Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reading the Label

November 17, 2013

Dear Friends,

She was a non-nonsense shopper, a lady already on a mission early in the day.

I watched.

She was a skilled driver, wheeling her heavily loaded grocery cart efficiently around end-of-aisle displays. From time to time she paused to consult the list in her hand. Then, with careful courtesy, she would blow by slower shoppers and people restocking shelves, heading straight as an arrow for her destination, no time to be wasted. 

Shopping in the slow lane and savoring my coffee, I soon lost sight of her.

Later, however, when I turned my cart into the aisle where baking goods were shelved, I was surprised to find her stopped, cart parked, peering at the nutritional label on a package she was holding in her hand. As I watched, she reached into her purse and pulled out a small magnifying glass. Sensing my glance, she looked up at me and smiled. 

“Can’t think why I bother,” she said. “Even when I can see what it says, I don’t know what half of it means.”

We laughed together in wry agreement, and, locating the small sack of whole wheat flour I needed, I moved on. However, when I sat down today to think again with you about intellectually empty calories I remembered the woman’s comment. 
Nutritional labels are not always easy to read and understand, and still more difficult to use productively, whether we are thinking about food for our bodies or materials with which to feed our minds. Avoiding empty calories is a tricky business.

We first have to know what we have in our hand (on our plate, on the screen, on the page). Then, a second and quite different issue, we must decide whether to ingest this substance (idea) for nourishment. 

First, step one. 

How can we recognize intellectually empty calories if we see them? Not easily. But from the outset it is helpful to keep in mind that the packaging in which an idea (or food) appears is not always a reliable clue to its nutritional value.

Chicken Little’s story provides a clear case in point.**

Chicken Little’s adventure began on an ordinary morning when in his usual, ordinary way Chicken Little set out to find a fat bug for his breakfast. It was a splendid morning, and Chicken Little was feeling quite pleased with himself and his world until—as it often does—pain came unexpectedly in a way that Chicken Little found difficult to account for.

This is what happened.

Chicken Little bent over to catch an exceptionally fine bug he had spied in the grass. At that instant—POW!—something hit Chicken Little on the head.

This startled Chicken Little, of course, and made him jump. It made his head hurt as well.

Chicken Little became very cross. He looked around to see who had hit him, but there was no one in sight.  All that Chicken Little could see was the sky.

“Ah, ha,” said Chicken Little to himself. “I know what has happened to me. A piece of the sky fell down and hit me on the head. That is what happened.”

Then as Chicken Little thought more about that piece of the sky falling on his head, he began to feel quite frightened.
“A piece of the sky came down and hit me on the head,” thought Chicken Little to himself. “This is terrible. The sky is falling. I must go at once and tell the other animals. The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” And off he went.

This is a children’s story, you may be thinking. Indeed, it is. 

Further, you may think, this story presents an animal as though it had human characteristics (fantasy that misrepresents reality), and the action (a falling sky) entails physically impossible phenomena—the sky cannot fall. Further denial of reality. At this point you might conclude that I am giving you an example of empty intellectual calories.

Not so fast, friends. You are correct to suspect a tongue-in-cheek approach on my part, but don’t be too quick to judge the story or to discount what Chicken Little has to say.

Two important points right from the outset. Categories can be misleading. Not all children’s stories lie beneath serious adult readers’ attention. And the value of fantasy and the importance of reality cannot be assessed by placing them in a competing either/or dualism. 

Does Chicken Little's story actually meet the criteria of worthwhile reading? How can this be?

Thinking with you that nutritional labels are hard to write as well as to read and to act on responsibly.

Trusting too that you already understand that choosing wisely when it feels like the sky is falling is a life challenge that confronts us all.

Chicken Little and I will see you next week (unless the sky falls, of course).


**You may be interested in the way I used the Chicken Little story in my book, More Than an Aspirin (M. Gay Hubbard (2009). More Than an Aspirin. Pp: 240-241. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers.)


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