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“Would never eat another living being,” said the man.

 

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“What’s that in your salad?” I asked.
“Carrot.”
My brow flexed.
“A carrot isn’t a being. It’s not alive,” he said, stabbing it harder with his fork as if to prove his point.
“It was very much alive at some point. Carrot’s a living being.” There was probably the trace of a grin in the edges of my mouth.
“No.”
“You’re telling me it was always dead? How did it ever grow?”
No.

The conversation ended. I didn’t want to press my luck. He might have poured the remains of his carrot-corpse salad all over me there in the restaurant. Anyway, I don’t like to upset people that much.  . . most of the time.

* * * * * * *

This morning I had two eggs for breakfast.

They were lovely things: robust, full-bodied, curvaceous, brown-shelled things. I bought them at Trader Joe’s in some sudden fit of scruples. The carton said “free range organic.”

I’ve long refused to buy organic food. To me, eating organic has seemed just an expensive way to die slowly, or perhaps more quickly, or perhaps at the same rate. There’s little science to suggest organics do much more on the individual level than just empty one’s bank account. I’ve had another reason to avoid organics: eating more-expensive organic foods in the interest of better health is saying “Hey poor people! Yeah, you! You can just die, ok? Thanks. Bye.” I’m enough of an egalitarian to find this — if not reprehensible — than at least somewhat creepy.

But I have a nine-year-old boy, and lately he’s been asking about things like bovine growth hormones and factory farms. He loves animals. The more I think about the prospect of ever taking him to a farm to see how sausage is made (almost literally), the more qualms I’ve had about what he and I eat.

So I bought the free-range eggs, thinking I was endorsing some more humane way of relating to this natural world that sustains us. I pictured happy chickens clucking and pecking here and there in the green, green grass, feeling a cool breeze wafting through their feathers, blissfully ignorant of the life of the typical factory-raised chicken isolated in a dark cage.

But, see —  when you’re a chicken, life just plain sucks. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re stuck in an overheated barn — your corpulent body pumped full of anitbiotics and hormones until you’re so fat you can’t even lift yourself  — or crammed at a rate of 1000 hens per acre of open space; your beak cut off so you can’t damage the other hens. Chicken-life is nasty, brutish, and short. Especially if you happen to be male — in which case your life gets snubbed out just after you hatch.

The egg means life. But our world also ensures the egg means death — for someone or something. There seems to be no way around it: We kill to live.

* * * * * *

Did you know we humans share 50% of our DNA with bananas? I can’t say I see much of a resemblance on the surface. But the fact that the banana is the fruit of a living organism is enough, in a way.

One could say the banana is life. It’s a potential life I need to snuff out in order to make banana bread. The modern process of getting that banana into my hands means thousands of other organisms — some of them animals — need to die. I need to be OK with this. I need to be OK with slaughter if I am to consciously make that loaf of banana bread, or add some zest to my bowl of corn flakes. I also need to be OK with all of the human exploitation and murder it took to cultivate, harvest, and transport those bananas to my corner store.

Every day, we humans need to submit to one, chilling fact: we kill other living beings so we are able to live, and to live well.

And some of us even know it.

* * * * * * *

Saying grace before meals has fallen out of favor lately. I admit I’ve rarely done it myself. It seems like an empty ritual to most of us. Thanking a deity we don’t really believe in for the food that says “Del Monte” or “Oscar Meyer” on it became tedious and silly in our minds at some point. That’s a shame, really.

Saying grace is an admission that we can’t make it alone. We exist only thanks to the sacrifice of other lives. We look down at the table and realize we’ve taken the lives of chickens, cows, pigs, fish, and the countless insects that might spoil our experience of their flesh. We’ve taken the lives of carrots, lettuce, beets, potatoes. In some ways, we’re not that different from any of those living things. We’re 50% banana, after all. Saying grace is a way of consciously stating our dependence: “We really don’t deserve this, but thanks for letting us slide for yet another day, and we hope for a repeat tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. We thank and honor the beings that sustain us. We thank Being, itself. Thanks.”

It’s a statement of humility.

* * * * * * * *

We’ve come a long way. But maybe not so far.

The more I think of how necessary it was to have taken life throughout history for us to have gotten this far, the more solemn life itself seems. The more I think about the endless, raw necessity of killing to live — even if we’re able to pay others to isolate us from the act — the more I understand the ways of past. I’ve started to see what others mean when they say tragedy itself is nothing more than waste in the universe, and how sin comes from thinking we are sufficient in ourselves. Many well-meaning and ethical people will say by applying reason and ethics, they can float through life in a state of total innocence — without killing another being. But it’s no use. It’s going to happen.

The best we can do is to consciously try to honor the infinite sacrifices that allow us to live.

 

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