Friday, February 05, 2010

Silence of the Baby Chicks

As any parent can tell you, parenthood is an endless source of fascinating experiences which eclipse any experience that comes before children entered your life. Even the mundane act of watching a documentary can turn into a harrowing period of emotional turmoil, as I found out a couple of days ago while watching Food, Inc., about the industrial food system in the United States ... which ended with my son in my arms, in tears, and me turning the film off in the hopes that I'd have the time to finish it soon.

Food, Inc., is a candid look at the industrial food growing and processing institutions. The film begins with a general overview of the situation, and one of the scenes depicted is of hundreds, possibly thousands, of baby chicks being placed on conveyor belts. Some of them reach the end of a conveyor belt and fall off into boxes. The next clip shows workers in this factory (I don't know what else to call it) grabbing the chicks, with gloves covered in some sort of inky substance, and pushing them onto a device which looks, from what I can tell, like they're basically stapling the chicks' necks. I assume it's some sort of tagging or stamping system. It wasn't really clear, and the dialogue to which this backdrop took place wasn't specifically addressing the plight of these chicks.

My son was on the couch with my wife, while I was working on the computer. Finally, about five or ten minutes later, as they're showing the slaughtering of a cow, my wife decides we can't watch this while Elijah's still up. He's not actually watching this part, because he's laying on the couch with a blanket over his head, but it's still too graphic, in case he whips the blanket off of his head. I turn the television off, then come over to take him to bed ... only to remove the blanket and find that his face is red and covered in tears. (You know it's bad when he cries inaudibly, because it means he's not seeking attention.)

"What's the matter?" ask I, assuming he saw the butchering. "Did you see something scary?" He looked back up at me with big, wide, bleary eyes and said:

"I don't want them to hurt the baby chicks! Why do they have to be mean to them?"

He then reaches out to me, grasping for some sort of logic to a universe that has horribly betrayed him, but instead finding only my neck around which to wrap his arms.

I lift him up, but have no idea what to say. "You know those chicken nuggets you love so much? Well, sorry to tell you this, but ..." No, that wouldn't help things. As a parent, I have realized a truth which I never grasped in my younger days, and one which, as an intellectual, I still sometimes struggle with:

Sometimes knowledge isn't helpful. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Still, in short order, he stopped crying forgot about it ... but I didn't. I never will.

In many ways, Elijah is very sheltered. I expose him to a lot of ideas, a lot of books and subjects, but try to control the ways that he's exposed. For this reason, he's very innocent, even compared to some other kids his age. He lost a little bit of that innocence in that moment, just as when he saw a cat run into the street and get hit by a truck, or when he realized that he could hurt his mother and I by screaming "I don't love you" when we send him to his room.

It's necessary for children to lose their innocence, of course ... but it's a tragic necessity. I grieve each time it happens, as he travels the long and painful road from a boy into a man.  The son I held in my arms a few days ago will go away, and he will be replace by a son who does not cry for the baby chicks. He may well be appalled by seeing them handled this way, and wish for more humane (and healthier) treatment, as I do ... but he won't cry for them.

But now, every time I see a baby chick, I'll likely think of this experience, and I will weep inside. Not for the chick, but for him, for my son, and his lost innocence.

Recommended books on healthy eating,
hypereating, the food industry, and so on:
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