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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Freedom of Choice: Are You Awake

Presented by Mary Tyrtle Rooker, Worship Leader, with Ken Redd, Worship Associate

Good Morning.  I want to share a story I read in a recent UUA Ministry for the Earth newsletter.  A group of travelers see Buddha, whom they’ve never met, approaching on the road. They can tell that there’s something very special about him, but they don’t know what it is. Once they are face-to-face with him, they ask whether he is a spirit. He says that he is not. They ask him whether he is a God. He says that he is not. They make several more guesses, but he answers “no” to all of them. Finally, in frustration, one of the travelers says to the Buddha, “Well, what are you?” Buddha replies, “I am awake.”


What does it mean to be awake?  It’s often said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Life is full of choices, and most of us are pretty busy. It’s human nature to hear only what we want to hear, to see only what we want to see.  We can think we’ve looked at an issue fully and objectively when we haven’t.  

Our beautiful 4th Unitarian Universalist principle, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, speaks to me of the power of awakening, of questioning, and of becoming conscious.  It’s both looking at something we haven’t seen before and also looking at the same things we’ve always seen, but with new eyes, seeing them from new perspectives.

Our lives are more meaningful and our choices are more powerful when we make them with our eyes and hearts and minds wide open. To be awake brings real freedom of choice.

Declaring Your Independence

I want today to share my own personal food story and how our themes of awakening and freedom of choice play a starring role for me.

I grew up in a blue-collar household during the 1950s and 1960s. My career-Army dad was from the wrong side of the tracks in a small Ohio town. World War II was his ticket out of the glass factory life. Girls didn’t go to college as far as I knew; my dad discussed such plans only with my older brother, not me or my sisters.  Pet dogs were “just animals” and kept outdoors.  Whites—even poor whites—were better than black people. And smoking cigarettes was cool and popular, but girls who liked kissing other girls, which I secretly did, were mentally ill and were expected to commit suicide. After my first girlfriend and I broke up when I was 15, I found Jesus.  I cried in church services when the Lutheran minister warned us that some of our family members would not be going to Heaven with us. I didn’t know words like racism and heterosexism or phrases like the “religious right”, until I was older.

Though I have changed my beliefs and values on these things, I was also taught values that I still cherish: elders are to be respected, family is important, and what matters is who you are, not how much money you make.

When I was growing up, all these beliefs were just normal, natural, and necessary facts of life.  I rarely saw anyone question beliefs, whether the beliefs were “good” or “bad”. No one asked me what my opinion was about any of it; you did what you were told. I didn’t know I had a choice. By the way, jogging was NOT a part of life then.  It was something you did to your memory, not a lifestyle requiring special shoes and clothing.

Ours was a meatloaf-and-potatoes household. I never thought about what I ate other than whether I did or didn’t like the taste of it. I didn’t question why we ate cows but not cats, as they do in much of Asia. And I didn’t ask why we never asked “why?” No one ever asked me whether I wanted to eat meat or cheese, just like no one ever asked me if I wanted to go to college. I didn’t realize these were options; I didn’t know I had a choice.

My teen-year minimum-wage jobs were replaced at age 21 by my dream secretarial job on Capitol Hill. I moved from a Baltimore suburb to D.C. I was stunned to meet other secretaries my age who had gone to college.  At 24, I met my first feminist and got my consciousness raised.  And then I met a lesbian who helped me come out of the closet.

It was about that same time that I met my first vegetarian. I liked her, but I really didn’t want to hear what she so often felt compelled to share. So I’d say, “Oh, please don’t tell me that; you’re ruining my meal.” 

Then at 28, I fell in love and married a wonderful woman. We made up our own wedding ceremony, because it wasn’t legal anywhere at the time. She was a fabulous cook and so did most of the cooking, and it was always the usual animal-based dishes. At 30, I quit smoking.  I also started eating vegetarian whenever I cooked, mostly because it was a good excuse to eat even more cheese. My wife still did most of the cooking, so most meals were not vegetarian, and I wasn’t particularly bothered by that.  I continued to order meat dishes when we ate out at restaurants. It seems contradictory to me now that I wouldn’t cook animals but that I’d eat them, no problem, if someone else cooked them.  I “knew” about factory farming, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t ready to take it in, to fully connect the dots between the slaughter of an individual animal and what was on my plate. Can you relate to this? And I knew nothing back then of the environmental or health or human rights or other aspects of foods.

