Paul FreedmanChester D. Tripp Professor of History, Yale University
Paul Freedman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Beginning in the late 19th century, a steady stream of dietary advice, corporate advertising and magazine articles created a division between male and female tastes that, for more than a century, has shaped everything from dinner plans to menu designs.
A separate market for women surfaces
Before the Civil War, the whole family ate the same things together. The era’s best-selling household manuals and cookbooks never indicated that husbands had special tastes that women should indulge.
Even though “women’s restaurants” – spaces set apart for ladies to dine unaccompanied by men – were commonplace, they nonetheless served the same dishes as the men’s dining room: offal, calf’s heads, turtles and roast meat.
As more women spent time outside of the home, however, they were still expected to congregate in gender-specific places.
Chain restaurants geared toward women, such as Schrafft’s, proliferated. They created alcohol-free safe spaces for women to lunch without experiencing the rowdiness of workingmen’s cafés or free-lunch bars, where patrons could get a free midday meal as long as they bought a beer (or two or three).
It was during this period that the notion that some foods were more appropriate for women started to emerge. Magazines and newspaper advice columns identified fish and white meat with minimal sauce, as well as new products like packaged cottage cheese, as “female foods.” And of course, there were desserts and sweets, which women, supposedly, couldn’t resist.
You could see this shift reflected in old Schrafft’s menus: a list of light main courses, accompanied by elaborate desserts with ice cream, cake or whipped cream. Many menus featured more desserts than entrees.
By the early 20th century, women’s food was commonly described as “dainty,” meaning fanciful but not filling. Women’s magazines included advertisements for typical female foodstuffs: salads, colorful and shimmering Jell-O mold creations, or fruit salads decorated with marshmallows, shredded coconut and maraschino cherries.
At the same time, self-appointed men’s advocates complained that women were inordinately fond of the very types of decorative foods being marketed to them. In 1934, for example, a male writer named Leone B. Moates wrote an article in House and Garden scolding wives for serving their husbands “a bit of fluff like marshmallow-date whip.”
Save these “dainties” for ladies’ lunches, he implored, and serve your husbands the hearty food they crave: goulash, chili or corned beef hash with poached eggs.
Pleasing the tastes of men
Writers like Moates weren’t the only ones exhorting women to prioritize their husbands.
The 20th century saw a proliferation of cookbooks telling women to give up their favorite foods and instead focus on pleasing their boyfriends or husbands. The central thread running through these titles was that if women failed to satisfy their husbands’ appetites, their men would stray.
You could see this in midcentury ads, like the one showing an irritated husband saying “Mother never ran out of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.”
But this fear was exploited as far back as 1872, which saw the publication of a cookbook titled “How to Keep a Husband, or Culinary Tactics.” One of the most successful cookbooks, “‘The Settlement’ Cook Book,” first published in 1903, was subtitled “The Way to a Man’s Heart.”
This sort of marketing clearly had an effect. In the 1920s, one woman wrote to General Mills’ fictional spokeswoman, “Betty Crocker,” expressing fear that her neighbor was going to “capture” her husband with her fudge cake.
Just as women were being told they needed to focus on their husbands’ taste buds over their own – and be excellent cooks, to boot – men were also saying that they didn’t want their wives to be single-mindedly devoted to the kitchen.
As Frank Shattuck, the founder of Schrafft’s, observed in the 1920s, a young man contemplating marriage is looking for a girl who is a “good sport.” A husband doesn’t want to come home to a bedraggled wife who has spent all day at the stove, he noted. Yes, he wants a good cook; but he also wants an attractive, “fun” companion.
It was an almost impossible ideal – and advertisers quickly capitalized on the insecurities created by the dual pressure wives felt to please their husbands without looking like they’d worked too hard doing so.
A 1950 brochure for a cooking appliance company depicts a woman wearing a low-cut dress and pearls showing her appreciative husband what’s in the oven for dinner.
The woman in the ad – thanks to her new, modern oven – was able to please her husband’s palate without breaking a sweat.
The 1970s and beyond
Beginning in the 1970s, dining changed dramatically. Families started spending more money eating out. More women working outside the home meant meals were less elaborate, especially since men remained loathe to share the responsibility of cooking.
The microwave encouraged alternatives to the traditional, sit-down dinner. The women’s movement destroyed lady-centered luncheonettes like Schrafft’s and upended the image of the happy housewife preparing her condensed soup casseroles or Chicken Yum Yum.
Yet as food historians Laura Shapiro and Harvey Levenstein have noted, despite these social changes, the depiction of male and female tastes in advertising has remained surprisingly consistent, even as some new ingredients and foods have entered the mix.
Kale, quinoa and other healthy food fads are gendered as “female.” Barbecue, bourbon and “adventurous foods,” on the other hand, are the domain of men.
A New York Times article from 2007 noted the trend of young women on first dates ordering steak. But this wasn’t some expression of gender equality or an outright rejection of food stereotyping.
Instead, “meat is strategy,” as the author put it. It was meant to signal that women weren’t obsessed with their health or their diet – a way to reassure men that, should a relationship flower, their girlfriends won’t start lecturing them about what they should eat.
Even in the 21st century, echoes of cookbooks like “The Way to a Man’s Heart” resound – a sign that it will take a lot more work to get rid of the fiction that some foods are for men, while others are for women.
From the hunger strike to the edible projectile, history offers abundant examples of food being used for political ends. Even so, the crowd of vegans who gathered in central London earlier this year are unlikely to forget the moment when Gatis Lagzdins skinned and ate a raw squirrel.
Along with his co-conspirator Deonisy Khlebnikov, Lagzdins performed his stunt at the weekly Soho Vegan Market on Rupert Street. He would subsequently demonstrate at VegFest in Brighton (although this time his snack of choice was a raw pig’s head) as part of a self-proclaimed “carnivore tour” intended to highlight the evils of a plant-based diet. At the London event, he wore a black vest emblazoned with the slogan: “Veganism = Malnutrition.”
The war on vegans started small. There were flashpoints, some outrageous enough to receive press coverage. There was the episode in which William Sitwell, then editor of Waitrose magazine, resigned after a freelance writer leaked an email exchange in which he joked about “killing vegans one by one”. (Sitwell has since apologised.) There was the PR nightmare faced by Natwest bank when a customer calling to apply for a loan was told by an employee that “all vegans should be punched in the face”. When animal rights protesters stormed into a Brighton Pizza Express in September this year, one diner did exactly that.
A charge commonly laid against vegans is that they relish their status as victims, but research suggests they have earned it. In 2015, a study conducted by Cara C MacInnis and Gordon Hodson for the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations observed that vegetarians and vegans in western society – and vegans in particular – experience discrimination and bias on a par with ethnic and religious minorities.
Once a niche interest group parodied in TV shows such as The Simpsons (in which a character describes himself as a “level five vegan” who refuses to eat anything that casts a shadow), in the past two years, vegans have been thrust into the limelight. A philosophy rooted in non-aggression has found itself at the heart of some of the most virulent arguments on social media. In November 2018, Good Morning Britain hosted a debate titled “Do people hate vegans?”; the political website Vox tackled the question in even more direct fashion a week later, asking: “Why do people hate vegans so much?”
These recent displays of enmity towards vegans represent a puzzling escalation in hostilities, just as a consensus is starting to form that eating less meat would almost certainly be better for everyone – and the Earth. Of course, eating less meat does not mean eating no meat whatsoever, and the extreme prohibitions associated with going vegan (no animal products, no eggs, no leather, no wool) suggest it could have been just another Atkins diet or clean-eating fad – a flash in the pan that blows up and then dissipates, leaving behind nothing more than a dose of mild regret. Instead, just when the growth might have been expected to plateau, it kept on growing. A 2016 Ipsos Mori survey suggested the total number of vegans in the UK had increased more than 360% in the preceding decade, to more than 500,000.
