First, do no harm. It’s the hippocratic oath, and it’s also the underling organizational principle of civil society. Fifteen years ago, I decided to largely check out of civilized society and learn to raise my own food because I no longer believed that chipping away at what I saw as some of our cultural fallacies was likely to un-pollute the pond fast enough to preserve my own sanity.
In the process of creating food worth feeding myself, I realized that if we were going to live in a just and fair society, it was going to have to start with real nourishment. It’s much easier to have civil discourse with one’s neighbor when one’s head isn’t clouded with mind-bending chemicals that now constitute what we call “food.” It’s much easier to have empathy for another if our hearts aren’t laden with what we suspect, deep-down, is meaningless work to fund the purchase of disposable goods that fail to fill the emptiness in our souls and instead we merely fill the landfill.
We long for a life of true connection, purpose and the peace that comes from knowing that we are part of something beautifully and incomprehensibly larger than ourselves. What we create to protect ourselves in the absence of that intimate knowing of the truth of our calling is callousness — literally a repetitive, painless wound to render us incapable of feeling pain, temperature or pressure.
Yet the pressure and pain were building anyway, despite the temporary and artificial removal of our ability to feel and perceive it. In the process, we created the “other” — “them” — not recognizing that I can’t truly be safe and free unless you are also truly, safe and free.
The repetitive injuries, insults to personhood and dignity and affronts to what is holy didn’t stop. The explosion of pain breaking forth now has forced us to reckon with what we wanted to pretend we didn’t see coming. And so here we are now, raw, hurting, and overwhelmed.
But, deep down, we knew. We knew we were living a lie. No serious person with intellectual honesty could argue that we were all given the same starting blocks. Yet our country is founded on the notion that we all have access to the same “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” Hypocrisy invariably leads to violence, spiritual death or both.
There are only three ways to reconcile that fundamental disconnect that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is actually a tiered system: convince yourself that you are inherently more worthy than an “other” (or its depressing inverse, believe yourself to be inherently unworthy); insulate yourself from that sickening dichotomy with entertainment and material goods that allow you to pretend nothing remarkable is happening; or work to change it.
We were all created for joy, which is many orders above mere happiness. Anything less than joy is a perversion. And contrary to our cultural understanding of it, work isn’t the curse for misbehaving in the original garden. In fact, in the Hebrew word “ָבַד – avodah,” we find that “work,” “worship” and “serve” are used interchangeably in the Old Testament 289 times. Work as worship is part of who we are.
I imagined that life on a farm would bring me into connectiveness, intimacy and a visceral understanding of what is real and give me the discernment and courage to discard the rest. It succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings. Farming is a great leveler, much in the same way that I imagine that war is. There are so many times when you feel at the very edge (or, sometimes, even over the edge) of what is physically possible, mentally tolerable and emotionally sustainable that you know when you look someone else in the eyes who has walked through it that you are kin.
Please don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not saying that my experience as a white, well-resourced Yankee woman in the South new to farming is the same experience as my black farmer friends. It’s not. What I am saying is that it brought us into real relationship in a way that we may not have been otherwise. I am sure I’ve said ignorant, callous or hurtful things without meaning to, not seeing the challenges that my black and brown brothers and sisters faced over and above the nearly impossible feat of farming itself. Maybe I’ve done so just now. Please forgive me.
For years, I would only speak of these inequities among certain friends and family members. For the rest, I begrudgingly accepted the ignorance and quiet and not-so-quiet hate, only speaking up if it was really egregious, even though it ate at my soul. Please forgive me. Thank you for bearing the danger of coming out now so that I, too, could be free of the anguish that I made myself complicit in with silence.
What I most desire now is to break bread and together create a food system of honest reckoning that allows everyone to feel, share and experience the triumph that comes from knowing the land and bearing the labor pains of its fruit. And to lessen the toxic burdens on all of our brothers and sisters. Because what we eat, and how we go about feeding ourselves and our neighbors, is the basic foundational block of how we relate to one another, if for no other reason that the sheer volume of the activity. If we are blessed to do so, we eat three times per day. And that means whether our choices are creating beauty or causing harm to ourselves and others works like compounding interest.
Real food, and real nourishment, belongs to all people. And in a miraculous transformation of our consumer paradigm of scarcity, the more we participate and buy into a system of real food, the more easily accessible it is for others. Our participation encourages others to join, and in the process, more of the community is nourished in ways far beyond the plate.