The year I turned 40, I left the marriage and became vegetarian. I became vegan when I was 41—not because of the animals, but for health reasons.  I learned that I had a benign fatty tumor that required surgery. A Chinese acupuncturist told me I should stop eating dairy, that dairy caused tumors. I dismissed it at first as a cultural difference, but on second thought, decided to give it a try.

Did you know that there are no 12-Step programs for cheese-aholics?  I persevered with no cheese though, for about 3 months.  Surprise!  I felt better, especially my sinuses.  But the cheese cravings were as strong as ever.  One day, a lunchtime errand took me past a carryout next-door, where my favorite lunchtime meal was—you guessed it—a grilled cheese sandwich.  Swiss. On wheat. With tomato. I’d been sooooo good, not having had any dairy for 3 months now, and surely it wouldn’t hurt to have my grilled cheese just this once. Right?

I had no 12-Step sponsor to call in my moment of weakness, so into the carryout I went and walked out a few minutes later with my warm reward. I snuck back into my little office, closed the door, and sat down to devour my prize.  I took that first eager bite, but my anticipated bliss didn’t arrive. Instead, my mouth filled with the taste of—I don’t know, maybe melted dirty sock. I took a second bite, and then a third, but it still tasted disgusting. It even smelled like dirty socks to me.

Hmmm … maybe the cheese or butter had gone bad. I took the uneaten half still in the original waxed wrapper over to a trusted coworker. She said it smelled Heavenly. And when she took a bite, her face dissolved into the instant bliss that I had been robbed of and denied. The sandwich hadn’t gone bad. My taste buds had gone bad. They now hated cheese.

I went back to my desk and resumed eating my grilled swiss, insisting that my tastebuds come to their senses and stop betraying me, but they didn’t. And by the time I finished the first half of the sandwich, I stopped cold. My stomach was letting me know that if I took one more bite, it WAS going to push the “send it back to the chef” button.  So! My stomach and taste buds were in cohoots!  A strong wave of nausea sent me scurrying to the bathroom; luckily, the worst of the upset passed within a few minutes, so I returned to my desk, popped a few Pepto Bismol tablets for insurance, and then went back to the bathroom with my toothbrush to help get the dirty socks out of my mouth.  I no longer needed that 12-Step program.

Enter the UUA Ethical Eating issue, which I began studying in 2010.  My personal preferences and opinions were worthless:  I needed to know the science.  So I researched health and nutrition.  To my surprise, I realized that many vegans are not eating a very healthy diet and are often as hooked on concentrated fats, sugars, and salts as everyone else.  And—Surprise!—I realized that I was one of them. I began eating more veggies and greens and less refined grains and sugars.  Then I learned about Bill Clinton going vegan—without oils—and successfully reversing his heart disease—Yikes! Oils? Bad?  No way!

But my subsequent research showed that—Surprise!—oils merely appear healthy when compared to animal fats. So I was forced to re-think and change my diet again. More surprises awaited me.  Studying neuroscience taught me that concentrated fats, sugars, and salt hijack the reward centers of our brains and turn us into addicts. Neuroscience also taught me how to break an addiction. I thought I’d never be able to quit sugar—or as I call it, the other white powder, but neuroscience helped me finally stop eating all sweeteners except fruit.

So, last year, the year I turned 60, I quit the sugars and oils.  Unlike Mr. Clinton, though, I eat a good bit of fat, but only in the form of raw whole nuts and seeds or fatty fruits like avocados. Then something strange happened. —Surprise!—Even with those fatty nuts and seeds, I began to slowly lose weight for the first time in my life. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, and I was eating what seemed like more food than ever. And—Surprise!—food tasted better than ever to me now. My brain and taste buds, no longer perverted by oils and sugars, now detected more delicate flavors once hidden to me.

