What I've Learned in 50 Years

Looking at life with a new appreciation of ambiguity


| March / April 2004


I turned 50 on Christmas Day and, from the venerable perch of the half-century mark, I see the landscape of my life in all sorts of subtle shadings that look less and less black and white. This surprises me; I didn't expect that middle age would bring such moral ambiguity.

From the time I became a vegetarian at age 3, when I went to nursery school on a farm and made the connection between eating meat and killing animals, I have been a creature of absolutes, trying to carve out the precise delineation between right and wrong. By the time I was in my mid-30s, I rarely drank liquor or coffee, never took drugs -- over-the-counter, prescription, or recreational -- never ate meat, was neurotic, obsessive, judgmental, and self-righteous, and had horrible migraine headaches. That stage of my life culminated in having my four wisdom teeth pulled under nothing but hypnosis. The extractions went fine, but something got sprung in me. The next time I went to the dentist, for two small fillings, I was rigid with anxiety. My dentist, who is also my friend, finally suggested that I try nitrous oxide. When I finally agreed, the experience proved to be a turning point in my life. I had the insight that the rigidity of my moral stances and the toxic emotions that they generated were probably more damaging to me -- and to others around me -- than any substance.

Nothing changed on the surface at that point, but I started to notice that the people who seem the most alive and spiritually evolved are the ones who are the least bound by dogma about right and wrong. I think of the Wisconsin farmer who told me with tears in his eyes about how he would scratch his hogs' heads and sing to them while the butcher shot them. I think of the most profound spiritual teachers I've encountered and how a number of them eat meat or drink or smoke cigarettes or smoke pot or carouse in various ways that confound my pre-nitrous oxide reality.

One by one my self-imposed rules have fallen away. One day someone served me meat that he had prepared with a lot of love and I discovered that, despite a lifetime of vegetarianism, the right action in that moment was to accept the gift. So I did. Ever since then, I've eaten (organic, free range) meat occasionally, so I guess I'm not a vegetarian any more.

I care as much now about animals as I did when I was 3, and I certainly know a lot more now about the issues around meat consumption, so I can't intellectually justify the shift in my diet; I can only say that it feels right. In fact, these days, the only absolute that really seems to matter is keeping an open heart.

We have a prime example of moral ambiguity right now at Utne magazine. In my last column I mentioned that we had accepted a tobacco ad and I made a rather fatuous comment about considering the fact that I occasionally smoke cigarettes and do yoga as a mark of my versatility. Since then we've gotten comments from readers -- most of them perplexed and disappointed rather than outraged.

Diana McFadden
6/19/2009 2:39:57 PM

Dear Nini and Utne: Okay…Joke’s over. When will you stop carrying Santa Fe "Natural" Tobacco Company's ads? "Organic non-additive" tobacco? There is nothing organic about smoking. The main toxin in tobacco was and always has been nicotine. It alone is highly addictive and spares very few. In fact, a recent study found that the cigarettes produced by this tobacco company to be among the most addictive, due to the molecular structure of the nicotine particular to the tobacco used in those cigarettes. This company was required by the government to include in their ads the warning about how "organic" does not constitute a safer cigarette. Santa Fe Tobacco is part of an industry that has thrived for centuries on slavery, deception, fake science, naivete, and unrelenting addiction. I would expect Utne to produce an expose on this tobacco company, detailing their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the local artistic community of Santa Fe - not to mention their pitches to the greater Progressive community, guised in terms such as "organic" and...."local farmer." Come on....It was obvious to me and other readers. No justification I’ve seen for carrying these ads amounts to anything more than lame, defensive drivel. Who cares whether or not this company is "independent" and "sustainable" in its practices... It is a tobacco company, and the products they make are toxic when used as directed. It would be funny if it weren't for the fact addiction knows no boundaries - and that by carrying these ads you have given a tobacco company a straight shot into the Progressive community. Alcohol is much kinder, in that it is benign, even beneficial in moderate amounts. Carry ads for wines and microbrews instead! At least they have some redeeming qualities. Please reclaim your dignity and standards - and ditch this and all other tobacco ads once and for all. Tell Santa Fe Tobacco that you neither n