Big business has been quick to cash in. The Los Angeles-based company Beyond Meat, producer of plant-based burgers whose taste and texture are as much like minced beef as possible, recently went public and soon afterwards hit a valuation of $3.4bn; huge conglomerates such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s are moving into the fake-meat market; supermarkets and restaurant chains have introduced vegan ranges. Yet perhaps the definitive proof of veganism’s mainstreaming – and the backlash against it – came in January this year, when the beloved high-street bakery chain Greggs announced it was launching a Quorn-based vegan sausage roll. It was pilloried by Piers Morgan, who tweeted: “Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns.” It turns out Morgan was mistaken: the vegan sausage roll was such a hit that the company’s share value leapt by 13%.Advertisement
Of course, what we grow, harvest, fatten and kill is political. A Tesco advert showcasing vegan produce met protests from the National Farmers Union who claimed it “demonised” meat, while Shropshire deputy council leader Steve Charmley unleashed a tweet-storm when confronted with pro-vegan advertising in a county he claimed was “built on agriculture”. This moment, and this conflict, were a long time coming. The rise of veganism is a question less of personal taste than of generational upheaval; less about meat and fish and dairy than the systems that put them on our tables in such excessive quantities. Ultimately, the vegan wars are not really about veganism at all, but about how individual freedom is coming into conflict with a personal and environmental health crisis.
In many cultures, the practice of abstaining entirely from animal produce has an established history: with their belief systems rooted in nonviolence, many Rastafarians, followers of Jainism and certain sects of Buddhism have been swearing off meat, fish, eggs and dairy for centuries. In large swathes of the west, though, public awareness of what veganism actually entails has been sketchy. There wasn’t even a commonly accepted English-language name until 1944, when a British woodworker called Donald Watson called a meeting with a handful of other non-dairy vegetarians (including his wife, Dorothy) to discuss a less cumbersome label for their lifestyle. They considered alternatives such as dairyban, vitan and benevore before settling on the term we use today, a simple contraction of vegetarian on the grounds that “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusions”.
But those logical conclusions did not stop at abstaining from certain foods. The original vegans were not pursuing a diet so much as a belief system, a wholesale ideology – one that rejected not just animal protein but also the way animals had become part of an industrial supply chain. In the 1970s, Carol J Adams started work on the book that would appear, two decades later, as The Sexual Politics of Meat: a seminal feminist text that positioned veganism as the only logical solution to a social system that reduced both women and animals to desirable, but disposable, flesh.
In the early 70s, other activists were considering how veganism might provide a viable alternative to existing food systems. In 1971, Diet for a Small Planet by the social policy activist Frances Moore Lappé introduced an environmental justification for going vegetarian or vegan to a global audience (it eventually sold more than 3m copies). In the same year, counter-culture hero Stephen Gaskin founded a vegan intentional community, The Farm, in Lewis County, Tennessee, bringing together some 300 like-minded individuals. Four years later, The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook by Louise Hagler announced: “We are vegetarians because one-third of the world is starving and at least half goes to bed hungry every night,” and introduced western audiences to techniques for making their own soy-based products such as tofu and tempeh.Advertisement
The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook fixed a certain vegan aesthetic in the minds of mainstream meat-eating culture for decades to come. Veganism became synonymous with soybeans and brown rice, with ageing hippies spooning beige bowlfuls of worthy grains and pulses – not the glamorous, vibrant, youthful practitioners that now radiate positivity from their Instagram feeds.
It is hard to overstate the role social media has played in transforming veganism’s image, with its facility for fostering an instant sense of community. Witness any number of viral internet phenomena – from Woman Laughing Alone with Salad to acai bowls and this generation’s staple, avocado toast – that have helped free it from its musty old associations. Instagram in particular gave vegan food mainstream exposure, repackaging it (good for you and photogenic!) for the low-attention-span internet age. Not everyone sees this as a positive development: the vegan writer and podcast host Alicia Kennedy considers it troubling that the internet has transformed something with such a rich political history into “a wellness thing” that allows would-be consumers to label themselves vegans without having to engage with the “excess baggage” of ideology. Another American writer, Khushbu Shah, has argued that the popularisation of veganism via social media has erased non-white faces and narratives from the dominant discourse, as white bloggers and influencers fashion a lifestyle in their image.
At the same time, a similar transformation was happening to the food vegans were eating. A blossoming street food scene in major cities influenced a dirtier, trashier vegan aesthetic that gave the diet a further boost. Recipe channels on YouTube and Facebook such as BOSH! – a glossy young male duo – used video to make stunt dishes (apple pie tacos; a plant-based take on a McDonald’s McMuffin; a watermelon “Jaegerbomb”) that injected some much-needed fun into the diet. (Tellingly, the BOSH! dudes, Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, refer to themselves not as chefs but “food remixers”.)Advertisement
The language began to reflect a new, more approachable veganism. Descriptors such as “plant-based” gained in popularity, effectively rebranding the worthy brown stodge of popular imagination into something green and vital. Other neologisms such as “flexitarian” (a term denoting someone who is predominantly vegan or vegetarian but who occasionally eats meat or fish, added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014) recast daunting vegan ideology as a fun, healthy, casual thing to try.
Cultish initiatives like Veganuary (an annual campaign encouraging people to go meat-free for the first month of the year, launched in 2014) and Meat Free Mondays tapped into this spirit – moving away from wholesale dietary transformation and towards something more manageably sporadic, with the added gloss of being able to share (that is, brag about) the experience online. Beyoncé declared an interest in veganism – at least, for breakfast – while athletes such as Venus Williams (who took up a raw vegan diet to combat a health condition) and Lewis Hamilton played a vital role in raising awareness and turning something once seen as weird and a little annoying into a desirable lifestyle.
Helping the cause was the growing body of scientific literature suggesting that some of the processes that produce the modern western diet were catastrophically bad for us. Bee Wilson wrote in these pages about the health effects of processed pork in a piece titled “Yes, bacon really is killing us.” Food in the Anthropocene, a report commissioned by the Lancet in conjunction with the global nonprofit Eat (a startup dedicated to transforming the global food system) concluded that “unhealthy diets are the largest global burden of disease”, and that meat-heavy food production is “the largest source of environmental degradation”. A major study led by a team from Oxford University, published in the journal Nature in October 2018, showed that huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to slow the rate of climate change. Livestock production has been shown to lead to dangerous levels of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Factor in pop-science phenomena like the documentaries Cowspiracy! and What the Health – available on Netflix – and your diet suddenly seemed like a way you could save the world.
Big Meat continues to lobby aggressively in favour of our God-given right to eat animal flesh, resulting in a series of legal prohibitions surrounding what can and cannot be called “meat”’ or even – in one US state – a “veggie burger”. But veganism’s virality has proved irresistible. From about 2015, vegan and plant-based cookery manuals started to proliferate at a dazzling rate, with the BOSH! boys selling upward of 80,000 copies and spending four weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller list (today, Amazon lists more than 20,000 results for the search term “vegan cookbook”). Sales of plant milks skyrocketed; financial results at the manufacturer of plant-based protein Quorn soared as what one analyst referred to as the “battle for the centre of the plate” began to draw (fake) blood. By 2018, Byron, M&S and Pret had invested heavily in vegan ranges. It was, this paper proclaimed, “the year that veganism moved out of the realms of counter-culture and into the mainstream”. In 2014, Veganuary’s inaugural campaign had attracted just 3,300 participants; by 2019 the number was greater than 250,000, with 53% of them under the age of 35.Advertisement
But veganism’s explosive growth alone does not explain why it attracted such controversy. There is something inherent to veganism and vegans that arouses deeper feelings. What is it about the vegan lifestyle that stirs such strong emotion in those who don’t happen to share it? Why do people hate vegans so much?