I’ve lost about 12 pounds of surplus fat in 8 months.  I now weigh what I weighed 35 years ago, when I was in my mid-20s. My doctor and nutritionist assure me that this weight loss is natural when one eats no refined foods and that it would stop when my body was back to the right weight for it. They are thrilled, even though I didn’t have health problems before my weight loss. And I’m equally gratified to keep hearing from more and more of you that my encouragement has helped you make similar changes that resulted in health benefits for you.

Next month, I’ll turn 61. I’ve questioned many things since my childhood and look forward to more explorations and awakenings, even the awakenings that might feel rude at first. I was taught that male supremacy was normal, natural, and necessary, yet I became the first female in the family to graduate from college, albeit night school. I was taught that “dumb” animals could be treated with disregard, yet I pampered my cats who were very much my family. I was taught that smoking was cool, yet I quit smoking when the truth was known. I was taught that heterosexual supremacy was normal, natural, and necessary, yet I married a wonderful woman. I was taught that white supremacy was normal, natural, and necessary, yet I now know, deep in my heart, that there is only one race—the human race.

 And I was taught that certain animals were put here for us to eat their meats and eggs and to drink their milk; that we needed oils and our daily bread—that all this was normal, natural, and necessary. I have engaged a deep awakening process that makes my food choices more healthful and delicious.

As a child, I didn’t choose to be sexist or racist; these isms were woven within the fabric of my family, institutions, and culture, which unconsciously passed them on to me.  This is not a blame game. Sexism and racism weren’t personal philosophies of my parents but rather were the inevitable result of deeply entrenched, oppressive systems. Smoking and attitudes towards animals, similarly, stem from societal norms that can and do change.

All belief systems that are the dominant cultural norm are invisible, simply called life, until someone names them, gives them a label. It’s not yet common parlance, but psychologists have created a label for the belief system that eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary. They call it “carnism”. Carnism is a neutral term, not intended to be positive or negative.  They don’t have a term for those who believe that processed foods are necessary, at least not yet.

I learned about “carnism” from psychologist Melanie Joy when she spoke about it at the UU church in Columbia, MD, about 2 years ago. I was so stunned by her speech that I went to see her give the same presentation again a week later at the River Road UU. If you want to see it yourself, it’s free online; the website is listed at the end of today’s order of service in your bulletin < http://www.carnism.org/carnism-presentation-video>.

Her slide show and talk helped me understand one big reason that so many Unitarians want to change their diet but find it so hard to do so. And I could see that carnism is in me, too, not just in meat-eaters.

Understanding that there’s a belief system that we’re unconscious of gives us the ability to see it, to open our hearts and examine anew, and then to choose freely. And not all belief systems are bad: a few of my favorite isms are humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and—oh, yeah—Unitarian Universalism.

I’ve learned the power of questioning what I was taught, which has allowed me to awaken to my own choices, more fully live my values, and declare my independence.  I have greater clarity about which beliefs and norms I want to keep and also which ones I want to heal within myself and not pass along to the next generation.

Some isms can seem too big to face, but I’ve found that the only really hard part is the first step of facing them.  Twelve-Step programs agree, and that reassuring message is in the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson at the top of today’s bulletin. Emerson said:  “The world is theirs who can see through its pretension. What deafness, what stone-blind custom, what overgrown error you behold, is there only by sufferance—by your sufferance.  See it to be a lie, and you have already dealt it its mortal blow.”

I believe that the questions are often more important than the answers. Whatever you decide about the beliefs you examine, even if you don’t change a thing, you will have made the choice your own in a conscious, thoughtful way, one that is consistent with the values you hold.  And that’s worth a lot. So I invite you to join me in declaring your own independence.

But not yet. It’s normal, natural, and necessary to close the homily with a hymn, so please don’t question whether to join me now in singing Hymn #345, With Joy We Claim the Growing Light.  Please rise in body or spirit.

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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church • 3215 Powder Mill Road • Adelphi, Maryland 20783-1097
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