Last year, I experimented with a vegetarian diet for six weeks, just to try it. I have no ethical problem with eating animals; my foray was inspired by a desire to eat more healthily as much as by a curiosity of how difficult it would be. I abstained from beef, poultry, pork, eggs, fish, and even foods containing animal broth — I wanted to make sure no animals died as a direct result of my diet. It was not nearly so difficult as I anticipated, since there are plenty of tasty substitutes for animal meat available these days.
An unexpected side effect was that I started paying attention (for awhile, anyway) to the fact that I was taking an animal’s life when I ate meat. This is not intuitive for Americans. Our food is highly processed, and we are psychologically removed from that fact by the very design of our advertising. Not all cultures suffer this indifference, though. For instance, before eating a meal in Japan, one usually says “Itadakimasu” (いただきます for Hiragana readers). Literally, it means “I will receive,” but it is understood that what will be received is two-fold: On the one hand, you are receiving a meal from a host who has prepared it. On the other, you are receiving nourishment from an animal that has given its life, or spirit.
I was reminded of this on Saturday night, when I had the opportunity to see Disney’s new nature documentary, Oceans. Several scenes feature our oceans’ complex food chains. Gargantuan Blue Whales swallow tiny Krill by the thousands. Bigger fish eat smaller fish, and smaller fish eat plants or even smaller fish.
Watching a Dolphin chase down a Tuna was not particularly disturbing to me. I noticed something, though: witnessing a Great White Shark hunt a Sea Lion was uncomfortable… and eating popcorn as baby sea turtles were carried off and eaten by seagulls just felt wrong. What’s the reason for this disparity?
Maybe seeing lots of animals die at one time keeps me from viewing them as individuals and making a connection. Perhaps it’s more difficult to identify with a fish than with a mammal. Definitely, it seems unfair that baby Turtles don’t even make it to the water before they’re subjected to the maw of a hungry
sky rat Seagull.
It seems that I pick favorites (unconsciously) among animals based solely on how I can identify with them, and that thought is disturbing. However, it is symptomatic of a much more serious problem if it also describes how I relate to my fellow humans.
A close friend of mine shared with me recently that she looks at how humans value one another in terms of fractions. For instance, I might look at the guy who sells me a burrito at Taco Bell as 1/4 of a person. He is only valuable to me insofar as he will hand me the food that I request. I might feel superior to him if I think I am paid more for my job or if I think it requires more expertise to perform. Maybe I wouldn’t take much effort in being polite to him or considering how his day has been. On the other hand, I might treat a good looking celebrity as 7/4 of a person if she needed something from me. Perhaps I would listen carefully to everything she said in hopes of making her happy.
If we don’t automatically identify with someone because they are like us or because they can fill some need of ours, we have a tendency to treat them as less of a person and to be less concerned with their needs.
As it is in the ocean, so it is in life. Everyone suffers and is subject to the merciless nature of this world. Young children, the old and sick, the good looking and the undesirable will experience pain, loss, and death. Some go before they ever have a chance to build up their defenses, and parents are not there to provide protection. Some are hunted down in the prime of their lives by a calculated and merciless enemy. Some find themselves dying alone and friendless when age has taken a toll on their bodies.
It’s easy for me to have more sympathy for children, or good-looking people, or those who it seems are making some sort of contribution to society. That thought worries me, and more so because I don’t feel like it’s one I have consciously developed. Perhaps if I notice this in myself, others may be in that situation, too.
For those of us who follow Jesus of Nazareth, we are called to a different Way:
As Jesus was approaching Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the road begging. Now hearing a crowd going by, he began to inquire what this was. They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he called out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way were sternly telling him to be quiet; but he kept crying out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and commanded that he be brought to Him; and when he came near, He questioned him, “What do you want Me to do for you?” And he said, “Lord, I want to regain my sight!” And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him, glorifying God; and when all the people saw it, they gave praise to God.
My friend who talked about fractions said she thought Jesus never viewed people that way. Everyone else tells the blind and the hurting and the forgotten to be quiet and to leave Jesus alone, but He looks at things differently. As His followers, should we not try and do the same?
In the end, we still live in a dog-eat-dog world. People are going to suffer and get knocked down by the world… but if every follower of Jesus tries a little more to love the unloved and to treat them like Jesus would, the ocean will become a little less scary.