Today a book I’ve been excited to read came in the mail: Barbara J. King’s Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat. I learned of it from Facebook, which everyone loves to hate but where I learn so much. A friend shared a post from the Nonhuman Rights Project which mentioned the book, and I knew it was something I wanted to read.
I started reading this morning, and I am not disappointed! Barbara King explores through the lens of science the same issue that energizes my own explorations through the lens of religion and, in particular, the Hebrew Bible. The issue that draws us both is what she calls “the invisible toggle switch” in our minds, our “peculiar duality” in relation to other animals, animals we admire in one moment and consume the next.
From my perspective, food is the root of every religious impulse. It is through eating that we confront the central paradox of life, that it requires taking life to sustain life. The choices we make define us as human beings and form the substance of religions. Religions provide a framework for confronting this paradox and practices that guide us through it. To the extent that we maintain our “peculiar duality” with respect to eating fellow creatures, we dwell in the land of unconscious living.
My current biblical studies project suggests to me that the profound direction of the Torah, the basis of its myth, ritual and ethical legislation, is toward living consciously. If we take its message seriously, each time we act impulsively, without intention, unconsciously, we are not fully human, we do not fulfill our mission as human beings, and we are an affront to creation.
I don’t say that judgmentally. I’m one of the most absent-minded people around. It is my work in life to become more fully conscious, to be “awake,” as my son calls it, aware. I have at least three opportunities a day to focus my attention, to work on becoming more fully conscious, and that is when I eat my daily meals. It is through this work that I can become more aware in other parts of my life.
In the Introduction to her book, Barbara King states this as her purpose: “The need for clear-eyed seeing is the central message I want to bring forth in the pages to come: it takes effort, and it pays off, to see the animals we designate as our food. Even as we bring them to our family tables and our restaurants in their anonymous billions, other animals sense, and sometimes suffer; learn, and sometimes love; think, and sometimes reflect. Their lives matter to them, and they should matter to us too.”
Although I am on the path toward veganism, it is not a symbiotic relationship with our fellow creatures that I see as the symbol par excellence of our ethical morass today. It is the billions of animals bred for slaughter in our names and for our use. We have no connection to these creatures. They are anonymous. We take no responsibility for their lives or for their deaths. We take no moments for either gratitude or atonement. Our pleasure in the moment is our only value as we eat. The “toggle switch” in our lives works very well, and when it does, we are not fully human.
I look forward to reading this book and learning the science of thought, emotion and social behaviors of animals we eat. I look forward to knowing “who is on our plates.” I expect I will weep as I contemplate the reality of the world we have built for ourselves.
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