Early attempts to establish a vegan utopia did not go well. In the 1840s, the transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (father of the author of Little Women, Louisa May) founded Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts – a vegan community intended to be nothing less than a second Eden. But Alcott’s insistence that crops had to be planted and fields tilled by hand meant that not enough food could be grown for all of the members (even though the population peaked at just 13); a diet of fruit and grains, typically consumed raw, left participants severely malnourished. Just seven months after opening, Fruitlands closed – derided, in the words of one biographer, as “one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias”.
The timing was unfortunate for American vegetarians, who were already engaged in a pitched battle with public opinion. Vegetarians and vegans in the 19th century – known as Grahamites after the Presbyterian minister and diet reformer Sylvester Graham, who campaigned against meat-eating on the grounds that it was both unhealthy and morally repugnant – were the subject of frequent vitriolic editorials in the popular and medical press of the day, which described them as “cadaverous”, “feeble”, “half-crazed”, “sour-visaged” and “food cranks”.
In the 21st century the terminology may have changed but the sentiment remains much the same. The 2015 study conducted by MacInnis and Hodson found that only drug addicts were viewed more negatively among respondents. It concluded: “Unlike other forms of bias (eg, racism, sexism), negativity toward vegetarians and vegans is not widely considered a societal problem; rather, [it] is commonplace and largely accepted.”
In 2011, sociologists Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan observed a phenomenon they called “vegaphobia”, demonstrating that the British media consistently portrayed vegans in a negative light. In the days after her story broke, Selene Nelson, the freelancer at the centre of the Waitrose magazine row, was called “humourless”, “combative” and “militant”. In 2017, residents of the Swiss town of Aargau reportedly called for a vegan foreign resident to be denied citizenship because she was “annoying”, and the glee with which the global media retold the story revealed a widespread and casual prejudice.
Veganism’s opponents outline a host of objections to the lifestyle to justify their hostility. Per a now-familiar joke (Q: How do you know if someone’s vegan? A: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you), vegans are portrayed as preachy and sanctimonious, a characteristic that rankled among MacInnis and Hodson’s respondents in particular, who viewed “vegetarians/vegans more negatively when their motivations concern social justice rather than personal health”.Advertisement
There are rational motives to oppose vegan diets on health grounds. They can be deficient in crucial nutrients such as vitamin B-12. This is especially notable in the case of extreme diets (such as fruitarianism) advocated by some vegan bloggers or Instagram influencers with unorthodox approaches to nutritional science. Various supermarket chains have also attempted to meet the burgeoning demand for vegan products with highly processed vegan ready meals – from the Impossible Burger to plant-based meatballs, goujons and hot dogs. As Bee Wilson argued in these pages, the high proportion of processed ingredients in these products means the so-called health halo they enjoy may well be illusory.
Perhaps all we are doing, as veganism truly goes mainstream and companies such as Beyond Meat reap windfalls, is replacing one kind of industrialised system with another. Evidence suggests that intensive livestock farming is a poor solution to world hunger, given its impact on personal health and the environment, but intensive industrialised farming of soya, maize and grains comes at a significant carbon cost, too – as does flying in the ingredients to keep berries and nut butters on acai bowls or avocado on toast.
Veganism, of course, is rooted in social justice – a detail that has faded from view as it has gone mainstream. But even in its dilute 21st-century form, veganism remains confrontational: it casts people’s dietary choices in harsh relief, and people are by nature defensive. In countries where meat is prohibitively expensive for many, people are sometimes vegetarian or vegan by necessity; in the affluent west, not eating meat is an active choice. This makes it a rejection of a lifestyle and a rebuke to the majority’s values – especially in a country (such as the UK) still struggling to escape the long shadow of rationing. We are conditioned to like animals and decry animal cruelty, and yet we are also brought up in a culture that revels in the bacon sandwich, the Sunday roast, fish and chips. One simple explanation for why people don’t like vegans is because they show how confused humankind is about food choices and how illogical its decision-making can be.
And yet none of this really gets to the heart of what it is about vegans that makes people so upset. Calling them humourless or militant, sanctimonious or annoying or hypocrites – all of these terms are just smokescreens for what it is that people really feel, which is fear. Vegans are unsettling and uncanny: they live among us, speak like us, behave like us – but for one significant exception. Meat may be murder, but to some people, the prospect of life without it is even worse.
There is no justification for the amount of meat we eat in western society. The resources that go into humanely rearing and butchering an animal should make its flesh a borderline-unattainable luxury – and, indeed, in the past, it was. Meat always used to be the preserve of the wealthy, a symbol of prosperity: “A chicken in every pot” remained an aspirational but impractical promise across the best part of a millennium, from the days of Henry IV of France (when the term was invented) all the way through to Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign.Advertisement
It was only through the technological advances of modern agriculture that meat became attainable and available at supermarket prices. From the mid-1800s onwards, farmers could raise animals bigger, better and faster than in the past; kill them quicker; treat their flesh to prevent it from spoiling; transport it further and store it longer. A commonly cited psychological turning point was the second world war, which engendered what Russell Baker, writing in the New York Times, later described as a kind of “beef madness”. GIs were sent to the front with rations of tinned meat; once peace had been declared, there was no better symbol of the brave new world than a sizzling celebratory steak. In the course of just over a century, meat went from unattainable luxury to dietary cornerstone; these days, we feel entitled to eat meat every day.
In March this year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was discussing the Green New Deal on Showtime’s Desus & Mero US TV talk show when she observed: “Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like, let’s keep it real.” An apparently innocuous comment, rooted in the same common-sense good science that informed the Lancet report on meat and environmental degradation published around the same time? Not if you asked the Republicans, it wasn’t.
Representative Rob Bishop of Utah seized on Ocasio-Cortez’s comment, claiming that under the Green New Deal the eating of burgers would be “outlawed”. Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka went one better, using a speech at the Conservative Political Action conference to proclaim: “They want to take away your hamburgers! This is what Stalin dreamed about but never achieved!”
Stalin was, in fact, full of admiration for the American burger, going so far as to send his minister of foreign trade to the US on a fact-finding mission (the result, the so-called Mikoyan cutlet, would remain an affordable Soviet staple for decades). But “they’re taking our meat” is as evocative a rallying cry as “they’re taking our jobs” or “they’re taking our guns” – it conveys the same sense of individual freedoms being menaced by external forces, a birthright under attack. Ted Cruz (wrongly) alleged that his Democrat rival Beto O’Rourke planned to ban Texas barbecue if elected senator in his place: like the personal firearm, animal flesh has become an emblem of resistance against the encroachments of progressivism, something to be prised from your cold, dead hand. Men’s rights advocate Jordan Peterson is famed for following a beef and salt diet; Donald Trump is renowned for his love of fast food and well-done steak with ketchup; there is even a subset of libertarian cryptocurrency enthusiasts who call themselves Bitcoin carnivores.
In the internet age, the consumption of meat is visibly aligned with a certain kind of conservative alpha-masculinity. Before he found infamy eating raw flesh, Gatis Lagzdins was best known for hosting a YouTube channel peddling racist ideology and rightwing conspiracies about the Illuminati. Among the alt-right and affiliated circles online, the derogatory term “soy boy” has been adopted along with other terms such as “cuck” and “beta” as a way of mocking so-called social justice warriors for their perceived lack of vigour. This echoes a finding in the MacInnis/Hodson study, in which respondents from a rightwing background, who seek to uphold traditional gender values, see something alarmingly subversive and worthy of derision in any man who prefers tofu to turkey.
