. Even if the coronavirus is somehow magically eradicated, I don’t think we can resume the old “normal.” Too much has changed, and too many feelings have been felt. Too many eyes have been opened, too much has been said, and we’ve all seen others and been seen more nakedly than ever before. Mask on, mask off.
It’s easy these days to feel overwhelmed and despairing. Life is increasingly unpredictable and the future uncertain socially, economically and in terms of climate. We’ve never before been able to discuss so many issues with so many others, or been exposed to so many different sources of information and opinions. As our public education system flounders, fewer and fewer people think critically, which is daily becoming a more important tool in navigating our information overload.
I heard about a comment the other day on social media directed toward someone discussing women’s rights. The man commenting asked why we’re talking about something like feminism when climate change is so pressing. Why are we wasting energy on women’s rights while the planet is getting more and more difficult to inhabit, not in some hazy future but right now, today?
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
That question points to the reason we find ourselves in our present situation in the first place. Our social struggles reflect our approach to living on and with our planet. The thinking shaping our social behavior is the same thinking shaping our behavior as citizens on Planet Earth. If we feel we’re entitled to rape, rob or otherwise seize power and control over another human being or group of human beings, we feel equally entitled to use the planet however we want, with no thought of anyone else or the consequences of our behavior. This fertile, life-giving planet is our mother. We live on her body. The degree to which we respect and appreciate her is the degree to which we afford the same treatment to women. It’s the same discussion. It’s not a coincidence that the increasing pressure on our physical survival is happening in the middle of the current social maelstrom.
I’m not a scientist, though I endeavor to be a critical thinker. However, I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the subject of complex systems and earth systems science, including Darwin’s Unfinished Business by Simon Powell, Animate Earth by Stephan Harding, Overshoot by William Catton and Gaia’s Revenge by James Lovelock. Everything I read confirms what I intuitively recognize.
Everything matters. Everyone matters. It’s all connected.
The days are gone when we can tell ourselves what happens on the other side of the world doesn’t affect us and we need not pay attention or worry about it. We have so far exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity for our species that the actions of each individual have an effect on the whole. As human population oozes and bulges into every biome all over the globe, we also directly affect every other form of life: Animal, plant, insect, fungi and microorganism. We displace other species, poison their habitat and compete fiercely for resources. We have no sense of our own needs or the needs of others, but focus on what we want, and we want it all — right now. We deserve it. We have a right to it.
Certain groups of men have no intention of sharing power, dignity and economic resources with women, let alone sharing the planet with fungi and Monarch butterflies. Some groups would eradicate cattle from the globe before learning how to integrate them back into the healthy complex system they were part of until we threw things out of balance with our numbers and ignorance. Others work to bar immigrants, saying they’ll take our jobs, they’ll soak up social resources and they’ll poison our communities with their foreign tongues and culture, too ignorant and short-sighted to grasp we are only enriched and strengthened by the presence of other cultures.
It’s all the same discussion. It’s all connected.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
We are only now beginning to glimpse the miraculous web of life on Earth, only now getting a sense of Earth as a sentient complex system, self-regulating and self-sufficient, and the knowledge may have come too late. Complexity is life. Complexity is resilient and creates the ability to learn and adapt. Any behavior or ideology seeking to minimize, disrupt, or eradicate complexity is destructive. Those who work for purity, for homogenized patriotism, for the complete power of one religion, sex, diet, complexion, body type or expression of sexuality are actively tearing apart our world and our future.
Our inability to live peacefully and cooperatively with one another is our inability to respect and care for the land under our feet. Our willingness to tolerate slavery, sex trafficking and bureaucracy that destroys families, indigenous groups, human rights, reproductive choice and other natural resources is the same willingness to worship the false idol of money, buy whatever we want when we want it and discard it later with impunity. If we can’t buy what we want, we take it, or steal it. This is the definition of rape culture.
Complexity is about integration. One way to interpret the old stories is to consider each character as a separate part of the same psyche. In other words, we all have an innocent Red Riding Hood maiden inside us, and we all have an old bedridden grandparent, a parent who warns us of the dangers of leaving the path, a wily predator and a heroic figure who saves the day. A healthy adult learns to know and accept his or her shadow side, as well as more admirable characteristics. Spiritual wholeness consists of a well-balanced masculine and feminine, no matter our biological sex. If we are unable to integrate all these voices and archetypes, all these facets of personality, feelings and thoughts, and operate as a whole complex psyche, we’re crippled, and we’re certainly going to be unable to take our place as an effective, joyous and elegant part of the wider complex system of Planet Earth.
