Sad desk salad and secular humanist grace
What is the place of the potato in the great chain of being?
A buttery and spicy aroma filled the elevator lobby before I even opened the cafeteria door. It’s a serve-yourself situation and I filled my lunch plate with vegetarian vindaloo over a bed of rice, roasted broccoli, and a garden salad with slivers of red onions. I’ve started working from the office again, some of the time, and that means eating lunch at work, mostly alone. My workplace provides employees with a hot lunch every day and it’s easy to start taking the food for granted. I don’t mean the perk of free food. I mean the food itself and what it means to eat it.
I cook most of the meals I eat, and I eat most of the meals I cook together with my spouse. He thanks me for cooking, and I thank him for helping or washing up. We wish each other bon appetit. That gives the meals a sense of meaning, even if sometimes we end up scarfing them down in ravenous silence or reading as we eat.
A simple faith #
So as I sat down that day with my lunch, struck by the beautiful meal, I wanted to thank someone or wish someone well, or at least feel some appreciation. I don’t want it to be like the sad desk salad days when office workers would rush outside, buy a prepackaged salad, and then hide in our cubicles and eat it alone like we were Mandalorians who had to take off our helmets in private to eat. I want to appreciate what I have. It would be handy, at this point, to have a God to thank, to stand in for all the people and circumstances that made the meal possible. Believers have an advantage in these situations.
“Ah, yes. I recall from your file that you are some sort of theist,” said the Emperor. “I am an atheist, myself. A simple faith, but a great comfort to me, in these last days.” - Shards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold
I’ve tried out a lot of religions. I was even raised in a fairly popular one. I like the sense of meaning they provide. I like the way seasonal rituals help shape the year and the years. I like the community. But every time I try to get involved with one, I come up against the sticking point that I just can’t believe the, well, I’m sorry, frankly, preposterous metaphysics that always eventually come up, and what’s worse, I can’t bear to pretend to believe or to be seen as believing because I say nothing when I don’t believe. Other people seem to get so much out of the thing, and I don’t want to spoil it for them, so I always just drift away. I tried Unitarian Universalism, too, but I thought the service was boring. I might be a secular humanist but I like a bit more of a sense of drama in my ritual.
And so when I need a ritual, like a thanksgiving prayer before eating, I have to cook my own, as it were. I might borrow someone else’s recipe, but there’s always some ingredient I need to sub out, or a bit of spice I have to add. I know lots of people practice conscious gratitude. I don’t think I’m inventing anything original here. I think this one is nice though, and it arose kind of spontaneously the first time.
Think of the potato #
I sit down and look at the food before me. I think about the people who brought it out from the kitchen. Sometimes they’re sitting nearby having their lunch, so it’s pretty easy to remember. I look at each piece of food I can identify and think about how it got here. Here’s the broccoli. It grew in the ground. Someone watered it. Someone picked it. Someone packaged it and shipped it. Someone washed it and cut it into pieces. Someone roasted it and spiced it. Here’s a mushroom. It probably grew on a mushroom farm like my uncle used to have. Someone nurtured it and picked it. Someone cleaned it and sauteed it. Someone mixed the sauce. Someone devised the recipe.
Here’s a potato. It grew in the earth. A machine probably harvested it and people picked it over. Someone washed it. Someone peeled it. Someone cooked it. If there is meat, I think about the animal and how it might have lived. I think about the people who raised it and cared for it. I think about the people who butchered it and who prepared the meat. I imagine all the chains of people, of labor and supply lines, the way it’s all connected. It takes far less time to think than to write or say. I see the web of interconnectedness and I know I am part of it.
After writing this post, I realized I owe an intellectual debt to Debbie Chachra's 2017 essay in the Atlantic, Gratitude for Invisible Systems. While I've thought about the world as a web of systems for a long time it was mostly in mystical and later political terms. Dr. Chachra's essay articulated the "complex technological underpinnings" so sharply that I immediately assimilate the idea as obvious. It's a funny thing that happens when someone communicates a good idea very clearly. You think you've always had it. It's easy to take it for granted.
Dear readers, I took a break from posting about Derrida this week, but I'll pick up the logocentrism talk again, fear not.