Originally this post started with my reaction to the Trump phenomenon. I’m revising it because that phenomenon is just the latest expression of a deep-seated trend in American history and culture, in fact in all of human culture.
I’m not adding an image to this post because I couldn’t find one that adequately expressed what I want to say. The image in my head is the Garden of Eden, a vision in which creation lives in harmony. That world was vegetarian, and no part of it was devalued in relation to another part. All the images I found either didn’t include human beings or, if they did include human beings, they were white only.
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Words have power. The vocabulary of bigotry and devaluation and exclusion eventually leads to violence.
Symbols have power as well. Images have power. Rituals have power. All of these are non-verbal expressions of ideas.
Those of us who hope for a just and compassionate society must increase our sensitivity to the impact of words, symbols, imagery and rituals and how they are understood and expressed in society. A first step toward stemming the tide of disrespect and violence in our world is stemming the tide of negative words and imagery by opposing it with positive words and imagery.
A starting place for me to begin to understand the origins of violence in our world and to oppose it is with food.
Food does more than nourish me. It is a central part of my personal symbolism. I express myself with the food that I make and eat and share with others.
Usually my food talks about good health and love and caring. Today my food needs to say something else. It needs to say, people of the world, unite against lack of compassion, hatred and violence. Recognize the seeds of it everywhere. Those seeds are hardly restricted to one group emanating from the Middle East.
I want to put out a challenge. I would like to invite all of us to commit to sitting down, once a week, with at least one other person with whom we can share our meal. Let’s make that meal vegan, and let’s be certain that either we grow and prepare every item on our plates, or we purchase Fair Trade, sustainably produced raw ingredients to prepare the meal. In fact, extend the process to everything on the table. The salt. The plates. The napkins. Find out what was involved in getting each item to your table.
Perhaps the near impossibility of fulfilling this requirement will serve to make us aware of the pervasiveness of thoughtless violence that implicates us all, the thoughtless violence that underpins massive cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, gender and species-directed violence.
This meal will be our regular weekly time to reflect on this violence that threatens to engulf creation, violence against animals “produced” on an impossibly massive scale just for slaughter, violence against our environment, and violence against our fellow human beings in so many ways and at so many levels.
For some of us, this reflection may lead to further social action. For others, the communal reflection is an action in itself. The power of one sensitized person is far greater than the power of one radicalized individual.
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.
A brain is an interesting thing. I was just thinking about brains the other day. My thought process began this way:
I took a walk with my husband. Along the way, we saw a dead rabbit in an area where we had seen a feral cat the evening before. His reaction reminded me of times we had watched nature movies together. If one animal hunted another to kill it, he turned off the TV. Of course, I don’t like to see animals killed or hurt, but I wondered about his reaction. I said, “It’s natural. It’s just the way life works. It’s designed that way.” He said, “It’s a stupid design.”
That generated something of a paradigm shift for me. It’s the way nature works: it’s always been that way. I never questioned it. Whether or not there is divine intention behind it, sustaining life requires taking life, at least in this universe, even if it’s “just a plant.”
So my next thought was, what went through the mind of the first person who ate an animal? I mean, it had to start somewhere, right? How did a human being see a living creature and think, “Yum, that would be good to eat?”
Which brings me to brains. I did a little research about my questions. While I never got an answer to them, who first ate meat, and what went through their minds, I did read that the fact that human beings ate meat had a great deal to do with their larger brains.
One thing I know for sure: what was going through the first meat-eater’s mind wasn’t, oh, this will give me a bigger brain. The fact that someone back there ate meat had nothing to do with intelligence originating from their brains.
Yet we value our brains, right? If there is one thing we believe explains our great success in terms of survival and even dominance over creation, it is our brains. Our brains place us above the rest of creation, “only a little lower than the angels and crowned . . . with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5) We are the masters of creation because of our brains. Or are we?
Does it really make a difference that our physical brains are larger than other creatures? Or even that we have a brain at all? Does the presence of a brain make us more intelligent than other life forms with which we share our world? Are only human beings with big brains capable of intelligent reactions to their surroundings?
Some science suggests not. In “The Intelligent Plant,” an article in The New Yorker (Dec. 23, 2013), Michael Pollan presents findings that plants exhibit reactions to their environment like alarm and demonstrate intelligence related to their own survival. Plants engage in group behaviors aimed at protecting the community. They recognize “kinship” bonds. They adapt to their environment and manipulate it.
The new (and tendentious) field of plant neurobiology presents us with the idea that “it is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success. Plants dominate every terrestrial environment, composing ninety-nine per cent of the biomass on earth. By comparison, humans and all the other animals are, in the words of one plant neurobiologist, ‘just traces.'”
Pollan adds, “Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable.” Organs that cannot be regenerated, including brains, are not an asset for plants.
The article was fascinating, but even more fascinating than the article was the reaction of some scientists to the findings of their colleagues. A lack of willingness to contemplate the possibility of intelligence among plants hardly communicates the intensity of the reaction among some.
Admittedly, the thought that animals possess intelligence and react to their environment, experience pain, fear and love and react to immanent death, is a paradigm shift still in progress. It is not as unthinkable, apparently, as the idea that plants might have intelligence and reactions to their environment. And these ideas do present some problems, not the least of these, what can we eat?
