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2013 Winter Issue 3 (February 1, 2013)

Embracing a Complex Convocation

February 2, 2013
By Drew Higgins

“Drew, this a huge bummer,” read a text I received during Helene York’s Friday Convocation. It was from a friend I’d convinced earlier in the day to come to the speech. Despite my previous enthusiasm, however, I was now inclined to agree with her: this was depressing.

York offered a national, “big picture” perspective of our food system in the U.S., and at least for the first thirty minutes of her talk, I listened attentively. But as she continued to rattle off the many symptoms of our “broken system,” my mind drifted.

It was all too overwhelming: harmful pesticides, overused antibiotics, animal cruelty, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, global warming. Sitting on that wooden bench in the chapel, the world appeared a mess of tangled knots to me, and it was as if this woman was saying, “you think you can untangle this thing? Try it. You unravel one knot, another is just going to present itself.”

York finally concluded and students flooded out of the chapel. My friend ambled over to me. “That was terrible,” she said. I nodded, and we commiserated as we walked to class. “Basically, we’re doomed,” I said. “I’m just never going to eat food ever again,” she countered.

I was angry—not at York, but at the reality she’d shown me. Well, ok, perhaps I was a little angry at York. But this was only an inclination to shoot the messenger. In truth, we desperately need more people like her who are willing to be, as she phrased it, a “persistent gnat on the nose of the elephant.”

This is not to say I agree with everything she said (I don’t) but it is to say that I have an abundance of respect for her work. Helene York is asking the questions that have no clean-cut, good or bad answers. The aim of her convocation was to “complicate” our views, and part of complicating those views was to present to us a delicate food system that’s made of, gasp, real people.

I’ll admit it: I villianize big corporations and their unabashed capitalism. I see the “broken system” as the fault of these anonymous, unnamed actors, who I (subconsciously or not-so-sub-consciously) think are Satan’s spawn for destroying this Earth I love. It sounds silly, but then, isn’t it easier to hate and blame than face the concept of complexity, that behind the “broken system” are real people, who are possibly just as human as you and me?

Maybe. Or maybe not. In his 2011 commencement speech at Kenyon College, which later became the essay “Pain Won’t Kill You,” Jonathan Franzen addresses this very dilemma. “When I was in college, and for many years after,” he writes, “the more I looked at what was wrong…rising global temperatures, the trashing of our oceans…the angrier and more people hating I became.”    

So what did he do? To simplify a much more intricate essay, Franzen fell in love with birds (bet you didn’t anticipate that one). It was an unexpected love, but one that nevertheless forced him to become invested on a new level, to run towards his “pain and anger and despair” rather than away from them.

In practice, this meant writing about what angered him and meeting the folks behind the “broken system” Helene York depicted last Friday. “In each case,” Franzen writes, “when meeting the enemy, I found people whom I really liked.” And once he liked the enemy, the enemy was no longer the enemy. He stopped hating, started loving, and in the process, created far more positive change than stewing in his despair ever did.

Now, I don’t think we should all go out and become avid bird watchers (although that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?) But Franzen’s wisdom suggests that the black-and-white, good-guy-bad-guy blame game is actually a whole lot harder and more depressing than embracing the nuanced perspective of these issues.

Thinking about Helene York’s convocation in this context, the complexities she presented seem less daunting and perhaps, even promising.

They mean I have an option when faced with the global problems at hand: I can sulk and dig my head in the sand, go buy my expensive organic food and feel righteous about it, or, like York, I can ask the difficult questions and in doing so, delve into a system that is both broken and real.  

“When you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people,” Franzen writes at the end of his essay, “there’s a very real danger you might end up loving some of them.” Essentially, we can choose to love or we can choose to hate—and that, at least to me, seems like a pretty easy decision.  

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