This loaded use of food-derived epithets cuts both ways. In the UK, the term “gammon” gained currency in the early 2010s as a pejorative apparently inspired by the puce skin tone of enraged, middle-aged middle Englanders. Food has always been bound up in personal identity, and thus inextricable from politics. In their etymology, common terms such as “diet” (Greek for way of life) and “regime” (Latin: rule) are metaphors for a struggle over what it means to lead one’s life correctly. The very concept of orthorexia (whose sufferers obsessively exclude foods from their diet that they consider harmful) has at its root a corrupted idea of “correct” eating. It is impossible to talk about diets without also talking about the implied inadequacies of those who do not follow them; to paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, tell someone what to eat and you tell them who to be.
The vegan conversation, then, is a stand-in for much bigger things. When we talk about veganism we are talking about environmental and social change; we are also contemplating the erasure of tradition (Texas barbecue! The Sunday roast! The sausage roll!). We are also tabling a long-overdue referendum on how our food choices affect us and the world around us. And as much as its popularity has been pumped up by concepts like flexitarianism, ultimately veganism’s goal is a world in which the annual per-capita consumption of animal products is precisely zero. No wonder things have got so heated.
Food can be a powerful conduit for our anxieties, too. Half a century ago, a letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine described a terrifying new condition whose symptoms – headache, sweating, heart palpitations – were associated with a common ingredient of dishes served in Chinese restaurants: monosodium glutamate, or MSG. The flavour-enhancing additive was so demonised that it was banned in some US cities. Despite multiple studies conclusively proving otherwise, the belief in so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome” remains widespread today: Asian-American chefs still find themselves having to justify the use of MSG despite its widespread use in non-Asian foods too. It is a neat example of the persistence of food-related urban legends. There was no doubt a racist element to the way the MSG myth spread; those involved in its dissemination were also motivated by a gnawing fear of obsolescence as a new threat to their existence began to gain popularity.
Those opposing meat-eating have a struggle ahead of them. It is clear that what is at stake here is not steak, but identity. A movement that preaches such wholesale change is bound to stir up anxieties, chief among them the sense that vegan dishes such as the Greggs Quorn sausage roll are being positioned not as alternatives but as replacements.
With a few notable exceptions – most of them religious – meat has retained its primacy in cultures across the world. It originally became a status symbol because it was harder to obtain than plant matter – even a small animal could run away, and if caught, was capable of inflicting wounds that could prove fatal in a world before antibiotics. As society became hierarchical, there was no greater token of status than the ability to eat meat on a whim. In her 2016 book Meathooked, Marta Zaraska records the discovery of Egyptian tombs in which the pharaohs had been buried alongside “meat mummies”, baskets of beef and poultry that had been embalmed in preparation for the afterlife. Our fetishisation of meat has not lessened – on the contrary, forecasters predict rapid increase in meat consumption in developing countries over the next decade. As a ready source of protein, meat remains the great aspiration, the surest proof of prosperity.
As Carol J Adams wrote, the words we use shield us from the moral consequences of carnivory: we eat beef, not cows, pork, not pigs, while a cabbage remains just a cabbage wherever it is in its life cycle. Our language ennobles meat at the expense of veg: strong, muscular types are “beefy”, lazy people are “couch potatoes”, unresponsive ones “vegetables”. Turning our back on meat-eating is not as simple as changing from pork to Quorn: it requires us to reject some entrenched values.
Already, there are signs that a great migration is underway. The UK university caterer Tuco recently reported that record numbers of canteens are going meat-free, describing the adoption of vegan or vegetarian diets among students and staff as a “mega-trend”. On the high street, too, there is a growing recognition that vegan ranges are not just opportunistic cash-grabs but potential best-sellers. After the success of Greggs’ vegan sausage roll, Tesco announced it would be increasing its range of dedicated plant-based products by nearly 50% to keep pace with demand.Advertisement
Sales may be growing fast, but they are barely making a dent in the $1.7tr global market for animal-derived protein. Certainly, a change of culture will not happen without the involvement of government, industry and science; as the past few years have shown, widespread change is also unlikely to happen without a fight. This makes the current field of conflict an unfortunate one – in the real world, we can practise moderation, emotional flexitarianism. Online – where many of the vegan wars’ most intense skirmishes are currently being fought – we do not find compromise or even look for it. The internet has made communication highly charged and polarised; the only way to be heard in such a screaming vortex is to shout louder.
But the body of evidence suggesting that we eat too much meat is approaching the point where it becomes undeniable. This summer, a UN report identified destruction of forests and emissions from cattle and other intensive farming practices as major factors driving the climate crisis towards a point of no return.
Some are proposing urgent action, such as the QC Michael Mansfield, who recently suggested (in a speech given at the launch of the Vegan Now campaign) that meat-eating could become illegal. He drew a parallel with the smoking ban, and it is indeed eminently possible that in time meat (especially red meat) becomes the new tobacco – a vice enjoyed by a small number of people in full awareness of its negative health consequences.
But in coining the term “ecocide” – and classing it as a crime against humanity – Mansfield framed the debate in different terms. We might portray the current moment as a precipice, and the growing interest in plant-based diets as the surest way back to safety. In this interpretation, the war on vegans is the act of a doomed majority fighting to defend its harmful way of life. Vegans might well be vociferous and annoying, holier-than-thou, self-satisfied and evangelical. But as their numbers grow beyond the margins, perhaps the worst thing they could be is right.
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“The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.” – J.M. Barrie
You know exactly what you want in life. But you can’t seem to get there. You have all these resolves.
You’re going to get healthy.
You’re going to write that book.
You’re going to be more present with your loved ones.
You’re going to start that home-based business.
You’re going to learn another language.
You’re going to be more patient and happy.
You’re going to get out of debt.
You’re going to be more organized.
You’re going to be a better friend.
You’re going to overcome bad habits.
But the problem is: Doing these is really hard. And it gets harder every day. Some days, it seems more realistic to just give up entirely. The whole taking one step forward and one or two steps backward pattern is getting old.
You’ve been telling yourself for a long time “Today is the day!” only to fall into old ways before the day, or if you’re lucky, the week, is spent.
When there’s a gap between who you are and who you intend to be, you are incongruent and unhappy. You’re torn, mentally exhausted, and regretful. You always slightly feel like a fraud to yourself, and probably to the people around you.
Conversely, Gandhi has said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
The Need For A Powerfully Transformative Keystone Habit
If you try to tackle everything wrong in your life, you’ll quickly burn-out and quit. It’s happened many times before.
Life is super busy. You don’t have time to focus on a thousand different areas of your life to change. That’s exhausting, and frankly, not helpful.
More effective than microscopically analyzing your sabotaging behaviors, is nailing down a “keystone” habit – which tightly locks all of your other habits in place. Without the keystone, everything falls apart.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes keystone habits as, “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.”
A person might start exercising once per week, and unknowing begins eating better and being more productive at work. She begins smoking less and showing more patience with her colleagues and loved ones. She uses her credit card less, feels less stressed, and has increased motivation toward her goals. The ingrained patterns in her brain reform and she becomes an entirely different person. All because she started exercising once per week.
You acquire one of these habits and everything in your life can change. Keystone habits spark a chain reaction of other good habits and can rapidly alter every aspect of your life.
Journal Every Day
“Keeping a personal journal a daily in-depth analysis and evaluation of your experiences is a high-leverage activity that increases self-awareness and enhances all the endowments and the synergy among them.” – Stephen R.Covey
Journaling daily is the most potent and powerful keystone habit you can acquire. If done correctly, you will show up better in every area of your life – every area! Without question, journaling has by far been the number one factor to everything I’ve done well in my life.
The problem is, most people have tried and failed at journaling several times. It’s something you know you should do, but can never seem to pin down.
After you read this post, you’ll never want to miss another day of journaling again.
