The Human Condition:

A Preference for Weakness – June 16, 2019

Food allergy

It appears that no one wants to appear to be—and act as if they were—strong anymore. Has our culture so decayed that we actually admire—and aspire to be—weak, defenseless, vulnerable, a victim?

Item one is the sudden outbreak of food allergies among the middle class. Yes, some people have acquired allergies that may have something to do with plastics or hormones in the water. Yes, some food allergies are so severe that the person can go into anaphylactic shock and die. But that is not the phenomenon under discussion here. It seems that suddenly everyone is allergic to, or sensitive to, or just afraid of, the protein in wheat known as gluten. People with certain identified autoimmune disorders, such as celiac disease, do get sick when they digest gluten. And people whose traditional diets did not include wheat, such as those who come from areas dependent on rice cultivation in Asia, may experience a reaction to gluten. But that is not what I’m talking about.

Far more people with a Northern European background than just a few years ago seem to be claiming gluten sensitivity, almost as if it were fashionable to throw up your hands at bread and pasta. Couple this with our wandering dietary pronouncements—meat’s bad, butter’s bad, cholesterol’s bad, butter is better than margarine, fish are good, fish are bad, carbohydrates are energy, carbohydrates are bad, avocadoes are bad—and you get a population that is suddenly exquisitely picky about what everyone is eating, and no one can adequately explain why. That’s a deplorable state for a human digestive system that was tempered and hardened by a hundred thousand years of hunter-gatherer existence and can usually bolt down and profit from almost anything organic except tree bark and dead leaves.

Item two is the sudden outbreak of reactive offense. Yes, some people say and do truly mean, stupid, hurtful things, and they should be either quietly confronted or politely ignored. And yes, sometimes people intend those things to be offensive in order to get a reaction from the public at large. But it seems that suddenly everyone is incapable of taking the polite route and refraining from noticing or reacting to the rudely offensive. Now everyone almost seems to hunger for opportunities for taking offense. To quote from one of my favorite movies, The Duellists: “The duelist demands satisfaction. Honor for him is an appetite.” And so, it would seem, for many people today the satisfaction of reacting with horror, scorn, and outrage at remarks and gestures, whether meant offensively or not, has become an appetite.

In my view—in the view of my parents, who raised me in their beliefs—to give in to such failings, to demonstrate such vulnerability, is a weakness. That succumbing to precocious food sensitivities and minor discomforts was to make yourself vulnerable to the world. That reacting with offense at every slight and injury was to allow yourself and your emotions to be played upon by potentially hostile forces. They believed in strength and wanted their sons to be strong.

As a child, I suffered from remarkably few allergies but had a bad reaction to mosquito bites. Let one bite me on the wrist, and my lower arm would swell until my hand was fixed in position. If one bit me on the cheek, that side of my face would swell. As a boy growing up among the wetlands surrounding suburban Boston, mosquitos in summer were an inevitability. My mother sympathized with my condition, but she didn’t agonize about it. I never was taken to the emergency room, and no one suggested any medications to counter the allergy. My parents believed I would grow out of the affliction, and I did.

My parents tolerated few childish food dislikes. My brother and I had to eat what was put on our plates, like it or not—and we mostly liked it, because my mother was a good cook. I had one real aversion, to cheese. I suppose that, in later life, I could excuse this as my sensing that cheese was “rotted milk,” but as a child I just hated the taste, smell, and texture of the stuff. It wasn’t until pizza became popular that I would eat even the mildest of provolones and mozzarellas in any form, and never just as a chunk of the stuff on a cracker or melted into a sauce. My father, being a cheese lover, disdained my aversion and tried to beat it out of me as an example of childish attitude. My mother, being of a kinder heart, would make separate portions without cheese for me when preparing cheese-heavy dishes. But she still considered my aversion a sign of personal weakness.

The Protestant ethic was strong in my family. You were supposed to work on yourself, learn as much as you could, eradicate your failings, take up your responsibilities, be dependable and loyal, work hard at whatever you undertook, and be ready to account for your actions. Claiming extenuating circumstances when you failed at something was just not allowed: a properly prepared mind should have foreseen those circumstances and worked to overcome them. Claiming to be a victim of other people’s actions, whether intentional or not, was unacceptable. We were the people who paid our own way and made our own fate. We helped others along as we could, but we did not succumb to their malice and their schemes, if any. We anticipated traps, spotted them in time, and side-stepped them. We were in control of our own lives and not anyone else.

In another of my favorite stories, Dune by Frank Herbert, the female school of political agents and manipulators of bloodlines, the Bene Gesserit, had as an axiom “Support strength.” I do not take this as some kind of class statement, such as favoring the oppressor over the oppressed. Instead, it means finding what is strong in each person and developing it, helping to create people who are capable, self-aware, resilient, brave, and strong. It is an attitude of which my parents would have approved.

The current preference for weakness in our popular culture—expressed in accepting every allergy and food phobia as a sign of personal sensitivity, and accepting every cause for offense as a sign of spiritual purity—is a dead end. It creates people who are incapable, self-serving, brittle, scared, and weak. This is not a people who will take up arms against an invader, or volunteer to land on the Moon or Mars, or do the hundred other daring and dangerous things that previous generations have been asked to do and responded without a whimper.

But we may not be that nation anymore.