The following is a guest post by Kelly Hogaboom who writes and tweets with great wit and candour about rad stuff like feminism, non-punitive parenting, body image, cooking and sewing, life and love (and much else besides).
These days I’m a pretty hearty soul. I have a fair degree of equanimity that has been hard-won. Still, I’m only human. And as I pen this I’ve just returned from a lunch date with old family friends. I found myself, quite suddenly, stuck in a corner (literally and figuratively) while these old friends argued toward me about
If you’ve spent any time in the social wellbeing or social justice spheres you might have a more nuanced view than the mainstream media regarding: obesity (childhood and “regular”, ha), “healthy” food, and epicurean snobbery waged against the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. I hardly blame anyone who might read Michelle Alison’s piece, linked above, and find their belief system challenged – after all, most conventional wisdom out there is full of ableism, orthorexia, classism, adultism and mommy-shaming -
and more important to me, at root really, a profound lack of compassion and open-mindedness.
This conversation was no different. Within seconds I heard about “personal responsibility”, people who “sit around all day feeling bad about themselves and playing video games”, and the cheapness of whole grains – all this and more by a group of middle-class people eating a fifteen-dollar-a-plate meal of cheesy pizza, salads loaded with ranch dressing, and pop. I should note the video game comment was uttered by a man who misheard my mention of the [US] “Farm Bill”
as FarmVille – and who admitted he didn’t know what the Farm Bill is.
It would almost be funny if it wasn’t such tired, depressing, and well-trod ground.
Never lost on me is sameness of the script with which some of these parties speak. They will often cite a female ancestor who supposedly fed an entire family on just pennies and fed the neighborhood besides. They often require those the most marginalized or disadvantaged to eat and live a certain way, and be exposed to scrutiny and lectures they themselves do not practice nor endure. During one such conversation a friend of mine, a mother of one and an at-home wife to a man earning six figures, espoused the economy of beans and apples while slicing into the peanut butter pie made with full-fat organic ingredients and Gran Marnier (I shouldn’t have to tell you she underquoted the price of bulk beans and apples… because she doesn’t have to know those prices, naturally).
These conversations have thus far broken my heart but never more so than today, given I work quite regularly with recovering alcoholics and addicts and I see the hard work that goes into survival – and I hear the experiences of low-self worth they’ve often internalized. Many of those I work with got life’s start in the most profoundly disadvantaged circumstances (poverty, abuse of all horrific varieties, neglect from parent/carer, etc), and who today are working against many odds and in a temporary or semi-permanent state of Survival Mode – making the meetings that sustain them, shuffling court dates and problems with the law and job re-training, all while living on a fraction of what my partner earns and without an at-home partner (like myself) to soak those beans and slice those apples and knead that bread. (The confidentiality of this volunteer work is sacrosanct enough that, even writing off my home blog, the circumstances of my small-town dictates I don’t cite too many specifics.)
Suffice to say I am regularly exposed to and work hand-in-hand helping these individuals (I am a recovering alcoholic as well) – not all of whom can’t afford expensive food – and I see them as Human Beings doing their best – after all, longterm recovery from addiction and alcoholism is Personal Responsibility at a profoundly deep level. To think of the casual hate these people endure when standing in line with their packets of ten cent Top Ramen or with a bag of Arby’s for dinner just sucks.
Now, I’m not saying anyone at the table today was particularly hateful. It’s just, despite hearing these kinds of vitriolic arguments in public spaces and online I was still, somehow, caught off-guard to hear these thoughts echoed by my friends. I let myself get sucked into an argument I’ve in the past found deeply unproductive. Was it wrong I spoke up about my practice of compassion, and from my direct experiences working directly with those living on cheap food? No. Where I went wrong was to forget a lesson I’ve been served before: you cannot argue compassion into someone.
You cannot argue compassion into someone.
What can I do next time, besides committing this lesson to memory? Well, in my best self I would have retained a curiosity as to why these people felt so angry about those who “eat unhealthy”. I would have listened a bit more and been less quick to talk. Yes, I may think I know why these people said the same things I’ve heard so many times before, but today I didn’t ask questions but rather assumed The Usual Suspects: a buy-into the prevalent spiritual and emotional formations of Scarcity, the myth of the United States as a meritocracy, the desire to Other those less fortunate and therefore operate on a false sense of security, and perhaps the injudicious consumption of mainstream media with it’s obsessive and unproductive riverflow of War on Obesity rhetoric. Yeah, I might be most the way right about what I was hearing, but now I do not know if I was correct or incorrect – because I did not listen.
As an epilogue: I did end up feeling a bit better shortly after this lunch gone awry. Back in the car with just my own children I felt rattled for a moment as I turned over my engine. But sitting for a minute the deepest experience of gratitude washed over me, because I have a few assets: including my two children and the human beings they’ve evidenced themselves to be. They are, today, entirely generous, whip-smart, and so incredibly less likely than I to let others’ angst affect their values and their practice of love. It might sound like I’m veering into bragging about my parenting; I’m not. My children and their compassion aren’t supplied here to justify my performance as a mother – I am relating that they give me a great deal of hope. They are two human beings who evidence great intelligence, a desire for right speech, a commitment to friendship, and, often, a peace that passes human understanding.
Two human beings who, today, hug my drug-addict friends and my middle-class grouchy foodies – beings who all suffer in their own ways – with earnestness, deep affection, and a profound spiritual centeredness.
I might not always get it right. But I have some pretty good mentors to help me along.