Journaling Optimizes Your Creative Potential
Most people live their lives on other people’s terms. Their days are spent achieving other people’s goals and submitting to other people’s agendas.
Their lives have not been consciously organized in such a way that they command every waking, and sleeping, moment of their life. Instead, they relentlessly react at every chance they get.
For example, most people wake up and immediately check their phone or email. In spare seconds, we hop on Facebook and check the news feed. We’ve become addicted to input. Or in other words, we’ve become addicted to reactively being guided by other people’s agendas.
On the other hand, Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, wakes up and immediately writes in his journal for 30 minutes.
He does this because while he’s been sleeping, his subconscious mind has been brewing, scheming, problem-solving, and learning. So when Josh wakes up, he rushes to a quiet place and engages in a bust of intellectual and creative flow.
Creators focus on outputs rather than the general populace who focus on inputs. In their free moments, creators utilize their subconscious breakthroughs. Their days are filled with creative bursts, making them incredible at their craft.
If you want to have more creative flow in your life, stop checking your social media and email so much. Check them once or twice per day. Detach from the addiction to numb your mind and escape reality. Instead, get lost in the creative projects you’ve always wanted to do.
Journaling Accelerates Your Ability To Manifest Your Goals
As part of your morning creative burst, use your journal to review and hone your daily to-do list. Review and hone your life vision and big picture goals.
As you read and re-write your goals daily, they’ll become forged into your subconscious mind. Eventually, your dreams and vision will consume your inner world and quickly become your physical reality.
Journaling Creates A Springboard For Daily Recovery
People struggle drastically to detach from work. More now than ever, we fail to live presently. Our loved ones are lucky to experience a small percentage of our attention while they’re with us.
However, utilizing your journal can curb this mismanagement. At the end of your work day, re-open your journal and review your to-do list from that day. If your morning journal session was excellent, you’ll have likely gotten everything done you intended to do. Private victories always precede public victories.
Journal sessions are your post-work reflection time. Account to yourself what you got done that day and what needs to be moved to tomorrow. Write the things you learned and experienced.
Lastly, direct your subconscious by writing about things you want to focuson tomorrow. As you put work behind you for the evening, your subconscious will be preparing a feast for you to consume during your next morning’s creative and planning session.
This end of the workday journal session need not be as long as the morning session. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, recommends writing far less than you want to – only a few sentences or paragraphs at most. This will help you avoid burnout.
A primary objective of this session is to mentally turn-off work-mode. Just as in physical training, you need to rest and recover between work days in order to get stronger.
Use this session to completely unplug and detach from work. This is your time to recover and be present with your loved ones – there is more to life than work. The higher quality your recovery, the more potent and powerful your creative sessions will be.
Journaling Generates Clarity And Congruence
This keystone habit has so much power! By journaling in the morning and evening, you’ll quickly see the incongruencies in your life.
You’ll see crystal-clearly what needs to be removed and what should be included in your life. Journaling is a beautiful and powerful facilitator of self-discovery. My own journaling is how I’ve come to form my sense of identity and path in life.
On the pages of your journal will be the future world you are creating for yourself. You are the author of your life’s story. You deserve to be happy. You have the power to create whatever life you want. As the designer of your world, get as detailed as you desire.
Deeper level of learning, order, action, and release
Holding thoughts still so they can be changed and integrated
Releasing pent-up thoughts and emotions
Bridging inner thinking with outer events
Detaching and letting go of the past
Allowing you to re-experience the past with today’s adult mind
When you are in an intensely emotional mood, journaling can help you more fully experience and understand those emotions.
After you’ve vented on the pages of your journal, you’ll quickly find a release. Objectivity will return and you’ll be able to move forward.
Without a journal, intense emotional experiences can be crippling for hours, days, and even years. However, an honest and inspired journal session can be the best form of therapy – quickly returning you better and smarter than you were before.
Journaling Ingrains Your Learning
Humans are bad at retaining information. We forget most of what we read and hear. However, when you write down the things you’ve learned, you retain them far better. Even if you never re-read what you’ve written, the simple act of writing something down increases brain development and memory.
Neurologically, when you listen to something, a different part of your brain is engaged than when you write it down. Memory recorded by listening does not discriminate important from non-important information. However,writing creates spatial regions between important and non-important pieces of information – allowing your memory to target and ingrain the important stuff you want to remember.
Furthermore, the act of writing allows your subconscious mind to work out problems in unique ways, intensifying the learning process. You’ll be able to work out problems and get insights while you ponder and write about the things you’re learning.
Journaling Increases Your Gratitude
Even if you start a journal session in a bad mood, the insight writing brings has a subtle way of shifting your mind towards gratitude.
When you start writing what you’re grateful for, new chambers of thought open in the palace of your mind. You’ll often need to put your pen down and take a few overwhelming breathes. You’ll be captivated not only by the amazing things in your life, but by the awe and brilliance of life in general.
As part of your morning and post-work journaling sessions, be sure to include some gratitude in your writing. It will change your entire life orientation from scarcity to abundance. The world will increasingly become your oyster.
Gratitude journaling is a scientifically proven way to overcome several psychological challenges. The benefits are seemingly endless. Here are just a few:
Gratitude makes you happier
Gratitude makes other people like you
Gratitude makes you healthier
Gratitude boosts your career
Gratitude strengthens your emotions
Gratitude develops your personality
Gratitude makes you more optimistic
Gratitude reduces materialism
Gratitude increases spirituality
Gratitude makes you less self-centered
Gratitude increases your self-esteem
Gratitude improves your sleep
Gratitude keeps you away from the doctor by strengthening physiological functioning
Gratitude lets you live longer
Gratitude increases your energy levels
Gratitude makes you more likely to exercise
Gratitude helps you bounce back from challenges
Gratitude makes you feel good
Gratitude makes your memories happier (think of Pixar’s Inside Out)
Gratitude reduces feelings of envy
Gratitude helps you relax
Gratitude makes you friendlier
Gratitude helps your marriage
Gratitude makes you look good
Gratitude deepens your friendships
Gratitude makes you a more effective manager
Gratitude helps you network
Gratitude increases your goal achievement
Gratitude improves your decision making
Gratitude increases your productivity
Journaling Unfolds The Writer In You
I became a writer through journaling. While I was on a mission-trip, I wrote in my journal for one to two hours per day. I got lost in flow and fell in love with the writing process.
Get closer to the 10,000 hours Malcom Gladwell says are required to become world-class at what you do
Produce gems you could use in your other writing
Journaling Records Your Life History
I started journaling in 2008 after reading an article about the importance of journal writing. In the article, the author described how much journaling had changed her life. She said that after all these years, she now has 38 recorded volumes of personal and family history.
After finishing that article, I have never stopped writing in my journal. In my family room on a book shelf are 20-plus journals filled with my thoughts and experiences. I’m certain they will be cherished by my ancestors as I’ve cherished the writing of my loved ones who have passed on.
Religion: The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. – Oxford Dictionary
It is generally thought that the first cities and civilisations were in Mesopotamia. India and China claim they also had the first cities. There were early cities in South America. Whatever the truth, what we do know is that along with cities came civilisations that brought hierarchies, trade and ownership of land, people, women and children.
The city people’s fears were of losing status, being punished by their masters or not having enough to eat. Those in search of work and food also faced separation anxiety from their families and tribal grounds. In contrast forest tribes lived in a harmonious way with the recognition that each tribal member was of equal value and included as a part of the whole. The forest provided all their needs and food. Their only stress was immediate fear and danger (like a snake bite) and forgotten as soon as the danger was over. They made friends with death knowing they were reborn over and over as a coded frequency. They knew no sense of loneliness – surrounded by loving inclusive families and nature.