If we contemplate for a moment that brain size, or even the presence of a brain, does not make us superior beings, where do we get the authority to kill and eat anything? Finally we come face to face with the central moral paradox of our existence here on earth, that it requires taking life to sustain life.
As we journey through our lives, we both eat and nourish, destroy and enrich. Our gift and our burden as human beings is that we can make conscious decisions about the balance of eating and nourishing, taking and giving.
At the very least, plant neurobiology may induce us to pause and reflect on the source of each and every bite of food and the wonder of creation. Perhaps it will serve as the ultimate test for human beings to learn to respect and honor “otherness,” something for which we have limited skill, even among our own kind.
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.
As many of you know, I have been interested in health and particularly in good eating for most of my adult life, ever since my grandmother died of colon cancer in 1969. During those years, I’ve watched a lot of fads come and go. I’ve avoided most of them, have tried a few and have stayed with those that made sense and produced results for me.
You probably also know I’m not a scientist (a Ph.D. in psychology who used me as a guinea pig to take tests she needed to administer as part of her degree program told me my personality and aptitude results were the most skewed she had ever seen, toward religion and the arts). I’m not a certified practitioner of any kind. I just read a lot and think a lot and try things on myself and try to stay in the realm of good sense with a dose of realism.
In my last post, I mentioned a 9-part series on cancer I’ve been watching. The first four segments were interesting and contained enough pieces of information I know are true that it persuaded me to continue listening. The fifth segment went a little over the edge for me, comparing our position on vaccination in this country to Nazi experiments in the concentration camps. Huge red flag.
I’m still listening, picking out what’s useful and interesting and leaving the rest. It did inspire me to write this post, though. Following are the five things I believe are true about health at this point in my life at the grand old age of almost 67. Some things have shifted as recently as during the last few months, one during the last couple of weeks:
Reject black-and-white ideas about health. Reject “super foods” and “demon foods.” Suspect anything that comes from a mentality of conspiracy theories and paranoia. The enemy on all sides of any argument, at least in this country, is much more likely to be opportunism, arrogance and thoughtless good intentions than evil intent, and there are bound to be a lot of gray areas. Be open, listen, consider what’s useful — but it won’t do a whole lot of good for your health and will cloud your judgment to start feeling persecuted.
Fiber. Found it 45 years ago and have relied on it ever since. It’s a pillar of my health program — but there’s a disclaimer here. I’m not talking about fiber supplements, and that brings me to my next point.
Eat real food. IMHO, eating real food, whole foods with all their parts, hopefully bypassing commercial food processing completely, is more important than buying organic, avoiding GMOs (if you’re into that), or any other “health food” practice for that matter. This includes juices: they are denatured fruits. Instead drink water and eat whole fruits. This includes bread, for the most part. Make your own with whole grains and little or no sugar.
Focus on plant foods, and all the slogans work for me here: “Eat the Rainbow,” “Nutrient density” (an equation that represents lots of nutrients in relation to the number of calories), “G-BOMBS” (drfuhrman.com – an acronym for an anti-cancer diet, which includes enjoying daily Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushroom, Berries and Seeds).
Eliminate added sweeteners of all kinds from your diet along with refined carbohydrates. This means, in effect, eliminate all commercial food products.
Calories count, but not the way I learned many years ago. This is a change in my thinking during the last week since I started watching the series on cancer. The best way to create an anti-cancer, healthy internal environment is to keep calories in the recommended range for your height and weight, but those calories need to be the kind of things mentioned in #4 above. Keep protein and starchy carbohydrates at a minimum and enjoy good fats, even saturated fats, especially if they are the fats contained naturally in foods like avocado, nuts and seeds. My diet contains fats way above the percent commonly put out there, 25-30%. It’s more like 50%. I believe this is fine, perhaps even good, as long as I stay within the recommended range of calorie consumption. I can do that by eating lots of high water content veggies.
Exercise is critical.This is another change in my thinking during the last few months. My focus has been on the metabolic aspects of good health, although I always exercised regularly. I liked individual sports and activities, and my own have included ice skating, gymnastics, swimming, running (not my favorite), yoga, biking, hiking and walking. As I got older, and obligations other than to myself started to fill my time, it was harder for me to maintain my exercise habits. I’ve tried to get started again since my work environment has changed, and my effort has highlighted dramatically how important exercise is. I got a pedometer, and most days I get in an hour of walking (split into segments) and hopefully 15-20 minutes of yoga-like stretching. During the winter I replace some walking with jumping on my mini-tramp. It’s not enough, and here’s why I say that: my work now is more sedentary than it has been for the last nine or ten years. Have you ever read the statistics on what happens to your body if you sit eight or more hours a day, even broken up with exercise? Google it. Scary.
Did you do that? Here’s my proof that those statistics don’t lie: I am experiencing it. After I eliminated added sugars and all processed foods from my diet about five years ago (I had eliminated most processed foods years ago), I lost 15 pounds and remained at a fixed weight, the weight that is right for me, year-in and year-out during those five years. My blood sugar level dropped to a happily normal 90, my cholesterol dropped and my HDL went up into the good range.
