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.
So here is how I see this bit of morally ambiguous terrain: The ad gives us needed revenue, true, but I wouldn't run it if I thought doing so was wrong. And yet I can't honestly say that I feel rock solid in my decision to accept it, either. I don't endorse smoking and I'd prefer that my children not smoke. Even people who smoke only a little would probably be healthier if they didn't smoke, but I think it is possible to smoke sometimes without its being a death sentence or ethically repugnant. A few days ago, as I was pondering all this, I read a comment from a doctor in an alternative health newsletter who said that in his mind, margarine is worse for us than cigarettes.
And yet, as our readers told me of the pain that smokers and their families have been through, I continue to debate my call. In my heart, I don't think running the ad is going to persuade anyone to smoke who doesn't anyway. And for people who do smoke, switching to organic or non-additive tobacco would probably be a good thing.
So, for now, we'll run the ad.
The Persian mystic Rumi wrote that 'out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.' As I celebrate 50 years on this planet, I seem to be spending a lot of time in that field.