Monday, May 1, 2017

Equals to Be Honored

If there is one principle that guides my actions, it is that all beings are worthy of the same respect as Homo sapiens. Species such as Odocoileus virginianus (white-tailed deer), Laetiporus sulphureus (chicken-of-the-woods mushroom), Urtica dioica (stinging nettle), and Lactobacillus delbrueckii (lactic acid bacterium), as well as entities like mountains and streams, are equals to be honored, and not simply resources for my use or mistreatment. I will strive throughout my life to embody this principle in all of my actions. Judging by the way I effortlessly grouped the above beings into living/non-living, and how I put the ‘living’ in roughly size order, I still have quite a ways to go before I live my ideals!

Though I do kill and eat members of the species above, drink from streams, and erode the mountains with my feet, my duty is to better fit in with these beings to help ensure their survival. This role seems daunting because I was not taught the principle of universal respect growing up. Fitting in with nature is intuitive to me, but conditioning has not set me up to easily match my intuition and actions. I came up in a community and society where I was told that I was extremely important, that there was an outside and an inside, and that there was some type of narrative that I was roughly supposed to live out, albeit with a few of my own choices permitted. Humans were the pinnacle, with pets as a close second, followed by perhaps ornamental flowers. I was presented with a menu, if you will, that I was free to pick and choose from; but, the menu was the menu and it was all I saw. As a result, parts of my life are still tied to that menu.

It wasn’t until very recently that I threw out the menu. I didn’t like the taste of many of the items anymore. I’ve realized that the plane flights, the car rides, the food choices, the ‘jobs,’ the forms of entertainment, the obligations, all the way down the fate of my poo when it leaves my body, were not what I wanted. In fact, as I slowed down and reconnected with myself and the humans and non-humans around me, I was able to clearly see the destruction that my way of living was and is causing. It was not pleasant. But, by unearthing the source of my life-long unease, I discovered why I have been largely passive, unexcitable, academically high achieving, and ultimately directionless. Importantly, I’ve caught glimpses of living fully and in the present, and am starting to see some picture of how to live the right way.

Tulip poplar flower in the woods down the street.

Something awesome happened when I gave myself time and space to do what I wanted to do, and removed the typical constraints that I would put on my time. Namely, as an almost 30 year old, I allowed myself not to think about ‘what I wanted to do’ in terms of ‘how I will make money.’ I stopped scheduling so much and just allowed myself to be. One thing that I discovered is that I enjoy finding my own food, or knowing first-hand who grows or finds it. A simple realization, really; and, I can lessen the ecological damage of my food choices this way. I have also lessened the damage of my “entertainment” choices because procuring food, and observing nature while doing it, takes time and I like doing it. Spending time in the ecosystem, instead of shielded from it, is what I choose to do above all else.

Because there is a non-human world out there that sustains me, but that I’ve neglected, I find wonder around every corner, in every square foot. There are individuals, let alone entire species, that I’ve never met. In living and dynamic ecosystems, something is always new to be found. Their tracks come and go, as they are born, die, and change with the seasons. In contrast, when I look out the window of my current residence or office, concrete does not change particularly quickly or provide stimulation. Diversity and life are paved over with pourable material designed to choke it all out. People are hurrying around to get, well, somewhere.

Center: sad American Chestnut in MD. Casualty of humans out of balance.

Because of the wonder close by, I've found that my desire to travel long distances has waned. Granted, I have traveled looong distances in the past, and likely will again. These past trips may have also affected my current outlook. But, I have no flights on my horizon, and I feel content with that. I’m sure I will have some explaining to do, at least for a bit longer, amongst my peers as to why I’m not jet setting any time soon. There is so much to be found near where I live, especially where human populations drop off. I am beginning to own and internalize that feeling.

I am experiencing something that I haven’t for the vast majority of my life – comfort in my own skin, as opposed to comfort in my job or comfort in living up to expectations. Let me tell you, it is wonderful. Is life the best ever, every day now? Definitely not, and it never will be. But, the good times are greater than ever and last for longer periods. At times, I can say I’m proud of myself, which I haven’t said much despite my long list of societal accomplishments. I am proud every day to be lessening or at least figuring out ways to lessen the destructiveness of my lifestyle to ecosystems. Connection makes my life better, and I am getting more of it every day.

To be sure, tensions arise often. I find myself attracted to people that reflect the innocence, comfort, and helplessness of my past, where I was just a person floating through life and hoping that I would get caught on something. I feel in myself a tendency to relapse, to throw in the towel and say that I must be mistaken, grab the menu, and cobble a few choices together. But, deep down, I know better. I’ve mixed, matched, and tasted from the menu to no avail: PhD student, fellowships, girlfriend-get married-mortgage-kids, federal government pensions. None of the combinations have brought me satisfaction.

Instead, here has been my guiding principle all along, waiting for me to just turn and face it: I should be living the way humans lived before we lost our connections to what keeps us alive, before we started disrespecting ourselves and others. The challenge and the excitement comes from the fact that there is no well-established path to where I’m going. There is no formal school, no certifications, no guarantee of safety. I am casting my net broadly, being mindful of relapsing into my old ways, and opportunities are beginning to open up. I’m meeting new people, going new places, seeing differently through these same old eyes. All the while, I have to keep reminding myself, until it sinks into my bones, “you are not the most important thing out there.” I am amongst the uncountable that are just as worthy of respect and care, and I must not thoughtlessly harm them.

Young buck in the woods down the street.

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