I haven’t changed anything in my diet in the last nine months since I left the food business (where I was on my feet and active all the time), but I’ve gained 3 pounds. I will venture a guess my next blood tests will show that my blood sugar levels are creeping up along with my cholesterol levels. And I have developed chronic pain in particular locations in my frame. You probably won’t realize how important exercise is when you’re working at a desk in your thirties and forties and fifties — but when you get into your sixties and older, you will experience the results of not doing enough.
I’ll end as I began, with a focus on worldview. Here’s one additional thing I have learned about good health: do whatever you need to do to keep yourself in a positive, hopeful frame of mind.
This may sound like blasphemy to some, but I’m not at all sure that we have a positive purpose and direction put in place for us on our behalf by a force outside ourselves. I choose to believe that we have a positive purpose and direction, and there are times when it’s hard to maintain that belief, to maintain my sense of joy and gratitude. I look for and do things that support me in that. Call them placebos or a crutch for the masses if you’re a serious skeptic, but studies show that 18-88% of people are helped by placebos. Worth thinking about.
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me onFaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.
I don’t come from a tradition that views money as the source of all evil. Money is useful. Money feeds people, saves people, builds and creates. Money can accomplish amazing things. It can also subvert a political system, corrupt our food supply, limit our medical options and destroy entire populations.
Kind of like the mantra we hear from the NRA, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Yeah, and money doesn’t kill people, people kill people.
But too many bad things are happening with guns in the U.S. And too many bad things are happening when a very few people have all the money in the U.S.
Well, it’s a big world, and the problems in it are complex and multi-faceted, and no single solution is going to solve our problems — but we have to start somewhere. Better regulation of guns and money seems like a good place to start. Or two of many places to start trying to correct our problems.
So one of the things I notice is that money is power. It gives people a bigger voice. Maybe they’ll use that voice to do something I agree with, something wonderful, something that benefits the world. But maybe they’ll use that voice to do something I don’t like at all or that is destructive. And if that money gives someone a bigger voice than me, or a bigger voice even than a majority of people, that’s not right. That’s not what democracy is about. One person, one vote.
Today I saw a couple of things on Facebook that started me thinking about how this money theme winds its way through my brain right now, impacting my food choices, lifestyle choices and politics.
1) The first is that picture at the top of this page. A friend who “liked” it commented she wondered why it’s so hard to find this place in life. I’m thinking it has something to do with the complications caused when money is the foundation of our existence in this culture — and by that, I’m not talking about having lots of money. I’m talking about having it, not having it or having some of it. It doesn’t matter — it’s not the money itself. It’s the fact that money is the basis of our values, it’s the engine that drives the machine in this country. It shapes our decisions. It can put us in situations we then have to spend all our time supporting. It can keep us up at night. It can distort how we see things. It can militate against simplicity, making our lives very complicated.
2) The second was a conversation surrounding a post on GMOs and Monsanto. On the theme of distortions, a professor of mine once said with regard to the Bible, the narrative is shaped by those who “won,” historically speaking. So applying that principle to the current state of our food supply mechanisms, I wonder if the narrative hasn’t been shaped by those who “win” in this culture, namely those who have money? Good research is expensive, and someone with dollars has to support it.
A blogger I like raised questions about some comments I made related to GMOs. And the comments are well-taken. But what occurs to me is that there is so much hype out there on all sides of any issue, so much research on all sides of any issue — that an ordinary person, someone who’s not a scholar in these areas and has other things that consume their time, could spend the rest of their life reading through it and still not find “the truth.” And back to money: there’s the question of who’s funding the research and making it public? For the most part, probably “mainstream” food operations who are making lots of money. That doesn’t make it bad, just one-sided.
The internet has changed the picture to an extent by democratizing our voices, but opinions or guesses or concerns aren’t the same as solid research, which brings a non-mainstream opinion back to the reality: money governs, to a large extent, the ability to do the research and disseminate it.
So the medical profession told us for years that butter and eggs will kill us and didn’t say a word about added sugars in foods and lack of fiber. Different information was out there — just not enough funded studies and not disseminated widely enough. And a strong sugar lobby that suppressed information. Now we have those with money going after a small company that is successfully selling an excellent vegan mayonnaise.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, not at all. But I do think money chooses what research will be done, what information will be put out there, spreads it far and wide, in short, has the capability to influence our view of things. I don’t have time to research everything, especially things not in my area of study, so what I see is what crosses my line of vision. What crosses my line of vision as far as good, solid research is more likely to be well-funded and widely marketed research. Or quick and easy posts to the internet that may not yet have research backing them.
3) Medicine brings me to the third thing, a video series I’m watching. I was born in 1948. I’m old enough to be the beneficiary of many years of unchallenged bias in favor of medicine rather than “healing.” I recognize in myself hesitation when someone starts to talk about the latter for prevention and treatment instead of conventional medicine. I’ve watched how difficult it has been to achieve recognition and legitimization for basic concepts like “integrative medicine,” the damage we have caused to ourselves with our food choices, the link between certain diseases and environmental factors including our food choices. It’s difficult to achieve recognition and legitimization for the role of meditation and faith in health. For the potential that naturopaths, eastern modalities, folk remedies, faith-healers, shamans, rituals and ceremonies, micro-nutrients and more may have something to offer in terms of healing. What are we so afraid of?
