When I was a kid, my favorite animals were all herbivores: white-tailed deer, gazelles, antelopes; giraffes; elephants. (I hand-waved the carnivory of blue whales, since they almost exclusively eat tiny crustaceans called krill.) When I thought about the behavior of any of these animals, I focused on what I saw as gentleness. I internalized an idea that they, like me, were pacifists.
That description could almost sort of work for white-tailed deer, and maybe a stray gazelle or antelope, but it is certainly not true of giraffes or elephants. Giraffes will defend themselves by kicking; even a single grown elephant can be quite formidable, and in groups, they are quite difficult to bring down unless you are a human being with weapons.
But I didn’t want to think about any of that. That was icky and messy and violent, all things I eschewed.
No, I was looking for the animal equivalent of Jesus, who turned the other cheek, bringing love and forgiveness to everyone, even dedicated carnivores/predators.
I got very frustrated with how poorly this strategy worked in the real world, but I remained convinced that the strategy itself was sound; it must be that my implementation was ineffective. (Sort of like communism.) If I experiment enough, surely eventually I will discover exactly the right combination that will bring the results I want.
I tried that approach for over 40 years.
In other areas of my life, over and over again I found myself in relationships that were disappointing at best, abusive at worst. People steamrolled me, a lot. I was resentful and annoyed, but mostly I wasn’t angry. Anger is so off-putting, isn’t it? It upsets people, it’s not polite. Deer don’t get angry — they run away.
Or they get eaten. But somehow I never made that connection.
A white-tailed deer cannot suddenly start subsisting on pepperoni pizza. Likewise, a house cat (or a Big Cat, like a tiger or jaguar) is a dedicated carnivore; they cannot survive by eating broccoli and watermelon. They don’t have the teeth for it, the stomach, nor the digestive bacteria. They can’t choose to do differently.
Human beings can choose to be vegetarians, but they are naturally omnivores, which means they can survive eating almost anything: not only meat, like carnivores, and plant materials, like herbivores, but fungi, eggs, cooked food, and possibly other things I can’t think of right now.
Years before I became a Pagan (at age 20), I seriously considered becoming a Jainist: “an Indian religion that prescribes a path of nonviolence towards all living beings” (per Wikipedia). I was fanatical about not wanting to deliberately hurt anyone, ever, no matter what circumstances I was in. Even self-defense was, at best, morally problematic. I always took the high road. You know, like Jesus. And that is how I thought of it, albeit unconsciously: “I’m just that much more spiritually enlightened than everyone around me. I’m Holy because I Try Harder than all of you slackers.”
That wasn’t much consolation when I was getting emotionally abused, beaten up, terrorized, and raped, or receiving death threats. But that had to be happening because my tormentors were Bad People, while I was a Good Person, therefore I win, right?
Well, I did fight back twice with one person, once with another. But I was crippled with guilt afterwards. So much so that I would not even admit to myself that I was effective at defending myself — that I hurt them enough to really get their attention. And that I enjoyed that effectiveness.
That was really hard to write.
I look back on my life and it’s inescapable that if I had defended my boundaries that assiduously all along, I couldn’t have been a doormat. On the other hand, realistically, my primary caregivers would not allow me to have interpersonal boundaries that could not be breached. Not just allowing my consent to be abrogated, but growing up not even realizing Consent was a Thing, kept me alive. It was a shitty life, to be sure, but I did survive it. I never thought I would live to be 21, or 25, or 30. But here I am in my mid 40s.
These days, the animals I feel especial kinship with all seem to be opportunistic eaters: bears, foxes, badgers, squirrels, turkey vultures, Opiliones. I’m not sure about the Opiliones, but the others will all vigorously defend themselves, their kin, and/or their territory. They push back.
I’m feeling my way through determining where my boundaries are, and then defending them. I’ve recently dropped several vestigial connections to people who had mistreated me. I’m reevaluating how I spend my time, for what purposes. I’m preparing for a bold new venture, which will require me to not just exercise rusty skills, but learn new ones.
I’m saying No a lot. And I don’t feel guilty.
My lingering obsessions with unhealthy relationships and the people in them are fading.
I’ve got way more important stuff to do.
Making friends with my (Jungian) shadow and getting in touch with my inner unrepentant omnivore are giving me new insights into practices I have long been fascinated by: environmentalism, mindfulness, and nonviolence-no-matter-what. What these all have in common for me is the way I practiced them, which, at its core, was really about hating myself, and hating the complexity of being a human being (rather than something supposedly-pacifistic, or ‘self-sacrificing’, like a white-tailed deer). I didn’t feel comfortable even recognizing conflicting desires within myself. So many practitioners of environmentalism, mindfulness, and nonviolence have very rigid ideas about what everyone should be doing at all times, as well as what they should stop doing. No matter what your context is, somehow the approach is always the same, and supposedly that will always work. If it doesn’t, maybe you’re not ‘pure’ or ‘holy’ or ‘committed’ enough. Sound familiar? (Hint: This is the same mindset I was beating myself up with for 40 years.) However, even saints and bodhisattvas were human beings. They had flaws. They annoyed people. They made poor choices. They failed at things. They hurt people. Life is about learning to navigate complexity. If you only ever encounter difficulties that can be competently ministered to with your current philosophy? You’re not really challenging yourself. But more to the point, no one philosophy is going to address everything. And even if it did, I personally wouldn’t advise following a path like that. Because it’s too narrowly focused. That kind of ‘purity’ is not only unsustainable, it makes you kind of a self-righteous jerk. That’s who I was for 40+ years. And it didn’t even make me happy! Well, how could it, growing out of hating myself and my embodied life, and hating being a human being. Human beings are messy, fallible, contradictory – glorious tangles of incompatible impulses — and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Sometimes I’m selfish (not often enough!). I already had a reputation with some people of being flaky – I think I need to revel in that, not agonize over how to ‘fix’ it. Now I’m figuring out where I can add a little mean to my life, a little thoughtless, a little wasteful. I’m done being a goody-two-shoes who is miserable; I want to embrace all my sides.
I’m proud to be an omnivore! What are you?