Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Try to imagine this scene. It’s the end of a long workday. Feeling hurried and tired and very hungry, you dash into the local McDonald’s. A man and a woman stand in line in front of you. They are middle-aged, conservatively dressed, probably husband and wife. After they receive their order, they sit down at a small table.
Instantly, the woman breaks into song, an indecipherable, ululating, frenzied outcry. Her quavering shrieks raise the hair on your neck. Just as quickly, the man has thrown his sports coat to the floor, grabbed a broom from the hands of a startled employee, and begun dancing about the table. He is grunting, gasping, and gesticulating, thrusting the broom handle like a spear, now toward the ceiling, now toward the floor, now waving it around the room in a wide, all-encompassing circle. His paisley tie swings from his neck like a potent fetish made to honor some animal spirit. He appears to be acting out a life-and-death struggle, a hunter wrestling with the mystery, dangers, and uncertainties of the hunt. He cavorts among the astonished diners, snatching from their trays packets of ketchup, which he splashes about his forehead, arms, and chest. With a final, triumphant, golden-arch-shaking roar — a tribute to the inhabitory spirits of the place — he plunks himself down before his burger and fries. The woman trills her strangely hypnotic incantations more softly now, then trails off into silence.
This behavior may seem anachronistic in the plastic-and-neon setting of a late-twentieth-century McDonald’s. But such displays were common throughout much of the world until industrial development, advanced technology, and changing economic patterns brought into being a previously unimaginable superabundance. In the midst of this plenty, we have inadvertently lost the ability to be grateful for and to our food. The loss of gratitude may seem a small price to pay for the abundance of foodstuffs — even when that abundance is concentrated in the hands of relatively few — but it carries with it substantial hidden costs. Gratitude, in primal ecologies, was the ritual acknowledgment of the need for balance, of relationship and reciprocity in a flesh-and-blood economy.
When was the last time, if ever, you saw anyone at McDonald’s offer an expression of thanks (a prayer, a song, a dance) for his or her food? Billions of burgers sold worldwide, millions of creatures and plants consumed — yet not a solitary act of gratitude, individual or corporate, no festival to honor the bovine being in myth and art and imagination, or to celebrate the annual resurrection of the potato. How can this be? What kind of monstrous indifference to the taking of life does this suggest? What kind of heinous disrespect for the life that sustains human life? What is the real price we pay for the convenience of fast and plentiful food? Apathy, neglect, isolation? Or is it something deeper, the loss of relationship, of wholeness, of soul?
The other night I went out for supper with my wife. When the food arrived, we were deep in discussion. Without breaking the flow of conversation, we started to eat. Several minutes later, I looked down at my plate, and a kind of horror swept over me: I felt totally estranged from the food I was eating.
It was easy enough to identify the food on my plate. But I had no idea where the vegetables had been grown (maybe Florida or California, maybe Mexico) or how (in hothouse, under irrigation, organically, chemically, with or without post-harvest treatment). I knew nothing of the animal whose flesh I ate. I could not tell if it had been male or female, sweet-tempered or surly, passive or aggressive, Hereford or Angus, American or Argentine, young or old, sick or healthy, well treated or abused, drug-free or doped up. I knew nothing about the world in which this animal had moved, nothing of its diet, of the way it lived, of its unique skills, of its particular beauty. I had no idea by what process the animal had been butchered, how long the meat had been aged, how stored, how transported, and by whom. I knew nothing of the people who raised and cared for this animal, or of those who took its life. What rituals did they follow, if any? What economy did they practice with skull and eye and offal, with ear, teeth, tail, hoof, tongue, and blood? How many hands had touched the animal on its journey to my plate? How many hands had held this slowly corrupting flesh and marveled at the miracle of life, at this gift of utmost sacrifice? How many had seen it simply as more dead meat to be hung, hauled, cooled, chopped, ground, baked, fried, grilled, and ingested — an opportunity to make money and nothing more?
Contemplating my food, I felt shame because I had no song to sing for it, no dance quivering in my body to be danced for the unseen spirits, no like gift to return to the spirit world. I had no ritual to call upon, to sustain me in the act of taking life, to acknowledge the sacrifice made for my life.
I felt shame because of the thanks that came forth stillborn, dead from within. I felt shame because of the ignorance and apathy I knew instead of familiarity and intimacy. And I was horrified by the moribundity with which I viewed the cooked flesh; it seemed somehow to reflect the moribundity of my own living flesh. In that deadness, which doesn’t recognize the place and primacy of spirit, I saw myself as just more meat on the hoof awaiting my own date with the cosmic butcher.
Our loss of identity with our food represents a deeper crisis in our relationship with nature. The Naskapi, a tribe of hunting people from the interior of Labrador, believed that their decline resulted from a change in diet, from the wild foods of their homeland to the imported foods of Europe — foods whose origins they could not fathom and with which they felt no sacred relationship. From the Naskapi perspective, to ignore or deny the reciprocity of their essential relationship with their food was to risk the loss of their Mista’peo or Great Man. (Call it soul, if you like, or integrity.)
The growth of the global economy has brought similar problems to modern Americans: we’ve lost our relationship to the local environment, as we no longer seem to depend on it for survival. Gratitude, most effectively expressed as a personal response to local conditions, appears to play no direct role in such an economy. It has become superfluous, an inefficiency. Relationship and ecological balance have become somebody else’s problem, and we’re freed of the great burden of individual responsibility for the well-being of our world, freed to eat our way blissfully into burger heaven.
Psychologically, it’s easier to assume that the rest of the world is dead — that is, devoid of spirit — than to have to justify and make amends for our own constant and appalling assault on that spirit. It’s easier to forget how to be grateful than to sustain a sense of relationship with one’s world. The loss of gratitude has served our worldview well; it has made possible our global economy, our lives of abundance, comfort, and convenience. But its absence has not passed unnoticed. There is a growing planetary unease, a sense of something stalking our footsteps, something monstrous and powerful and wicked, spawned in the wastelands of human apathy. In the unfamiliar role of prey, we’ve come to recognize our own demise in the destruction of the environment. In the lifelessness we’ve projected on all other matter, we’ve come to see our own lifelessness. It is here we begin to feel the great urgency to recall life, to rekindle spirit, to reaffirm our gratitude in and through relationship before we lose our Great Man forever.
For many thousands of years, human survival has been a matter of walking the razor’s edge between too little and too much. Gratitude evolved as a kind of innate ecological consciousness, a way of maintaining balance with one’s environment. Gratitude served to maintain our relationship not only with the physical world of plants and animals, mountains and rivers, forests and oceans, sun and moon and stars, but with the interior world, the invisible landscape of the human spirit.
Once, the rituals of gratitude informed nearly every aspect of human life. Most of these we have abandoned or forgotten. Now, try to imagine this: for every one of those burgers sold, a song raised, a life recalled, a measure of grace restored.
Stephen W. Hyde