Why do we suppress ideas and approaches that don’t fit with one point of view? And invest quite a bit of money accomplishing that suppression, by the way. Why not spend the same money on doing and disseminating good research?
And that brings me to the third item I want to share on this topic. I came across a 9-part video series on cancer that drew my attention. I approached it with my usual ambivalence, favorably inclined toward health and healing but indoctrinated to view only conventional medicine as a “real” solution to this terrible disease. Plus I was looking for the sales pitch.
I haven’t yet come to the sales pitch for this series, and I have been fascinated with some information in it about how mainstream medicine came to be while alternative approaches were suppressed and made illegitimate. I can’t vouch for all the information in this series — I haven’t even viewed the whole series yet — but it accords with my personal belief that our bodies seek health and are capable of amazing healing. We just need to get out of their way. In that process, fear is our biggest enemy. There are also enough points that I know are true that it stimulates my interest in the rest.
Most importantly, the video series brings me hope. I’ve lost four people I care about to pancreatic cancer in the last three or four years. The common element was that all were told, there was nothing else to be done. No hope.
I believe there is hope, for pancreatic and other cancers. This video series gives a specific shape to my belief. That shape may change over time, as conventional medicine has, but I’m open to considering these possibilities and would like to see us putting money into learning more about them.
What if these things work in the ways people claim? Why shouldn’t they be covered by insurance, especially when conventional drugs on which people depend can get 5000-fold increases in price overnight? From the death rate for those affected by pancreatic cancer when treated by conventional medicine, which is covered by insurance, I’d say we don’t have much to lose by insuring alternatives. And the alternatives cost so much less because they rely on our natural ability to heal.
Why shouldn’t these possibilities be included in any discussion of options before we say, no hope?
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me onFaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.
Cecil the Lion. He’s everywhere on the Internet. I can’t bring myself to look at most of it. It’s something like what I felt in the years I was reading about the Holocaust. At some point, my reading threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to stop. I had to put a distance between myself and that story. I know it’s there. I know what happened. I just can’t come that close to it anymore and continue to live a productive life.
I first became vegetarian over 50 years ago. The reality of being the only vegetarian in my world through much of my life made it exceptionally difficult, and I went back and forth a number of times over the years. No more back and forth during the last twenty years.
There were many reasons for my vegetarianism, and I’ve written about some of them in my blog. The primary reason was that I felt it was moral cowardice and irresponsibility to purchase meat in plastic and styrofoam at the local grocery store. If I were going to eat meat, I should slaughter the animal myself, directly accepting responsibility for the life I was taking. That would never happen – because I don’t want to kill other creatures. Period. So why would I buy and eat the flesh of another creature just because the whole process happened out of sight?
My vegetarianism was based on a statement of Adelle Davis, that she eats only the products that animals give us without suffering. Turns out that in today’s world, there are not products animals give us without suffering. I started moving toward veganism a couple of years ago, and that is the basis of my comments about Cecil the Lion.
I’m finding this transition to veganism difficult, partly for health reasons, partly for social reasons and partly because I love cheese and eggs and am not a fan of substitute foods. I read a lot, and I experiment with cooking. I take every opportunity I can to make and share vegan foods with others so I can build a social network that still enjoys my food. I try to immerse myself in vegan culture online, because I know how acculturation works. For reasons I mentioned above, though, I keep some of the horrific pictures of animal suffering that some vegans post out of my view. I know it’s there. I don’t want to be overwhelmed.
One day when I was reading, I came to an ad about vegan boots. Vegan boots?! I read more as I thought about my new leather clogs, the first new shoes I’ve purchased in 10 years. I thought about the (two) leather belts in my closet.
But what I thought about most was that as thoughtful as I am about veganism, the whys, the wherefores, the hows of it, the fact that I wear leather shoes simply escaped my attention. I didn’t think about that.
Since then, I have thought a lot about that disconnect. It occurs to me that we all have a tendency to disconnect. The places where each of us disconnects are different, but it’s there. Sometimes it’s a conscious disconnect, as I did from the stories of Cecil. Most of the time it’s unconscious, like me believing whole-heartedly in the importance and necessity of veganism in today’s world yet wearing leather shoes.
I’ve debated what to do with those new shoes, the first in ten years. I considered giving them away and buying some vegan boots. There is a principle in my religion of not wasting the fruits of the earth. I decided that since I already have them, I will wear them for another ten years until they wear out. They will be a testament to my human imperfections and contradictions and will keep me humble.
I continue to think about why I had that disconnect. I mentioned acculturation. I was born into and grew up in a world where the norm was to use animals for our purposes. It was sanctioned by religions, although if you read between the lines of the Bible, which is the religious literature I know best, you will see that even animal sacrifice is in part expiation for fellow creature-killing. Rabbinic commentaries suggest meat-eating was permitted after the flood as a channel for human violence. But the fact is, it is permitted, and it was a normal (and pretty much unexamined) part of every day life.
I was also born into a suburban world, a world where most of us, at least in this country, were no longer farmers and were no longer directly connected to the cycle of life and death that results from being closer to nature or living in rural, farming environments. We got our food from the local grocery store, already neatly packaged and separated from its source. Culturally we had no awareness of sources, not for food, not for clothing and not for much of anything else we used. Remember, I’m talking more than half a century ago.
