Several months ago, before the chemo got real bad, before Mama died, back when I could taste food and had feeling in my fingers, I read an article online in the Home and Garden section of my local newspaper. It was about a residential garden — a modern, forward thinking landscape with features and drainage that would keep the yard hydrated, limiting the water usage by the owners. There wasn’t much shade, but then again, nothing had grown in yet. There wasn’t much color, but then again, some people are more drawn to greens than other varying hues. Honestly, I found the garden kind of boring. However, I was surprised to see that there were over one-hundred comments about the story, and I had to see what all the fuss was about.
If I thought the garden was rather dull, those commenting thought the garden was the spawn of satan. I mean, by the level of uproar, these people might as well have spied a serpent in one of the immature trees, chucking an apple at an unsuspecting, naked woman. The garden wasn’t just ugly, it was a crime against nature, and those so zealous to fight injustice were more than willing to voice their feelings.
As I read the comments, I began to laugh. It wasn’t funny because it was “just a garden” and these people were rather pathetic, but it was more that these people honestly thought their comments mattered. Would the owners read all the hate mail and reconsider their design plan? Would the commenters’ spewed hatred right a wrong and fix a broken world? I chuckled that some of them actually thought it would. But eventually, I found myself angry that these people were so angry. And conceited! Over a garden. I couldn’t help but wonder what their gardens looked like. Did these self-righteous green thumbs have cherubs flying from bloom to bloom in their yard? Maybe a unicorn or two peeking out of the shrubs, spreading good luck to the fortunate who passed by? Oh, I was so fed up that I wished I’d never stumbled upon that garden of drama.
But again, this was before my year took an even bigger dip. And, as with any trauma, perspective later set in, and that infamous garden proved a larger lesson.
Before the chemo, before Mama died, and before the trauma, I was a classic foodie. I’d always been a foodie. When I was kid, I may not have had a sophisticated palate yet, but I knew the importance of good food and how the right flavor combinations could elevate a mood. In fact, in my fifth grade essay, “If I Were Queen of the World…”, I proclaimed that every day would be nacho day. I knew the impact of a good cheese to chip ratio even back then.
As I grew up, so did my taste buds. Give me all the spices! All the exotic flavors! Why eat ordinary spaghetti when you could have a ragout of fresh pappardelle with braised rabbit, thyme, and Moroccan olives? Was a hamburger worth a bite without foie gras and fig chutney? By the time I was in my early twenties, I wasn’t just a foodie, I was a food SNOB. It eventually spilled into my kitchen where dinners often came with thoughtful, scratch-made sauces and took far longer to prepare than they should have on an ordinary Tuesday school night. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have a steady supply of chicken nuggets and fries in the freezer or that boxed mac ‘n cheese hasn’t been a staple in my children’s childhood. But as for me and my tongue, food was meant to be elevated as often as possible.
That is until food became the enemy.
What they don’t tell you in self-help books about nutrition during a serious illness (mostly because the authors have never experienced the illness themselves, but that’s a topic for another day) is that more times than not, eating during an illness is more about what you can stomach rather than what you should eat. Such has been my experience to this very day.
I think it was May when my chemo stomach first revolted against Indian food and any spices characteristic of Indian food became the devil. After that, it was Mexican. (I still shield my eyes when I pass a Taco Bell.) Soon after, it was Mediterranean and all those myriad Greek spices. Yuck! Then Italian. And then an unfortunate sweet and sour shrimp episode scratched Asian off my list too. So long, bold flavors! Gag me with a spoon. Give me the basics, or give me nothing at all. You can take your exotic thyme, found only in the foothills of Sicily where tiny, indigenous gnomes pluck the stems from sacred bushes, and stick it where the sun don’t shine. Just give me pasta with butter, and maybe garlic if I’ve had a good day. Don’t tempt me with your sexy burgers unless you want a mess on your lap. Give me an inexperienced, American burger from a diner that doesn’t even know what Roquefort is.
Oh, the humility chemo has left me with. I was once so rude to you picky eaters out there. I mocked your decisions to eat simply because I was an asshat -- a snobby, self-righteous asshat, determined to fill the world with Normandy butter and white truffles, no matter my offensive tone. So zealous was my fight against your chain restaurants and lack of sophistication that I never saw that my obsession with fine food blocked my ability to share my enthusiasm of haute cuisine graciously.
Months later, I’m pretty sure I had it all wrong about the garden haters. Yes, their anger was annoying. Yes, their zealousness was laughable because it was never going to yield anything but useless hate. But I think the bigger takeaway for me is that being a zealot defames the zealot more than its target when what the zealot is trying to protect lacks substance. Imagine if those commenters took their opinions about gardens and put them to use in a sustainable, neighborhood garden or made a crusade for pesticide-free produce or planted trees in underdeveloped parts of town? Or, dare I say, just maintained their own garden for the simple delight of others? Imagine if I had shared my food fancies with supper clubs and engaged in quality fellowship, sharing my favorite dishes with others? Or if I shared my love of food with homeless shelters and those who never eat anything fancier than a grilled American cheese sandwich on white bread? (Side note: I could really go for a basic grilled cheese sandwich right now.)
Humans, though, are as simple as the simple-mindedness we hate. We form opinions based on the circumstances of our lives. We are shaped by that to which we have been exposed and dared to experience. But our opinions are about as useful as a weed whacker in a desert if we only express them to satisfy our need to elevate ourselves and our desire to be proved right. When was the last time you saw an echo chamber convert someone? How persuasive is an egotist? Echo chambers and self-righteousness aren’t going to get us closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. Acknowledging the truth will.
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God,
and HIS righteousness;
and all these things shall be added unto you.”
I realize that some of you are not jazzed that this blog has gone “all Christian and praise hands,” as one reader so kindly commented. But I hope my latest epiphany is one that we can all get on board with.
As Christians, we often talk about things of the flesh — innately human indulgences. Sometimes it’s objects like money, body image, (or foie gras!) and sometimes it’s intangible, like an attachment to what we believe is the best plan for our lives or even a social movement. These fleshy wants seem harmless. They may even feel righteous, but our obsession over them can block us from remembering that we aren’t here to indulge, whoop it up, fatten our egos, and then just die. We’re supposed to build this place up. I may call it building God's Kingdom, preparing the way for the Lord. You may call it being a good steward of Earth. Regardless, I think we can agree that beautiful gardens and succulent foie gras are best when used to strengthen this cranky, opinionated world, rather than rip it to shreds further.
What I now know enough to know is that all the fighting, all the condemning, all the judgement — everything we keep touting as misguided when we read nasty comments, turn on the news, or find offense in every corner — is the result of a world forgetting the truth. And I for one am so, so terribly guilty of it. But rather than glorifying my self-righteousness, what I should be glorifying is the one who made this life possible — with all its pretty flowers, good food, worthy causes, and indulgences for which I leap out of bed in the morning.
And just as important, is that none of it is worth my comment if it isn’t used for the greater good.