At some point the forest version of God which is the inclusive frequency of a unifying love where everyone and all of nature is God was replaced by a superhuman controlling religious power. This God outside of us can punish or reward us. This religious God is unreliable and must be kept happy. (He) must be prayed to for attention and his rules obeyed for favours.
The forest god is everywhere!… In the child, the river, the mother, the man’s penis, the woman’s womb, the sky and the moon.
The forest tribe know that all their actions affect everyone and everything.
If we remembered we are God we would regain a sense of place and inclusion and a naturally occurring moral compass with our constructive or destructive actions.
Let’s teach our children about the God in all of us that cannot reward or punish us and can only love us as we love ourselves and each other.
Translators: Mike Zonta, Melissa Goodnight, Richard Branam, Hanz Bolen
SENSE TESTIMONY: Without a unifying purpose, individuals and groups can pull apart.
5th Step Conclusions:
1) The intention of Truth is oneness and the effect of Truth is infinitely inclusive individuals and infinitely inclusive groups, all pulling together.
2) All individuation is the limitless outpicturing of ONE infinite Consciousness — the Cosmic Intentional Intelligence, that always informs absolute harmonious atunement, with its own singularly Perfect Being — thereby assuring, that truly encompassing cohesion, is eternal and evermore.
3) All Individuation of Truth is purposely organized instantaneously, abundantly,, harmoniously, expressing well being.
4) Truth Being the ‘I’ AM Withal Presence: this Iso-Morphed Relationship, the Arousing Uniform Superi – Sum, this Indivisible Dividend Is the Consciousness Aware Common Community of Interests’, this Exerting Force is the Attractive Setting.
All Translators are welcome to join this group. See Weekly Groups page/tab.
Annalee Newitz’s THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE (Tor, $26.99) stems from the premise that we exist in a heavily edited reality — and it’s dark. Two sides (at least) are engaged in a fraught, secret war over past and present. The Daughters of Harriet, a covert group of academics, are trying to secure voting and reproductive rights for women as far back as they can, while a group of men called Comstockers — after the real-life 19th-century anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock — are trying to strip these rights and destroy time travel to prevent any more edits from taking place.
But making edits is hugely difficult. In this version of our world, there are five known Machines that allow travel through time. These exist as vast, geological curiosities that require stone tapping in specific sequences to open wormholes into the past; consequently time travelers are called “geologists,” and need to live in proximity to a Machine for four years before the wormholes will admit them. The Machines allow travel through time, but not space, and are continents apart, which makes for interesting logistical limitations. Thus, Newitz’s time travel is not a frictionless endeavor; and the work of editing the past requires thorough research, which is complicated by the fact that several people remember different histories depending on whether or not they were present when the edit occurred.
Tess is a geologist, working with the Daughters on diminishing Comstock’s power — but she has a deeper secret. She’s also trying to edit her own personal history, illicitly visiting the early ’90s of her youth to affect the outcome of an important friendship between two Los Angeles riot grrls, Beth and Lizzy, that will either shape or destroy her.
Conceptually “The Future of Another Timeline” is breathtakingly brilliant, and part of a constellation of time-travel stories this year that wed present-day activism to a willingness to change the past. But as I read, I found myself far more affected by the smaller, fiercer story of Tess and Beth’s early years — the story of feral friendships formed in extreme circumstances, of surviving abuse and finding the power to seek revenge or walk away from it. Everything about that story clutched at my heart, while the broader time-travel stakes and narrative diminished in effect; I became less concerned with the overarching conceit than with the story of these young women arguing over what love and honesty demand. But time travel creates the space for that story to happen — and Newitz’s book is, more than anything else, about the importance of fighting for such spaces. In that, it’s entirely successful.Correction: Oct. 25, 2019
A biographical note with an earlier version of this column misstated the title of a story written by Amal El-Mohtar. It is “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” not “Seasons of Glass and Wine.”
Amal El-Mohtar, the Book Review’s science fiction and fantasy columnist, won the Nebula, Locus and Hugo awards for her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron.” She is also the co-author of “This Is How You Lose the Time War.”
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King’s beloved community exhibits agape love, which, as the love of God operating in the human heart, seeks to “preserve and create community.” Christ’s mature followers love each other as well as those who persecute or do evil against them. Christians confront hate with love because agape love derives its essence from the cross of Christ, which brings redemptive power. This love does not accept injustice or evil as acceptable. Rather, it loves by way of justice, which ensures equity in access, participation, and flourishing for everyone.
Some Christians might view the beloved community as a euphemism for the Kin-dom of God. In this way, people interpret the beloved community as something that is achieved in the future, but Dr. King’s words were for the present age, both national and global. For him, the human community meeting the basic needs of every person becomes beloved. Comprehensive healthcare, safe streets, affordable housing, nutritious food, strong schools, access to jobs, and meaningful employment are necessary for the beloved community. God prompts us to remake our hostility-filled communities into those where justice and love reign true. This also applies to the Church. What would The United Methodist Church look like, feel like, and be like if the beloved community became real for us? What would your local church be like?
The beloved community manifests and protects agape love as its guiding principle and is expressed in the following ways:
Offers radial hospitality to everyone; an inclusive family rather than exclusive club;
Recognizes and honors the image of God in every human being;
Exhibits personal authenticity, true respect, and validation of others;
Recognition and affirmation, not eradication, of differences;
Listens emotionally (i.e., with the heart) – fosters empathy and compassion for others;
Tolerates ambiguity – realizes that sometimes a clear-cut answer is not readily available;
Builds increasing levels of trust and works to avoid fear of difference and others;
Acknowledges limitations, lack of knowledge, or understanding – and seeks to learn;
Acknowledges conflict or pain in order to work on difficult issues;
Speaks truth in love, always considering ways to be compassionate with one another;
Avoids physical aggression and verbal abuse;
Resolves conflicts peacefully, without violence, recognizing that peacefully doesn’t always mean comfortably for everybody;
Releases resentment and bitterness through self-purification (i.e., avoidance of internal violence through spiritual, physical, and psychological care);
Focuses energy on removing evil forces (unjust systems), not destroying persons;
Unyielding persistence and unwavering commitment to justice;
Achieves friendship and understanding through negotiation, compromise, or consensus – considering each circumstance to discern which will be most helpful;
Righteously opposes and takes direct action against poverty, hunger, and homelessness;
Advocates thoroughgoing, extensive neighborhood revitalization without displacement (this also applies to the Church – working toward responsible and equitable growth, discipleship, and worship);
Blends faith and action to generate a commitment to defeating injustice (not forgetting that injustice can also be found within the Church);
Encourages and embraces artistic expressions of faith from diverse perspectives;
Fosters dynamic and active spirituality – recognizes that we serve a dynamic God who is not left behind by a changing world or people, and that a passive approach will not work;
Gathers together regularly for table fellowship, and meets the needs of everyone in the community;
Relies on scripture reading, prayer, and corporate worship for inner strength;
Promotes human rights and works to create a non-racist society;
Shares power and acknowledges the inescapable network of mutuality among the human family.
Most of us live with a constant stream of internal statements, criticisms and commands running through our heads. But we do have a choice: We don’t have to let them define us — or our days, says psychology researcher Steven Hayes. Here’s how we can disentangle ourselves.
When we’re worried or dissatisfied, most of us will do anything not to feel these feelings. Instead, we avoid them, search for something to distract or soothe ourselves, or try to problem-solve our way out of them.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) takes a different tack — it’s all about cultivating the psychological flexibility so we can live with what’s unpleasant and not let it run our lives. “Changing our relationship to our thoughts and emotions, rather than trying to change their content, is the key to healing and realizing our true potential,” says Steven C. Hayes, psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the originator and pioneering researcher of ACT.
