Mad In Pursuit Notebook

Chinese sage

Painful Origin Stories

Thu, 1.15.2015 A bunch of thoughts are connecting here. Last night we watched Earthlings about the utter cruelty of humans toward our fellow Earth inhabitants -- animals (food industry, leather industries, puppy mills, etc.) Between that and my current experiment with a plant-based diet, my thoughts turned to Buddhism. Maybe I should meditate again...

This morning we got news that Jim's grand-daughter had her baby. It was one of those tough deliveries, hours of agonizing labor ending in a C-section. Now you can't blame the cruelties of childbirth on people. Reality is ripped open. Where there was one, now there is two. Our Christian teachings (as I recall) tells us that painful childbirth is a punishment for that original sin in the garden of Eden. We screwed up and apparently not even redemption by Jesus could make that consequence go away.

Is pandemonium at the heart of every origin story? We joke about the imminent discovery that plants feel pain, and we'll have to become breatharians to live a moral life. But nevermind that: what about the brutish lives of those who pick our plump strawberries and our crisp apples?

We can talk about eating "ethically sourced" food. We can talk about combating "conflict chocolate" and buying only "fair trade coffee." But feeding the world can't always be an artisanal operation. Mass markets, planetary transportation systems, mega-farms, despairing minimum-wage fast-food workers -- someone will always be getting the short end of the stick. And we are guilty of perpetuating these systems through our daily choices.

Then I think about the cotton I'm making pretty things with. Oh, cotton... Cotton bolls in the field might be insensitive to pain and ready to put themselves in service to humanity. But once you start thinking about it, you have to acknowledge slavery, brown lung, and the plight of mill workers throughout history.

I started out this week planning to do some meditations of the the "spirit of things" (see 1.10.15 entry) by picking out some actual objects from around the house. What's the first thing my eye lands on? The 3" carving of a Chinese sage, used in the cartoon at the top of this page. It is ivory, the tip of some unlucky elephant's tusk. Ouch. Lots of spirit there -- the beauty and power of the elephant, which you can be sure the Chinese carver was aware of. I don't know where Jim got it but there is a tiny reference number glued to the bottom, so it came from a museum or academic collection. Jim kept the little sage by his chair for the longest time, claiming to have conversations with him. Then I took him for photos and wound up incorporating him into some drawings -- inspired by his sweetness, tilting his head like that to hear whatever was on my mind (see drawing-on-photo from 2010, below).

Chinese sage

But you can't help feeling a little guilty about the massacre of a sentient being for our self-indulgence.

So everything, it seems, is born out of trouble.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, "And so it goes."

Big question: How does a thoughtful person lead an ethical life in a corrupt world? When every system we're involved in -- churches, schools, art trade, banking, politics, news media -- seems rotten at its core. You can't really opt out. Then you'd be a naked, homeless, ignorant breatharian, wouldn't you? And then you'd be dead.

If you're looking for an answer from me, sorry. I was hoping YOU could tell me. I get as far as this: each person must plot her own course, leaving behind the pandemonium at the origin and navigating among the booby traps and temptations. Mindfulness over expediency. Action over cynicism. Using the Golden Rule as a beacon. Taking a stand.

Rituals have a place too, even for people who are not church-goers. They can acknowledge history, honor the painful origin story, and give us permission to move on. More about that later...