And things changed so dramatically over the last half century. Grocery stores are huge compared to what they were. Fast food and cheap clothing is what we expect. And the source of those products has changed so dramatically. Factory farms have entered the landscape. Our numbers have increased, but so have our appetites. Everything became mechanized while we weren’t watching. And our separation from the issues of survival and the process of life and death is total, with devastating effects to our spiritual state and our emotional state.
It’s hard work to reconnect. It’s step-by-step work, work I feel I need to do — but I also don’t want to get overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, the suffering and pain we endure and the suffering and pain we inflict.
Maybe some moral isolation is a necessity to live productive lives. Incidents like killing Cecil the Lion remind us, though, that it’s a luxury we can’t afford. It’s not enough to condemn the action of a man who killed a beautiful creature for “sport.”
Concerned people have heard the stories and seen the pictures of what allegedly goes on at factory farms. I wrote a post titled “5 Reasons Vegans Shouldn’t Publish Disturbing Animal Pictures.” These pictures are just too disturbing, and I wonder what they accomplish.
Can we live in a world like this and not become morally immune? I did. I didn’t notice my shoes.
A friend of mine, Pauline Yearwood from Chicago Jewish News, shared this comment on FaceBook, and it seems appropriate:
From Gary L. Francione, The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights
If you are upset about the killing of Cecil the Lion and you are not a vegan, then you are suffering from moral schizophrenia. There is no difference between Cecil and all of the animals you eat who value their lives as much as the lion valued his.
I have been a moral schizophrenic in my life, and to an extent, I probably will always be one. But for my own spiritual health and for the health of the planet, I will work every day to be less of one.
A friend asked me to “Like” a FaceBook page recently (Run for Lisa King), and when I arrived at the page, I found a story that I wanted to tell, a story about depression and suicide, a quiet story that affects so many so deeply and in such unquiet ways.
It is part of my story and the story of my family, and it is part of the story behind the page I liked and hope you will like. I admire Philip’s effort and am inspired by it. Please support his campaign. I will follow his story in this post with my own.
Philip King’s Story
Run for Lisa King A personal campaign sponsored by Philip King March 28, 2016 — October 5, 2016
On January 8th, 2014 I lost my mother, Lisa King, to suicide. A few months later I lost a great friend In a similar situation. Dealing with those losses has been difficult, and as usual, I turned to running to help get through the hard times.
A couple months ago, I decided that I wanted to find a way where running all those miles could help somebody other than myself.
Next year I plan to run across the country on the northern portion of the American Discovery Trail from Delaware to California to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention. The trail covers 4,803 miles, and my goal is to average about 180 miles a week. I will leave on March 28th, 2016 and hope to finish by October 5th.
Help us complete this journey by visiting my donor page. You can read more about us on FaceBook, www.facebook.com/runforlisaking.
Many years after the life experience I will share below, I thought that part of the difficulty was that I had no idea what was happening with me or what I could do about it and thought the way I felt might just be the way it would be for the rest of my life.
I wondered if I might have found help more quickly if depression and suicide hadn’t been such a “quiet” story. Yet 45 years later, it remains quiet. The media and public consciousness are filled with news about the things that can kill us and undermine our health. Not so much about depression and suicide.
I believe it’s important for people to share their stories. Despite my belief, I have shared my story with very few and would like to do that now.
In 1967, as a freshman in college, I struggled with my first depression, an event that occurred each year for the next five years until the birth of my first son in 1972. These experiences usually lasted at least four or five terrifying months, beginning just after Christmas and extending until summer. As anyone knows who has experienced an episode of severe depression, it can be very difficult to explain to others who haven’t “been there.”
I’m not short of possibilities for what the roots of these depressions may have been: S.A.D., hormones, genetic predisposition, extreme family instability, a beloved grandmother to whom I always looked for refuge and anchoring and who was in a long battle with cancer that she lost in 1969, the instability of changing relationships that are usually a normal part of the dating years, leaving home for a college far away (not the right thing for everyone), lack of a community network, lack of a faith community or community of any sort with common values and a sense of mission, poor diet, lack of appropriate and regular exercise, depressing music, pot, alcohol . . . and it was the sixties. It seemed as though the world was disintegrating.
The decisive moment of my depression came in 1970. I was out in a field on a night I had been in a car accident. I’m pretty sure the sky was filled with stars, but that’s not how I experienced it. I was overwhelmed with a physical sense of the blackness and emptiness of the universe and felt totally alone in it, although I wasn’t alone, even at that moment. I was absolutely certain I was going to die if I moved or left that place, although nothing in my physical condition suggested that was a possibility. That’s why I say it’s difficult to communicate to another person what you’re experiencing because it’s so out of synch with their reality.
That night I understood something. I understood that the ultimate question and answer are very simple. The ultimate question is “Do you choose life?” And the answer is either “yes,” or “no.” They got that many, many centuries ago: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live . . . “ (Deut. 30:19)
I realized that I was on a self-destructive course, sliding toward suicide, and I decided that I needed to make my decision: I had to decide if my answer was yes or no, and if no, end it — and if yes, change course.