Hayes and other colleagues have found that psychological flexibility is made up of six core skills, including one that they call “defusion.” Below, Hayes explains what it is and how we can learn to build it.
Much of the time, most of us are living in a state of cognitive fusion — fully buying into what our thoughts tell us and allowing them to overly direct our actions and choices. This happens because we’re programmed to notice the world as structured by our thoughts but we miss the fact that we are the ones thinking these thoughts.
The flip side of fusion is when we see our thoughts for what they really are — ongoing attempts to make meaning of the world — so we give them power only to the degree that they genuinely serve us. We’re able to notice the act of thinking, without diving in or getting entangled in our thoughts. Our made-up word for this act of just noticing is “defusion.”
Helpful in learning defusion is understanding the yearning that drives our obsessive self-chatter and problem solving. It’s a yearning to create coherence and understanding out of our mental cacophony, and it’s a perfectly understandable desire. We feel vulnerable when our thoughts don’t fit nicely together, especially when they are contradictory.
The first step in making the pivot away from believing our automatic thoughts is to become aware of just how complicated our thought processes are. One way to start is to give your mind free rein to think for a few minutes and then write down the string of thoughts that emerge.
I did this exercise as soon as I woke up one morning I was writing this book, and here were my thoughts:
It’s time to get up. No, it isn’t; it’s only 6:00. That’s seven hours of sleep. I need eight — that’s the goal. I feel fat. Well, birthday cake, duh. I have to eat cake on my son’s birthday. Maybe, but not such a big piece. I bet I’m up to 196 lbs. Shoot … by the time I run the Halloween candy/Turkey Day gauntlet I’ll be back over 200. But maybe not. Maybe more like 193. Maybe exercise more. Anything would be “more.” I’ve gotta focus. I have a chapter to write. I’m falling behind … and I’m getting fat again. Noticing the voices and letting them run might be a good start to the chapter. Better to go back to sleep. But maybe it could work. It was sweet of Jacque to suggest it. She’s up early. Maybe it’s her cold. Maybe I should get out of bed and see if she is OK. It’s only 6:15. I need my eight hours. It’s close now to seven and a half hours. Still not eight.
Not only are these thoughts remarkably circuitous, but most of them are about rules and punishment. Many of them are also contradictions of prior thoughts. This kind of mental to-and-fro is probably familiar to you.
This kind of arguing with ourselves comes naturally to most of us. In fact, the old cartoon device of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is understood even by small children. When we are deeply focused on a mental task, our minds enter into a state of flow, in which our thoughts, emotions and actions are all temporarily in sync. But our more usual state is one of mind wandering, which is often characterized by a good deal of mental disagreement and disengagement.
To get a look at how automatic and circuitous your own thinking is, take a minute to point your thoughts in any direction of your choosing. Then, track them as they run their course. Write down everything you notice.
After completing this exercise, repeat it two more times, letting your thoughts run for one minute each time. In round two, imagine that your job is to figure out whether each thought is true or appropriate. In round three, imagine that your thoughts are like the voices of quarreling first-graders. Adopt a posture of curiosity and amusement, but do nothing except for notice them.
In round two, you probably experienced the sense of being pulled directly into your thoughts. Their loudness may have increased; your focus on their content may have gone up. You might have gotten into an argument with your mind. In round three, you probably notice the general flow of your thoughts. Very likely, the specific content seemed less important, and you had a sense of being outside any arguments.
That difference explains how defusion exercises weaken the link between automatic thoughts and behavior. Our ability to step back from our thoughts grows stronger as we practice. When we learn defusion skills, we can take the energy of our counterproductive yearning and pivot it toward learning to be gently guided by our experiences.
Here’s a starter set of commonly used defusion techniques. The first two are general defusion-building exercises, and the others are tailored to defusing from specific problematic thoughts. Consider these to be the core of your defusion practice. In your first couple of weeks, repeat each one at least once a day. Additionally, if during the course of the day you notice that you are ensnared by a thought, use a couple in the moment to break free.
While it’s common and even helpful for you to feel a sense of freedom and distance in a matter of minutes after practicing these exercises, be careful. Your mind may try to convince you that you have solved your problems. Don’t believe it: your inner dictator is just giving you a dangerous new thought to defuse from.
No matter how good you are at defusion, your mind will keep forming new thoughts that you’ll naturally fuse with. One example is thinking: “I’m the world’s expert in defusion!”. It’s vital for you to stay aware of this tendency. I’ve been practicing defusion for more than 30 years, and I still have to catch myself every day as I get entangled with my thoughts. For me, sometimes just catching my thoughts is enough to break the grip, but if not, I immediately engage in one of these practices. However, fusion still sometimes slips by me for a while. Your goal is progress, not perfection.
One last warning: Some of these exercises may seem odd, even silly. We humans are funny creatures! Just work through them with a sense of self-compassion.
1. Disobey on purpose
Let me start with one that I’m sure will seem perplexing. Just trust me. Stand up and carry a phone, book or other object with you while you slowly walk around the room, reading this next sentence aloud several times. Yes, read this sentence while walking.
OK? Ready? Stand up. Walk. Read. Go!
Here is the sentence: “I cannot walk around this room.”
Keep walking! Slowly but clearly repeat that sentence as you walk at least five or six times. “I cannot walk around this room.” Now you can sit down again.
It is such a tiny thing, isn’t it? It’s a tiny poke in the eye of the Dictator Within — which is what I call the domineering problem-solving part of our minds that is constantly suggesting “solutions” for our psychological pain — and a little tug on your superhero cape.
This exercise was one of our earliest defusion discoveries. Even though it is a silly exercise, a team in Ireland showed recently in a laboratory experiment that it immediately increased tolerance to experimentally induced pain by nearly 40 percent. In the study, people were willing to keep their hand on a very, very hot plate (not hot to the point of injury but hot enough to cause real pain) 40 percent longer — after just a few moments of saying one thing while doing the opposite.
Even the smallest demonstration that the mind’s power over you is an illusion can give you significantly more freedom to do hard things. You can easily build this into your life as a regular practice (right now I’m thinking, “I cannot type this sentence!” as I’m typing).
2. Give your mind a name, and listen to it politely
When we listen to another person, we choose whether we agree with what they have to say (or not). With our internal voice, we don’t usually feel like we have that option to agree or disagree, but that’s the posture I’d like you to try taking. Research has shown that naming your mind — give it a name other than the one you call yourself — helps with this. Why? Because if your mind has a different name, it is different from “you.”
I call mine “George.” Pick any name you like — even Mr. Mind or Ms. Mind will do. Now say hello to your mind by using its new name, as if you were being introduced to it at a party. Of course, if you are around others while you’re reading this — say, on a bus or a train — do this in your head.
3. Appreciate what your mind is trying to do
As you listen to your thoughts and notice when your mind starts to chatter, answer it back with something like, “Thanks for that thought, George. Really — thank you.” If you speak to your mind dismissively, it will continue right on problem-solving, so be sincere. You might want to add, “I really get that you’re trying to be of use, so thank you for that. But I’ve got this covered.” Say this out loud if you’re alone, or internally if you’re with others.
Your mind will probably push back with thoughts like, “That’s silly — that won’t help!” Respond again with, “Thanks for that thought, George. Thank you — I really do see how you are trying to be of use.” You might consider inviting it to comment further by replying “Got anything else you have to say?”
4. Sing it
This method is powerful when you’re having a really sticky thought. Turn that thought into a sentence and try singing it — again, do this out loud if you are alone or in your head if you have company. Any tune will do. My default is “Happy Birthday.” Don’t worry about the wording or rhyming scheme — you are not auditioning for America’s Got Talent! Just repeat your thought to whatever tune you choose.
