Thursday, March 6, 2014

#15: My Walden, Your Walden

More than a decade ago, I visited Walden Pond with some friends. Before we arrived, I had some rather romantic visions of what Walden Pond would be like: quiet; secluded; stretches of grassy embankments perfect for a picnic or a nap; quaint woods for a blithe hike.

It was none of those things. Instead, it reminded me of the Reservoir near where I grew up, with brackish water, the scent of garbage and port-a-podies, gravelly beaches, and hundreds of shrieking children.

I've been thinking about that day at Walden as I think about morals. A few weeks ago, as I was convalescing from a nasty cold, I got into a Facebook tiff about morals, and whether there is a scale of morality. Is one activity, like shooting up heroin (the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman was the jumping off point), more immoral than other self-damaging activities, like eating a lot of fatty food? Is dying of an overdose more immoral than dying of disease due to eating habits? It ended, as all great Facebook arguments, at an impasse, where everyone came out of it feeling smug and self-righteous--myself included.

But I am still thinking about it, and am trying to decide why I think that they are both immoral. I am thinking about this while I think about how the real Walden didn't live up to my dreams.

I never really thought the Reservoir was bad when I was growing up. I have happy memories of digging in the sand, swimming in the murky water, and sleeping in my grandparents' RV. It was only later, in my teens and twenties, that I began to deride it, even as I still came out for a swim, a canoe ride, or a chat and a beer with my brothers. I suppose that those who live around Walden Pond feel the same way. They enjoyed it as children, and even when they realized its flaws, they still packed up their coolers and came out.

It's easier to accept something's flaws when it is familiar, and easier to demonize something that is not familiar. When I first learned about needle exchanges, I had my pious doubts about the morality of such operations. But when I saw (through Tom, who started working at one as a volunteer, and is now an overdose prevention director at the same agency) what good it did, I was convinced of its worth. Mingling with the participants at the agency also did wonders for my pious self. Suddenly, I was in contact with those who are the faceless statistics on drug use, HIV, Hep C, etc. Suddenly, I could not judge from afar anymore. How could I say that the friendly whitebearded dude was an immoral person, when he came up to me and smiled as if just seeing me had made his day? Even if he was going to ask for some money the next second, I knew his smile would remain on his face when I said no.

Had anyone said to my childhood self that eating a burger and fries every day was immoral, I would've laughed and thought they were secretly un-American. I might have admitted it to be unhealthy, but it was so common, it seemed perfectly normal behavior. Everyone else was doing it, so how could it be bad?

I'm not saying it's moral to use heroin. I'm not saying it's immoral to eat fatty food. It isn't the actions that are moral/immoral. They both can lead to devastation down the road. Whether you die of a heroin overdose or a heart attack because you ate fatty foods--you're still dead. You've still abandoned your family much too soon.

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