Perhaps it didn’t need to be that stark, an either-or equation. Perhaps a professional advising me would have said it’s good to recognize the question but postpone action because perceptions change. The professional wasn’t there, and that’s not what I felt to be true.
At that moment in my universe, I saw nothing that required either choice from me, that supported me or provided me with a reason that I could perceive or hold onto, to choose life. I’m not sure why I did. Perhaps I had a faith that I wasn’t able to recognize at that moment. Perhaps it was just an innate desire to live, whether or not I could see any reason for it. But the choice I made that evening was yes, and for the next three years, I struggled to find the kind of equilibrium that would allow me to live a constructive life, to overcome the yearly terror that this time, I might not make it.
Whatever the reason for my choice, I was fortunate. Others come to that moment and are not so fortunate. When you are unable, for whatever reason, to grasp and hold onto a reason for a “yes” decision, it is a profoundly dangerous moment. Not everyone makes it past that moment.
I admit, many of my decisions for years were driven by the fear of returning to that place. Eventually I did have help and support, but many of the most important steps I took away from depression and suicidal urges were steps I discovered and took on my own. That is the story I want to share here, what I learned on my own about finding emotional stability and living a constructive life. I think you will see why I find Philip King’s story so meaningful.
What I learned about depression
What I learned . . . is just what I learned, no more and no less. It’s how I came to understand the experience with depression I had so many years ago. What I want to say may correlate to some medical information only accidentally, and it’s not meant to be a guide for anyone else. In sharing experiences with each other, though, we may find commonality, and there may be some part of what I know for myself that is useful to others.
A couple of years ago, another family member experienced a depressive episode, ultimately diagnosed as a “panic attack.” The knowledge of what it feels like to be in that space never leaves you. That doesn’t mean, though, that what worked for you will work for another. Each person’s path is their own, and as painful and even frightening as it may be to see a loved one suffering, all you can do is be there. Perhaps you will have an opportunity to offer suggestions from your own experience that are useful, but in the moment of choice, the decision is theirs. If their answer is “yes,” the path back that they find is also uniquely theirs.
I didn’t even realize I was doing most of these things during the years they counted, now 45 years ago. It was later reflection that helped me understand how I had somehow managed to help myself.
12 things I did to banish depression
Today you would never imagine that I am the person I just described of forty years ago. I am happy, even joyful in my life. It is possible to get there, I can promise that.
Get past that moment – somehow. If you don’t make it past that moment or moments, the rest of what follows isn’t worth much. It is possible to get to a different place, a place where you can experience joy and meaning. Take the word of others when you can’t provide it for yourself.
Love isn’t always enough – have a backup. I knew my parents and others loved me. Everyone has their own life, though, and for me, there was a particular set of conditions that demanded the attention of people I loved and left me feeling as though the enormous emotions that were overwhelming me just didn’t matter. Even if people who love you do hear you and are able to let you know you matter, no other person can be present at every moment of your life, moments that may include that awesome moment of decision. I needed backup support but wasn’t sure what or where to get it.
Do some simple homework on foods that contribute to mental and spiritual health, and be careful about what you eat and drink. We learn more about nutrition every day. Eating the right foods and drinking the right beverages can make a difference. I didn’t have that information in those early years. At a later time when I wanted to get off antidepressants that I took for two years, I pumped up my nutritional awareness and exercised caution and was able to discontinue the meds with no difficulty.
Exercise every day, preferably outdoors. Now we know that exercise increases the production of serotonin, associated with well-being. Then I just knew I felt better when I took a walk or went running or biking along the lake.
When you’re outdoors each day, no matter for how short a time, look up. I heard Deepak Chopra say this once. It works. It works especially well for me to lie on my back in the grass and watch clouds drift by overhead.
Be engaged in your own survival and the natural cycle of death and rebirth. Most of us have little involvement in our own survival and are far away from natural processes. We don’t grow or prepare our own food or drinks, and most of us are so disconnected from their sources that kids can’t recognize common raw food items and know where they come from. We are sheltered and alienated from the process of life and death, including our own. I don’t mean to suggest that you go on a wild boar hunt. I found it meaningful to have an organic garden or forage for food, dig in the dirt, have a compost heap, and to make my own yogurt and cheese and bread and pickles. Cooking real food with the products of the earth satisfies me deeply, and probably one of the reasons I love it so much is that it is a way I can be involved in my own and my family’s survival.
Use structure as a tool. It can substitute temporarily for meaning and helps build it. I stumbled on the value of structure. The year I was in the accident and found myself in that field, I had dropped out of school. I was always a top-level student, but in my sophomore year of college, I was simply unable to concentrate, and my grades started dropping precipitously. Although I may have done the right thing for my grades and for financial practicality, I did exactly the wrong thing for my emotional stability in dropping out of school and leaving town. I had no structure in my life. When I returned to town, I joined the YMCA and started swimming a couple of miles early each morning. The exercise provided benefit, but more than the exercise, going out to the pool structured my day and provided more benefit. As I came to understand that, I added more structure to my day. Later, in the course of my academic career, as I studied religious literature, I saw that the structure of a text contributed as much as the actual content to meaning. Initially I didn’t perceive meaning, but the elements of structure in my life helped calm my soul. Eventually those same structures allowed me to see and experience meaning again.
