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June 29, 2010

Dolphins and Repentance

(In response to a conversation begun by Mary Trainor-Brigham, author of Deep Cinema: Film as Shamanic Initiation, on Facebook. Edited.)

Fascinating, seeing Ric O’Barry’s film, The Cove, as a kind of hero’s journey. I have chosen not to see the film, as I have difficulty processing scenes of graphic violence. I felt like I had seen all I needed or wanted to when I saw the trailer.

What strikes me, though, is how complex it all is, this living and making sense of living – especially for those who attempt to live mindfully and do good in the world. I’m sure that I was not alone in watching and enjoying O’Barry’s Flipper, or in gaining affection for dolphins. Some dolphin-loving activists first fell in love with dolphins through Flipper. No question that many are able to go swim with dolphins in captivity without qualms, and that impulse, too, may arise from their first exposure to Flipper. O’Barry’s conversion, his awakening to the harm caused to dolphins by the captivity that was necessary to making Flipper, is one of many repentances taking place daily. Everyone who decides to become a vegetarian is making the same kind of shift – perhaps less dramatically, with less cinema-worthy story attached, but with no less good accomplished.

We need not feel guilty about what we once did; as Jonathan Safran Foer says in Eating Animals, he was participating in his family’s tradition, eating the food they ate. But part of initiation, whether in a tribal or an individualistic culture, is departing from the norm, from tradition – as Buddha did when he left the palace, as Francis did when he stripped naked. The people who make the tribe or family uncomfortable are the ones who describe new ways for the tribe to behave. Getting jailed, as O’Barry was, is a great metaphor for the kind of response newly-awakened ones risk from their society when they awaken and begin to behave differently.

And so the person who loves community and wants to foster it breaks the community’s laws and risks censure or exile. It’s a profound act of love and respect for both the community and one’s own lights, and the antithesis of the jingoistic nationalism inherent in “America: Love it or Leave it.” The one who awakens breaks the law and is willing to suffer the penalties for doing so.

In the process, they may call down fire and brimstone on practices that they and their tribe did in all innocence, as if they were calling it down on mass murderers.

True believers can be a strident lot.

The Apostle Paul called himself the chief of sinners for persecuting Christians – i.e., for being a good, orthodox (small o) Jew of his time – and then perpetuated a new version of patriarchy. Safran Foer and the authors of Skinny Bitch and Skinny Bastard, among others, are pointing out the ubiquitous and unimaginable cruelty of factory farm-raised meat, which most people ate because it’s the comfort food their parents and grandparents served to make us grow up big and strong. Others warn us of the plastics that made our showers safer, our cars lighter, and our shipping cheaper, or of the cars and planes that made far-flung families and friends accessible, or of the air conditioning that made Missouri summers less lethal for young and old. Michael Pollan informs us (in Omnivore’s Dilemma, I think) that the nitrogen fertilizer that was used to enable us to feed the starving in the middle of the last century is what has enabled our population to explode, thus placing an unsustainable burden on our shrinking planet’s resources. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz thought he was feeding the hungry, making food cheaper, and improving the economy by telling farmers to plant from fencerow to fencerow. And O’Barry rightly declaims the evils that arose from his work to entertain children with a TV show about an aquatic version of Lassie.

It all seemed, not just harmless, but virtuous, innovative, or charming.

Ric O’Barry made a family TV program, and now says he has blood on his hands. This is one way society’s mores change: entertainment becomes exploitation; convenience becomes pollution; comfort food becomes cruelty.We needn't feel guilty, but we should pay attention and be willing to consider there might be a better, less harmful, way to live. As I understand it, the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to change one's mind.

I think the message to take away is humility in the face of the unknown consequences of even our best-intentioned actions. In our daily lives, whether fixing dinner, creating a TV show, or putting science to work in the service of feeding the hungry, we cannot know what fresh blood we may be spilling. We must do the best we can, and trust our children to correct our errors if we run out of time to do so.

1 comment:

  1. You and Barry are right. Living is a process of 'waking up'. What seemed okay a few years ago is no longer okay once we have knowledge. Can we then ignore what we learn? Of course we can, but let's not kid ourselves. We ignore it because its uncomfortable and inconvenient to acknowledge that the way 'we've always done it' is not an excuse for continuing. I think this particularly applies to the convenience of comfort food. We now know that modern 'farming' practices have made chicken the most economical food source in the west. But we also know that in order to process it in the volumes we do, animals must suffer barbarism on a scale never seen in human history. Now, can we really justify stopping off at KFC on the way home? Nor do economic interests offer a valid excuse. Banishing the slave trade put a lot of people out of business and inconvenienced a lot of others!


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