What I’ve Learned in 50 Years

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

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

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

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

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
.’ As I celebrate 50 years on this planet, I seem to be
spending a lot of time in that field.

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