Wednesday, November 13, 2013

On Free Birds and Free Spirits

Recently, there was a story written from a parent’s perspective about the new children’s film, Free Birds. On the surface, it was about a father’s desire for his young daughters to not complicate his family’s holiday meal by becoming so moved by the heroes of the film - which tells the story of turkeys who go back in time to the original Thanksgiving in order to end the mass slaughter of their species for the holiday - that they refuse to eat the customary roasted bird. On a deeper level, though, the piece revealed so much more. I believe the most telling material was found in the surprising candor with which the author expressed his hopes for his children to grow up as compassionately engaged, critical thinkers as long it doesn’t stretch his own comfort zone.

I understand this urge to not rock the boat, to keep things as they are. Okay, I’m lying. I really don’t get it.

An essential job of any good parent is to encourage and reinforce the best in our children, even when it is in conflict with our desire for things to remain predictable and convenient for us. When a child expresses a deepening empathy and feeling of interconnectedness, as parents, we have something to celebrate: how much of the world is a mess because we don’t care enough about one another or connect to something beyond our immediate desires? This is an endlessly interesting subject to me, the distance between our stated values and our actual habits. In films and literature, we cheer on the scrappy fighters, the ones who swim against the current, to live their truth. From Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist to Norma Rae and Harry Potter, we love these feisty characters and their messy, triumphant stories. What is it like in real life, though, when someone attempts to live their own authentic life? I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that vegans, by and large, are often treated as if we were pains in the ass. Our culture loves these inspiring story arcs as long as the heroic protagonists remain fictional and not at actual dinner tables, because otherwise, even if not a single word is exchanged, we are a reminder of this lack of integration between one’s stated values and his or her actions.

“Part of me knows that even though I am not a vegetarian, there are way more great reasons to be a vegetarian than there are to be a meat-eater. That is to say, I wish I was a vegetarian, but I lack the self-discipline. It’s certainly better for you, and it solves the ethical dilemmas eating meat poses.”

At the risk of sounding superior (yeah, I know, I waltz across that threshold daily), why would we hope for complacency when growth is possible, even when it conflicts our own preference for ease? Especially with children, how does their burgeoning awareness and sincere desire to create more good in the world not make a parent almost combust with pride? Whenever my son shows an expanded consideration of others, I have learned to act blasé so he doesn’t get scared off by my admittedly wild-eyed enthusiasm. Internally, though, I am still doing cartwheels.

This cynical notion that having ideals is one thing but adapting one’s life to them is something else is stitched throughout the piece even if it on the surface it sounds like a father’s wish for things to remain consistent and easy for him. On the surface, this sounds familiar, like a suburban father’s lament in the 1950s, sitting on his living room chair, wishing that his wife would learn fold his socks like his mother did, that his son wouldn’t grow his hair so long. Instead, though, this is a father of today acknowledging the values and benefits of compassionate living and what these convictions would say about his daughters’ ethics while still hoping against hope that it doesn’t go “that far” in his own household. Fascinatingly, the author did not attempt to offer a pretense of a noble reason for it; the father admits that he does not want his daughters to see this film because he doesn’t want the status quo of his home life to change.

Given that his conclusion is to not take his daughters to see the film, to not have them potentially influenced away from eating meat, this is very revealing material. Once again, I feel like I don’t quite get “the way things are” in this world, like I’m some chameleonic alien who can pass for a human but whose core instincts are so far removed from the species. I cannot for a moment imagine being anything less than thrilled if my son were to care deeply about another, especially in a deeply personal way where he was inspired to change his behavior so as to be more kind. I cannot imagine this being a negative.

When we raise our children to believe that their values are adorable and endearing but ultimately burdensome and naive, we impose upon them cynical notion that is as much a fallacy as it is profoundly unfair. We do the same thing to ourselves and each other when we are so frightened of change and the unknown that we limit ourselves and one another to these tiny little boxes. Why should it be like this? Compassionate living is expansive and empowering. Should we really practice our values but only to the degree that we are not bothering those around us? Is that fair to ask of someone? This is why we need to be modeling every day that we can live joyful, abundant lives as people guided by principles, that it is not at all a sacrifice, so we can help to empower those who are intimidated by the idea of change. Yes, there are growing pains when we venture outside of our comfort zone, but a life hemmed in for fear of expansion is one that is far more painful. We need to tell the world that there is nothing to be afraid of when we choose to live in alignment. Don’t settle for or encourage anything less. 


  1. You're very compassionate. I wanted to tell the father he was a whiner who needed to stop being such a drama queen and contemplate the not-so-radical notion that having a turkey-free Thanksgiving is not a ruined Thanksgiving.

  2. Excellent, Marla! Everything I wanted to say but much more eloquent. Too bad that article didn't accept comments - I have a feeling Dad would have been schooled :-)

  3. The BEST! I hope you cartwheel until you're dizzy with glee! You deserve every spin and twirl of pure joy! <3

  4. Truly excellent, Marla, thankyou! <3

  5. "When we raise our children to believe that their values are adorable and endearing but ultimately burdensome and naive, we impose upon them cynical notion that is as much a fallacy as it is profoundly unfair."

    What a beautifully worded sentence! This articulates so many things I've thought about raising children to value compassion and critical thinking.

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