Be part of a meaningful community, even several communities: family, work, faith, groups whose values you share. Community. Others have said it. It’s not new information. I had never gotten very involved in school or community activities. Since we moved a lot when I was growing up, I never integrated deeply into any community and hadn’t developed the skills to maneuver through communities, to enter them and exit them. Although I was involved in sports, it was an individual endeavor for me. I wasn’t part of a team and didn’t make friends through that avenue. I simply didn’t have a community network that could sustain me or give me a sense of balance and belonging when family failed.
Maintain a spiritual practice. Choose a practice that points in a positive direction. Mine is Judaism. I like it because it provides a structured guide to living, a guide based on the deeply hopeful and optimistic premise that we can make the world better. In practicing according to that guide, I came to see things differently. Sitting around waiting for it to happen just didn’t work for me.
Reach out to help others in some way. “Tzedakah saves from death.” (Prov. 10:2 and quoted in the Talmud). Tzedakah means righteousness, giving to others. I have always understood this verse to mean that when we reach out to help others, when we connect with them in their need, we affirm life and our common humanity. We participate in something greater than ourselves. I don’t know what the psychological or body chemistry explanation might be for why this works to elevate mood and generate a sense of well-being, but it worked for me. I wonder if this is why biblical law requires each person, no matter how poor, to contribute. I believe it expresses an intuitive understanding that reaching out to others is life-saving for all of us, no matter how much or how little we have.
Find meaningful work. As I got involved in work that felt meaningful to me, my equilibrium improved. Now, at an age when many of my friends are beginning to retire, I can’t imagine not working. I don’t need to make more money than what’s required to pay basic bills, and if I didn’t need to pay basic bills, the money wouldn’t be the relevant part of work. It’s just a matter of using what I have to offer in constructive, world-building ways, even if it’s a drop of water in a vast ocean. It all counts. Like giving, work is life-saving for all of us, no matter how much or how little we are able to do.
Set goals you can work toward. It’s probably also a good idea to set goals you can hope to achieve, and when you do achieve them, set more goals. The point is to keep a forward-looking worldview and feel that you are a necessary part of tomorrow. You are.
As you read what helped me work my way out of depression, I think you can understand why I admire Phil King’s effort so much.
Phil’s lengthy run is a goal he set for himself, and it has a positive, world-building purpose that is greater than himself. He created a structure for his life and his project that will carry him through the better part of a year. In first creating, then living with that structure, he will have an opportunity to rebuild his own worldview after devastating loss. His run will work in some ways like a spiritual practice.
I believe Phil has found a creative, meaningful, life-affirming way to respond to the tragedy of suicide and to share his story with many others, who may also find meaning in the path he has found.
I hope you will support Phil King’s Run for Lisa King project and help him give a face and a voice to the quiet devastation of depression and suicide.
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.
Next spring, 2016, I will teach a class in the Retired Adult Program (RAP) at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Illinois. I’m working out a course outline and would like to share it with you, my followers, and invite your comments.
Eventually I hope to prepare videos to accompany sessions and perhaps combine theory with a little cooking practice. I envision the six sessions working together but would also like each session to stand more or less on its own:
WAYS TO THINK ABOUT FOOD: CONSCIOUS CHOICES
This six-session class will view food choices through different prisms. In the course of these six sessions, we will:
discover how conscious and unconscious choices about food express worldview and values,
learn to make conscious choices about foods we eat (and don’t eat),
learn to create a stronger connection between what we eat and what we value,
find out how to derive more satisfaction from the food we eat,
see how this process can influence every aspect of how we live our lives, and
learn how this process can contribute to greater health and fulfillment.
Recently I had a reason to contemplate the difference between ritual and habit. Actually, I suspect the assignment intended that I would understand the words synonymously, because that’s how many of us view them. I believe these practices are very different, though, and one of them is life-enhancing while the other diminishes our lives.
Rituals define a system. Habits are isolated practices and may even be out of synch with a system.
Rituals are purposeful and are performed with intention. Habits have no purpose other than to make certain an action happens without thought. They may have been intentional on the first performance, but the goal of a habit is that it become thoughtless, intentionless and well, just a habit.
Rituals communicate. Habits communicate nothing since they are thoughtless and intention-less beyond the intention that they happen without thought.
Rituals are an aid to focus. Habits are an indication of lack of focus or are at least not focused on the habitual action.
Rituals create meaning. Habits have no meaning.
Food Rituals and Habits
Since I like to write about food, I thought I might explain these differences between ritual and habit through the prism of food.
1) Rituals define a system, and habits are isolated practices. More than the words of liturgies, which are debated and interpreted, rituals define the boundaries of a religious system, the relative value of the parts within those boundaries and how people are required to behave within that world. Often those definitions include what one can and cannot eat.
Something that a person habitually eats may or may not express a worldview. Initially perhaps a choice was made about an entire diet, and that diet expressed a worldview, for example that good health is important. If that initial choice becomes a habit, though, it no longer expresses anything. Not only is that habit carried out without thought, it is carried out in isolation and not as part of a systematic worldview. If information changes about what constitutes good health, a habit will continue even if it contradicts the new information.