So yes, it matters. It matters if you use a plastic straw and throw it away. It matters if you toss your plastic cup out the car window. It matters if you support the tobacco industry because they’ve successfully addicted you. If you throw one less item away today, it matters. If you recycle and compost, it matters. If you stop rototilling your garden, which damages the soil, it matters. The way you treat the people and animals around you matters. We don’t have the power to stop or change the enormous transition we’re caught up in by ourselves. We may never see validation, recognition or negative consequences for the choices we make, but those choices do matter, because we’re all inextricably connected, like it or not, deny it or not.
Megastorms matter. Lead in drinking water and cancer clusters matter. Water conservation efforts in Cape Town matter. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria matter. Fires, earthquakes and volcanic activity matter.
People matter, too. Our experience, feelings and thoughts matter. I don’t matter more than you or anyone else, but, as a living creature on the planet, I matter. The way I treat myself matters. My health matters, and my creativity, and my ability to learn.
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash
If we can’t wrap our heads around the essential value and importance of each life, including our own, and support each individual in their personal power, we will absolutely destroy all non-human life on the planet and ourselves with it. If we’re really serious about equal rights, we need to learn to share our rapidly diminishing resources, and I don’t mean cars, technology and food delicacies grown half a world away. I don’t mean diamonds, designer clothing, private airplanes and yachts, and mansions housing a family of four. I mean basic food, clean water and habitable land. We each need to take responsibility for our addiction to instant gratification, convenience and all the latest tech, toys and trends. We need to let go of our entitlement and work together to create a sustainable standard of living for everyone.
So yes, food and water politics, sexual identity politics, human rights, healthcare, education, families and children and immigration all matter. They’re all road signs and mile markers. The question is whether we’ll travel in the direction of destruction or use these issues as opportunities to build bridges, enlarge our empathy and heal our disconnection from ourselves, from other humans, and from all other life, paving the way to managing climate change as elegantly as possible.
I know what direction I’m going in, not with hope of reaching some kind of utopia, but because it’s the only direction that makes any sense to me. Many, many people disagree with me, I know, and I’m going to have to fight the mob going in the direction of destruction. That’s okay. I never seem to be traveling in the direction of the majority, so I’m used to it, and there will be others going my way.
In the meantime, I walk the tightrope suspended over the paradox at the heart of modern life. I fight to maintain power and authority in my own life and use it for the greater good as well as my own benefit. At the same time, I acknowledge I am but one life among uncounted living beings on the planet, spinning through space with everyone else towards an uncertain future. My power is present, but limited. If I make even the smallest difference for good in my lifetime, I’ll probably never know, and no one else will ever see, and that’s okay with me.
This is a third post in a series in which I’ve questioned the relationship between American dietary standards and health and written about my own personal journey with diet. This week I’ll focus on some of the ideology embedded in diet and food production.
In my first post, I briefly mentioned vegan bullying. Because of the way we choose to eat, my partner and I spend some time in digital conversations about food. I’ve been amazed by the hostility and hatefulness directed towards people who choose to produce, harvest and/or eat meat.
Photo by Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn on Unsplash
All people need to eat in order to live. That’s a given. I believe most individuals want to be able to feed themselves and their families with high-quality, healthy food. Sadly, because we live in a capitalist and consumer culture, this basic need is hugely impacted by financial, political, social and geographical variables. Additionally, diet is inextricably entwined in the religious and spiritual framework of many people.
Just this short list of factors make the basic necessity of putting food in our mouths complicated. Obesity and other eating disorders, as well as food-related diseases and health issues (which may be to say all diseases and health issues) reflect that.
Add to that a small but vocal group of people who take it upon themselves to judge, criticize, bully, shame and threaten others about their diet, and we’ve got a mess.
Now, there are all kinds of stated reasons why some people think they have a right to mandate what and how we all should eat. Some folks claim to be animal rights activists. Some talk about guilt, as in “What do you do about your guilt about eating the flesh of a dead animal?” Others say cows are killing the planet.
The list goes on. You get the idea.
I’m not a science teacher and this blog is not about handing out an academic education, but the cows killing the planet thing belongs under the heading of alternative facts. It simply isn’t true, and a brief survey of science-based permaculture, climate change and basic biologic history demonstrates that. Properly managed, the presence of animals is essential to healing the planet. Believe it or don’t believe it, but for me this is nonsense and I’m not interested in debating it.
The animal rights activism excuse really gets under my skin. First of all, equating eating meat with hating animals is first grade level reasoning. The world is filled with hunters who deeply respect and love the land and the animals they hunt and harvest. They show that respect by protecting the health of wildlife and wild land, doing their best to get a clean and efficient kill shot, using all of the animal they kill and supporting sustainable hunting practices. Of course, there are plenty of the other kind out there, lots of idiot trophy hunters and poachers who need a rack or a pelt in order to feel powerful. I don’t deny it. What I do say is that hunters are like everyone else — some are respectful and see themselves as part of the system we inhabit, and others operate strictly from power-over and see themselves as masters of the universe.