Now find a thought that is nagging you, and try this out. Experiment with different tunes, or sing it fast or slow. How will you know whether you’ve “succeeded”? It’s not that the thought goes away or becomes unbelievable; it’s that you can see it more clearly as just another thought.
5. Carry it with you
Write down a recurring, critical thought on a small piece of paper. Maybe it’s “I’m just stupid” or “I’m unloveable” or “I’m going to fail.” After you finish writing, hold up the paper and look at it as if it were a precious and fragile page from an ancient manuscript. These words are an echo of your history.
Even if the thought is painful, ask yourself if you’d be willing to honor that history by choosing to carry this piece of paper with you. If you can get to “yes,” place it in your pocket, wallet or bag and let it come along for the ride. During the days you carry it, every so often pat your wallet or bag (or wherever you keep it) to acknowledge that it is part of your journey, and it is welcome to come along.
By practicing exercises like these, we can start laying down unhelpful thoughts that have driven us for years. If we learn to think of our internal voice as that of an advisor rather than a dictator, it can become enormously helpful to us. We come to see that our mind itself is not bad or harmful as long as we don’t let it rigidly dictate our behavior. It’s a tool and when we learn to put it on a leash, it can serve us even better.
Steven C. Hayes, PhD , is a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. The author of 43 books and more than 600 scientific articles, he has served as president of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy and the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, and is one of the most cited psychologists in the world. Dr. Hayes initiated the development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), the approach to cognition on which ACT is based.
So writes Zadie Smith toward the end of her beautiful essay “Joy.” She gets there by explaining that she has an almost constitutional proclivity toward being pleased. She is a delight to cook for, she suggests, because your pancakes will be the best pancakes she has ever eaten! And she has what I consider the wonderful quality—doubly, triply, wonderful in the almost prosecutorially vain and Hollywood-obsessed (or whatever’s the new Hollywood) culture of ours—of finding interesting faces beautiful. I love that. Something crooked or baggy. A squirrelly tooth or two. Hairs where hairs, according to the magazines or movies, ought not be. (Let me take a moment to honor and delight in and hover above the birthmark of my father’s left temple, which he kindly bestowed upon my left hip, in a lighter shade, and which makes, in conjunction with the long scar zipping my upper thigh beneath it, an upside-down exclamation point.) But I have veered, as I am wont to do, from Smith’s meditation on joy, which veering also delights me. But that’s not, here, the point.
The point is that she differentiates between pleasure and joy, and for that I thank her. Pleasure—for me, this morning, a perfect cake donut at the vegan bakery down the hill, which I rode to on my bike, the early fall briskness breaking me into a few tears in my bombing (delight!: the word bombing wrested from military discourse to mean going fast down a hill on a bike or skateboard, especially to the vegan baker), is great, but it is not, by itself, a joy.
And given as I am writing a book of delights, and I am ultimately interested in joy, I am curious about the relationship between pleasure and delight—pleasure as Smith offers it, and delight. I will pause here to offer a false etymology: de-light suggests both “of light” and “without light.” And both of them concurrently is what I’m talking about. What I think I’m talking about. Being of and without at once. Or: joy.
Smith writes about being on her way to visit Auschwitz while her husband was holding her feet. “We were heading toward that which makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile. That was joy.” It has little to do with pleasure (though holding one’s love’s feet is a pleasure; and having one’s feet held by one’s love is a pleasure). It has to do with this other thing Smith describes perfectly, if a bit riddly, which seems perfect given as it is a bit riddly: the intolerable makes life worthwhile. How is that so?
There is ridiculous, and then there’s ridiculous. I prefer the latter, I think, sitting behind a family tending to their two kids, digging through their carry-on for medicine for the little one, who wears a kind of foam hockey helmet wails. Was wailing. I think it was Kenzaburō Ōe who said somewhere, wrote somewhere, that he wouldn’t know what it was to be a person without his son, who has a profound cognitive disability. I have no children of my own, but I love a lot of kids and love a lot of people with kids, who, it seems to me, are in a constant communion with terror, and that terror exists immediately beside … let’s here call it delight— different from pleasure, connected to joy, Zadie Smith’s joy, somehow — terror and delight sitting next to each other, their feet dangling off the side of a bridge very high up.
Is this metaphorical bridge in the body of the parent? And if so, what are the provinces it connects? Or is it connecting the towns of terror and delight, which might make the dangling legs very high up belong to the mayors of terror and delight, both of whom look, I’m afraid to say, exactly like your child.
When Rachel fell to her death—an accident, a slip, doing precisely what you or I did one thousand times as kids, fucking around, balancing on some edge, trying to get a better look, a little closer, a little faster, a little higher—
The bridge exists, on second thought, perhaps, in the bodies of all those to whom the fallen child is beloved, and in the bodies of all those to whom the fallen child is beloved, and in the bodies of all those to whom any possible falling child would be annihilation, which, sorry to say, is all of us.
And the slipping child—hand from a rung, foot from a rung—what metaphor the ladder?—how she seems to pierce us, drive a hole through us.
A hole through which what.
Here’s the ridiculous part. Is it possible that people come to us—I do not here aspire exactly to a metaphysical argument, and certainly not one about fate or god, but rather just a simple, spiritual question—and then go away from us—
I don’t even want to write it.
Rather this: And what comes through the hole?
. . .
There is a scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty where Jep, the one-hit-wonder novelist and socialite in what we might call late middle age visits the exhibit of an artist who has taken or had taken photos of himself every day of his life since he was about four or five. It’s thousands of pictures of this, oh, forty-five-year-old guy, all hanging like a quilt on the walls in the courtyard of some beautiful Roman building. As Jep looks over the photographs, his arms behind his back, he’s overwhelmed—we see him seeing time passing in some utterly unequivocal way: the boy’s mussed hair; the skinny teen; the newly facial-haired young man; the what, weariness, as his true adulthood comes on. It devastates me, and only partly because of the lamenty song, “The Beatitudes,” played by the Kronos Quartet, filling out the scene as Jep’s chin starts to quake. It’s devastating because we know that Jep is seeing his own life—what remains of it—pass. Lost love, dead friends, the whole bit. He is seeing what I was going to write was the fundamental truth of his life, but that is a fundamental truth of our lives, which simply that we die. Or, everything dies. Or, loss. Or, as Philip Levine put it in his beautiful poem—truth is, this is what I’ve always gathered from the title; the poem’s kind of otherwise concerned—“Animals Are Passing from Our Lives.” Nothing expresses it better than that. And sometimes—maybe mostly?—we are the animals.
I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization—in that clear way, not that oh yeah way—that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.
It’s a feeling I’ve had outside of dreams as well—an acute understanding, looking at a beloved’s back as the blankets gather at her waist and the light comes in through the gauzy shades, lying across her shoulder; watching my mother sleep in her chair, her mouth part open, the skin above her eyes exactly like mine; looking at the line of mourners; tugging the last red fish pepper from the plant. It’s a terrible feeling, but not bad—terrible in the way Rilke means when he tells us at the beginning of the Duino Elegies that “All angels are terrible”; terrible in the old German way (if you think I know what that actually means I have a bridge to sell you), or maybe more accurately in the Romantic sense, or in the Burkean sublime sense, which speaks to obliteration and annihilation—all angels remind us that annihilation is part of the program. And those terrible angels—the angel of annihilation—is a beautiful thing, is the maker, too, of joy, and is partly what Zadie Smith’s talking about when she talks about being in joy. That it’s not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible (the old German kind), joy is.
Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classroom to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might be somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.
And what if the wilderness—perhaps the densest wilder in there—thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?)—is our sorry? Or, to use Smith’s term, the “intolerable.” It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?
(Oct. 2, 2019)
This essay originally appeared in The Book of Delights, and is reprinted with permission of Algonquin Books and the author.