2) Rituals are purposeful and are performed with intention. Habits have no purpose other than to make certain an action happens without thought.
I can always tell when one of my own actions is a ritual and when it is a thought. I require meaning in my life, and it is hard for me to motivate myself to do all the things involved in living a life if I have no sense of meaning. When I experience a sense of meaning, I feel joyful and energetic. When I don’t experience that sense, I feel tired and unmotivated.
Of course we all need a habit here and there, especially in a world that requires multi-tasking. We can’t give all our energy to every little thing and need to do some things on automatic. It’s all about balance, though, and when my life becomes too automatic, too filled with habit, I am likely to become depressed. Conversely, when I make a conscious choice to do something familiar that has a particular meaning in my universe, I feel purposeful, satisfied and even joyful.
I put together a breakfast bowl for myself each morning. I looked up each item in my bowl to make certain it fulfills a particular purpose for my health and my ethical consciousness. Then I evolved a series of steps which remain the same each day so that I can put my bowl together fairly quickly and easily. It may look like a habit, but it isn’t. It is definitely a ritual. I am aware of the purpose of each item in my bowl, and each ritual step I take to fill my bowl generates a sense of happiness, comfort, meaning and satisfaction — a satisfaction that is every bit as important as the mere physical satisfaction of eating what’s in the bowl.
3) Rituals communicate. Habits communicate nothing since they are thoughtless and intention-less beyond the intention that they happen without thought.
The best way I know to say, “I love you” to someone I care about is to prepare and serve them a delicious and beautiful meal that I know represents good health as we know it today. If it also represents a set of ethical values that I know I share with that person, it deepens our relationship. Although I’m a long-time vegetarian, becoming vegan, those values don’t necessarily have to be vegetarianism or veganism. It can be values like kindness to all creatures or sharing our resources, talents and abilities.
Similarly, religious rituals communicate a worldview. There are reasons that certain foods are prized and others are taboo or forbidden. Food laws and rituals are a theology and an anthropology, stated without words.
4) Rituals are an aid to focus. Habits are an indication of lack of focus or are at least not focused on the habitual action.
Again, it’s easy to tell the difference between a ritual or a habitual action. As I’ve mentioned before, my knife skills are unfortunate, odd as that may be for a former restaurant owner and cook to say. I have sliced my fingers on many occasions. It’s easy to predict when I will cut my fingers.
I make a salad every day called an Israeli or Jerusalem salad. It involves quite a bit of cutting since each vegetable is petitely diced. I’m told that’s called brunoise. If I follow a little ritual I created before I start to cut, my fingers remain intact. The ritual is to (calmly and with attention) clean my counter, put down a clean cutting board, get out my knife, sharpen it, and work my way through each of the veggies, tomatoes first, then cucumbers, then red bell peppers, then red onion, then cilantro. I add each to my large bowl as I finish it. When I’m finished, I mix the salad and clean up.
If I just grab my knife and cutting board and start cutting away at my veggies in a rush with 10 other things happening around me that also require attention, I will cut my fingers.
5) Rituals create meaning. Habits have no meaning.
One of the most spiritually awesome moments I ever had was about twenty years ago when I went camping over a Sabbath. In traditional Judaism, no cooking is allowed on the Sabbath. When I went camping every weekend along the Mississippi, I left early enough on Friday that I could set up camp, make my fire and prepare my Sabbath meals before sunset.
Of course there are Jewish rituals involved in the meal, but I had rituals of my own that I added, most of them involved in the food preparation. By the time I sat down to my vegetarian Sabbath feast on a Friday evening out in the woods, I felt like I was in harmony with the natural world around me and that I could fully enjoy a beautiful meal that harmed no creature. The results of my ritual preparations spoke to me of a meaningful, loving universe, even if it was just my reality, one I created, for a space in time.
I would have missed those oportunities for awesome moments if I had been in an automatic, mindless mode, performing habitual tasks.
How can I make my life more meaning-filled?
Can habits be elevated to rituals? Can rituals become routinized into habit? Yes, both can happen!
Take a look at the things you repeat in your daily life. If a habit no longer fills it purpose, to allow you to do something that is important for you to do without investing a great deal of thoughtful energy in remembering and completing the task, get rid of the habit.
Or you could convert the task to a ritual, a series of steps that involve thought and intention and that express something meaningful.
Kids thrive on meaningful rituals. My own sons used to love to get out special holiday dishes for a meal with family and friends each year. When my grandson was born, I said, “We need a ritual” and suggested Sunday breakfast. It was a statement that would have sounded odd to anyone who didn’t know me, but my grandson’s parents accommodated me, and 11 years later, we still get together every single Sunday for a meal that we all share in cooking. The meal has evolved over the years but remains essentially the same as when we started. It is meaningful to each of us in different ways at different times — but it is meaningful to each of us including my grandson.
Fill your life with meaningful rituals.
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.
I have been vegetarian for many years. A video of a presentation in a Philadelphia synagogue moved me to take the next step and explore a completely plant-based diet more seriously, that is, veganism. The video is from Jewish Vegetarians of North America and features Alex Hershaft, Holocaust survivor, speaking movingly about animal rights and veganism. This is the video: