Friday, October 28, 2005
"We are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of the world has been and will be constructed by men. The question is this: Are we to be controlled by accidents, by tyrants, or by ourselves in effective cultural design?" - B. F. Skinner
In 1997, I was in London, after having cycled from Maidenhead to Cambridge, and I was starving. I felt dizzy from dehydration and hypoglycaemia. Seeking relief, despite the protests of my companion, I ordered some french fries from McDonald's. That act alone, apparently killed our friendship.
Or perhaps not.
I'd written to her for 10 years, and we had a strange, but frankly wonderful relationship. Our letters contained no ordinary musings. She and I would debate world systems and write about spiritual abundance mixing, like a tonic, into our teenage intoxications. We send thick parcels across the Atlantic, filled with photographs and newspaper clippings, and several pages of typewritten documents. She was focussed on the environment, and had met Prince Charles and received some kind of commendation from him. She went on to do a Ph.D in Cambridge, although I don't remember her mentioning this priveledge had been accorded to her until her studies there were well underway. It was a humble and passionate correspondence, and somehow, me being the eldest, I had the effect of being her Guide. But after not so many years I felt my Apprentice had become my equal, and that was certainly true when we both found ourselves in Tanzania, me at 6000m, while she and her expeidtion combed the forests in a park mere kilometres away. She invited me to join the expedition, but we went on another safari instead.
A year later, or so, I went to England.
It was at this point that I finally caught up with her. I found her in Cambridge one day, sitting crosslegged on the floor, listening to classical music in an art gallery.
She made an impression with her body as much as she had on paper, sharing her thoughts. She had long hair, and a pixie like slightness about her. She always seemed to be barefeet, and her eyes shone with intelligence and clever mischief. She wore silky thin dresses, dark, but embedded with bright cosmos. She spoke with a Cheshire accent, which always reminded me of audio tapes I'd listened to in rapt facination, of The Famous Five. She spoke just like those characters, and woven into all of that was adventure and unspeakable thrills. She was everything pure and strong and shining from my deepest, and most sincere childhood places.
I'd gotten postcards from her, over the years, from as far afield as Peru. But she'd been to Madagascar, and Bolivia, and India too.
One day we sat in a garden, near her student house, in Cambridge. I was snapping pictures of the furry bumblebees working through the colorful pompoms. I remember feeling mentally exhausted, because she chattered on and on extremely quickly (as I sometimes do) and it was hard to follow her stream of consciousness and offer a few torrents of my own. I found I was getting a headache. It was basically a kind of intellectual game of tag...it was the mental equavalent of a long run beside a fit and efficient companion.
We discussed, as I remember, two things in particular: religion, and the environment. She admitted to being surprised and unhappy to hear that I was a Christian (at that stage I was just beginning to dismantle the dogma of my beliefs, and search for original answers, and original truths). She suggested that religion did more harm than good, and offered her examples.
I suggested, through the course of our conversation, that caring for animals on a microscopic scale (recording bird's songs and measuring the sizes of eggs)may be ultimately ineffective (in terms of the grand mission to conserve and keep the wilderness)if we aren't able to persuade the vast majority of the human race to abandon their destructive patterns. I felt economics and a kind of...communication campaign to 'awaken' the masses was necessary. Perhaps we were both fools to think, then, that we could make any difference. But it excited us, and each excited the other, that this was possible, and what's more, essential. We shared a sense of mission...and now, I believe, we lacked real confidence in the practical matter of it.
Many factors tore at the two of us, most of all we were both ensconced in relationships which would exact heavy tolls. Mine on my spirit, hers on her heart. She had an abortion soon after I met her, and I confronted her with the irony: that she cared so much for the life of this planet, in its insects and leaves, in the birds and the beasts, but when it came to what ought to be most precious of all, the life she's spun (wittingly or not) then it was to be 'gently extinguished'. Although I understood she did not want to abandon her doctorate at Cambridge, she somehow delivered a deadly blow to all the illusions of childhood, and adulthood. She said as much, during our time together, and gave me a gift; a tape where she'd recorded a collection of music, and inscribed on a sliver of paper: "Lose your illusions or they'll overcome you." Or words to that effect.
I felt judged, I remember, when we discussed my Christianity. She decided, based on her perceptions about Christians, that I was simply wrong, and deceived. This irked me.
I felt that same judgement when I went into McDonald's that day. I was in a terrible way, I was literally dizzy and struggling not to pass out. She insisted that I get food somewhere else. I didn't sense what mattered most - one human being simply caring for another, and being able to push aside prejudices, however well intentioned. Prejudice is prejudice. Kindness and sensitivity ought to extinguish our prejudices. In an ideal world anyway, and until then, I was more than anything else, an Idealist. Today I am not, my standards are a lot lower, but given the framework of this planet, it's an operant philosophy. It has to be if we are to learn to control ourselves and the unfolding accidental nature of our lives.
Again, I understand her frustration with McDonald's, and Coke and all the big multinationals. They are the prime destroyers of our environment. But one needs to have a sense of perspective. A hungry person needs to eat, and after that, it's a good time to discuss policy.
I chewed on those long salted yellow fries.
Some of those lights in her eyes had diminished.
Letters curled in flames, erupting in piles of soft feathers and smoke.
This is how I realised where it is that our survival, and the great change that needs to sweep this planet, ought to begin.
As a rule, I never eat at McDonald's. I'd urge you to do the same.
It's not healthy.
But if you do, don't blame the corporation for what you become. We (McDonald's and Me)are one and the same. The world can be changed, but it starts with me, and then with you. One way you can commit to this necessary campaign, is to avoid McDonald's.
From then on, you'll know what to do.
"A person does not act upon the world, the world acts upon him." - B. F. Skinner