A few evenings ago he was sitting up on his bed looking troubled. His cheeks seemed blotched and his eyes were flicking and blinking, almost as if he was going to cry. But he’s nine, and I think it’s a point of honour with him never to cry. He said quietly, as I bustled around getting ready for lights-out, “Daddy, there’s something that bothered me today…”. I paused for a proper look at him and asked what’s up? “On the way back we stopped in the Chinese supermarket. There were all these fish in the tank. There were so many they could hardly move…”, and that’s where he tailed off. His expression told the story.
I could picture the scene from countless restaurants in Asia. Green murky water through smeared glass, a mass of plump seabass, carp or snapper crammed together, nosing back and forth in slow procession, a hand-net on a stick resting across the corner of the tank. I instantly got it, what pained him. Helpless to console, all I could say, after a while, was “I understand”.
When I was his age the school took us city kids to visit a livestock market in Gloucestershire. For the first time I saw pigs being forced from the back of a truck, along a maze of metal-barred channels and into a pen. They were being yelled at and struck, some were bloodied, and they slipped on the greasy concrete as they ran. They squealed horribly. The terror was palpable. I didn’t eat pork products for a number of years after that, but eventually the horror and injustice of it faded. I became immune, or numb, or just learned to block it out. Same with fish in supermarket tanks, and the stacks of hairy crabs in the wet market in season in Hong Kong and Shanghai – tightly bound in twine but still living, twitching. They’re there, but I don’t “see” them.
There’s just no room to carry those intense emotions – part shock, part anger, part grief, part shame – around with you all day, year after year. But for a few moments it struck me again when I saw his face that evening. That raw, defenceless, instantaneous identification with a fellow creature’s suffering. Compounded by your own helplessness to alleviate it in any way.
I believe that once in another world, before this world of absurdly mass-produced plenty, and maybe even alongside it in precious remaining pockets of sanity, the lives of the creatures we ate were esteemed. Their flesh was Nature’s bounty, to be treated with honour and gratitude. While they lived, they were respected and even revered. When they fell prey to us, we would mark their passing with appropriate solemnity.
The thing is, in this world we may block it out, that wish to empathise and respect, but I don’t think we overcome it. When money’s tight we pick the cheap eggs off the supermarket shelf and feed the kids at the burger chain, and we don’t worry about all that. Yet deep down we know: hens in nightmare factory farms; antibiotic-dosed cattle fattened on feedlot protein.
Step out the door sometimes and you wonder what’s niggling you. You tick off the mental checklist, all ok, but it’s only when you get there you realise what you forgot to bring. The subconscious takes note of these things.
I believe our individual and collective subconscious more than takes note of the pain and suffering we foist on the others. It’s there in Munch’s The Scream of Nature and in the anomie Jody recently wrote about so insightfully. And I think this was understood in those older ways of living. That the price for seeming not to care was to isolate ourselves from life itself. And that’s why we needed ways of ensuring that the proper caution and deference was observed in and around the business of converting other creatures into food. To protect ourselves from the damage that we otherwise do to ourselves and to our community of being.
But to my boy I couldn’t convey any of this, the other evening. He’s going to feel his share of it too, in time. I fear it’s all part of the price we pay.
Image courtesy of Yumtable Hong Kong