Photo by Greg Ortega on Unsplash
This also holds true for food producers. A small family farm hand raising meat with love, affection, attention, rotational grazing on healthy land and a good natural diet is a beautiful place. These people love their animals and the land. They also slaughter, butcher and eat their animals. They participate in, understand and respect every part of the cycle, from breeding to table.
To equate something like that with the nightmare of some modern mass meat production is simply ridiculous. If you want to see cruelty to animals, all you have to do is whisper “profit” into the ear of a corporation. Big Oil, the cosmetic industry and the fashion industry are just a short list of entities who have done plenty to destroy animals and habitat, and most people don’t care.
Incidentally, I’ve spent much of my life involved with animal rescue. I’m proud to say my mother is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met or heard of with animals and she’s largely given her life to making the world a better place for them, particularly horses and dogs, but by no means exclusively. This has all been volunteer work, done out of respect and love for the life in the world that can’t fight or speak for itself. She doesn’t see herself as better than. She sees herself as part of. The animals honor her with their presence and companionship, not the other way around.
So, yes, I eat meat with great enjoyment, AND yes, I love animals. I’m not limited by an inability to dwell in the sacred and powerful duality of life and death.
Bigger than all of this, however, is the guilt aspect, the real heart of this post. A vegan asks, “What do you do with your guilt about eating dead animals?”
For me, this question is much bigger than an issue of diet. The question reflects just how far we’ve strayed from wisdom, health and sanity in this culture.
When did we become amputated from our rightful place in the complex, miraculous web of life around us? What are the roots of the tragic and fatal arrogance that makes us believe we’re in control of life and death in our complex system? At what point did we become estranged from aging, loss, death and decay, which is to say HALF the full, powerful cycle of life?
Life is death. Death is life. Neither has meaning without the other. Both are essential. All life feeds on death. When we walk in the forest we’re walking on death. The whole natural world is based on prey and predator, eaten and eater. What does a tree do about its guilt as it feeds off and roots in the bodies of its companions? What does an eagle do with its guilt when it takes a salmon? What does a lion do with its guilt when it runs down a gazelle?
The guilt in that question is a projection. I don’t have any guilt about eating meat, and I think it’s tragic that anyone has guilt about the necessity to eat. If you pull up a carrot and eat it, you kill it. Every bite of food we put in our mouths is possible because of death. We exist as part of a vital, dynamic and inestimably beautiful and precious system that ebbs and flows, dances, fluctuates, cycles and revolves around life and death. We can choose to act as a unique and valuable part of that system by using only what we need, nurturing and learning from the life around us, and joyfully participating in all the ongoing life-death-life-death cycles around and within us, or we can choose to deny, destroy, and/or desperately try to control life and death, which is a completely fruitless (no pun intended) endeavor. We, thank God, are not that powerful.
The seasons will cycle. New life will be born in the midst of death. The green world will reseed itself, sprout, grow, bloom, fruit and die. The microscopic world and fungi will continue to break death into a rich placenta that sustains the next generation of life. Life is an incredible privilege. Death is part of that privilege. Nurturing life and allowing to die what must is part of what it means to me to be a woman.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to my country, the climate, or the planet. I’m afraid for us all, and the world we call home. What I do count on is the mighty cycle of life and death. All things change. All things move and flow. Nothing ever stays the same. All our fear and desperation, our greed and selfishness can’t change life and death.
Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash
What I can do is figure out how to best support my body with food. Then, I can make choices about how I procure the food I eat — to some degree. I don’t have the means right now to grow my own meat. However, I can and do buy eggs from a neighbor farmer, driving very carefully into the yard so as not to run over her free-range chickens and ducks. I can take the time to relish and appreciate opening a many-times recycled egg carton and looking at a whole variety of shaped, sized and colored eggs, mixed with occasional bits of straw and feather fluff. I can save money so I can buy a half an animal in the fall from a local small farmer to put in the freezer. I can buy fresh local yogurt, butter, cream and cheese from the farmer’s market.
It seems to me our energy should be going into making sure everyone has adequate food and clean water, and that we treat our food sources, whether animal or plant, and the system within which they grow (you know, the planet? Earth?) with love, intelligence and respect. We all can do something about food. Those among us who are doing the hard and unprofitable (financially) work of growing food on small farms may well hold the keys to our future survival. What they know about permaculture, holistic environments, food forests, sustainability, breeding, planting, harvesting and slaughtering is truly the wisdom of life.
Which is to say the wisdom of death.
Which is to say, again, the wisdom of life.
See the fourth post in this series here. Check my Resources page for links to information about diet and nutrition.