On the Paradoxes of Life

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die…This paradox is the whole principle of courage…A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it upon the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it…He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water yet drink death like wine.” (G.K. Chesterton)

The idea that paradoxes are a key to the full life–indeed the only way to truly live–has much been on my mind as of late. And Autumn only seems to heighten this awareness, providing us with various sensual reminders as death and life dance inches from each other this time of year, be it in the vibrant color of the falling leaves, in the very sweetness of decaying vegetation, or in an exquisite meal from freshly killed game. For your consideration, I offer the following paradoxes inherent in life:

(1) having, at one and the same time, confidence with humility;

(2) always “pushing through” obstacles but never forcing our way;

(3) moving quickly without rushing;

(4) holding on loosely, to which Chesterton’s insight on courage could aptly apply as it involves both a desire to possess a good with a healthy indifference in one’s willingness to let go of that good; and

(5) healthy self-interest v. selfishness (the former always good, the latter never).

Yet, one of the most profound paradoxes that I’ve observed in my line of work is that of the ethical hunter and his relationship with the animal world. I think of Mike, my father-in-law (quite an accomplished hunter), a man who has a real connection with wildlife, a connection that is quite personal. Animals quite simply are drawn to him, a fact which is evidenced nearly every time we visit him at his country home. Using nothing by way of man-made instruments, he calls the wild turkeys and they come running. From my wife’s account, he is skilled enough to kill a deer with very little pain, and–upon reaching the animal–prays a prayer of thanksgiving, maybe even thanking the animal for its life. Then he goes to work, gutting the animal (the entrails will feed the wolves and coyotes in the area), with the rest being processed into edible cuts of meat. If there’s an abundance of meat, it is generously shared with friends and neighbors. Mike is not an isolated example. Nearly the same ritual is described by Jesse Griffiths in a recent interview on The Splendid Table (click here to listen to the first five minutes or so of the episode which aired September 15, 2012, in which Griffiths, a hunter himself, describes this intimate connection that can exist between hunter and game, the reverential awe with which hunters may regard the animals they kill).

It’s the same paradox that exists in those farmers I’ve met who humanely raise and humanely slaughter cattle. In stark contrast to the numbered cattle on a feedlot, if I’m not mistaken all the cattle on the farms where I seek my product have names. Now, you’d think that one would have little regard or respect for an animal being raised for its meat; the exact opposite is true. On a recent farm visit in south-central Michigan, my host (one of the proprietors of the farm) drove me in a Land Rover through the pastures where the cows grazed on fresh grass. Slow-moving animals were they, at times they blocked our path, but the tone in which my host addressed the cattle was with a respectful authority, “Come on, old girl. Get up.” Conversing with two other farmers who raise beef last Saturday at the farmers’ market, they were packing up a little early to go home, “The animals notice when we’re gone. We don’t like to leave them alone for long.” I couldn’t help but think that this must be an emotional tug similar to that of a young mother, leaving her infant with a sitter, who wants to get back to her young who may feel uneasy with an unfamiliar person.

But what difference does all this make? All the difference in the world, I submit. The way in which an animal is raised and the way in which an animal dies translates directly into the quality and flavor of the meat from that animal. I pause now to remember how three meals that made the strongest impressions on me (other than bi-annual meals at Duba’s Restaurant and my account of the greatest steak I’ve ever enjoyed) involved, to my surprise, wild game: an Easter dinner of pheasant, courtesy of an African game hunter (Dr. Stringfellow); elk medallions of tenderloin; and a Venison Marsala. (The ingredients for the latter of these two meals were also provided by hunters we knew personally.) Astonishingly, these meals were remarkable for just how good the meat tasted. As regards to the meat procured from the market farmers last Saturday, it was full of flavor.

All of human life seems a striving to live in the tension of paradox, but when it is done and done well, the fruit of it all is palpably evident.

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