Honestly, I never thought I’d turn into one of those people. Yet, here I am: I have A Mission.
It’s not as though I’ve never had, you know, like, principles and stuff. I’ve marched in Pride parades. I’ve given to causes that matter to me, and shared meals with homeless families. I’ve worried about trends in the world and in American society. I’ve simply set aside time for those things, and when the timer went off, it was time to get back to binge-watching HBO shows or playing solitaire on my phone or whatever.
But something happened after I watched the documentary Fed Up and subsequently read best-selling author Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Something clicked in a way that started to shake me up. We’d turned our country’s food production over to industries that couldn’t possibly care less that we will all be less healthy because of what they do, and to government decision-making that’s beholden to those industries.
But more important than that: I was going to die sooner. This is the place where one takes a hard look in the mirror at why one thing becomes A Mission and a hundred other things don’t. As a film critic, I watch a lot of documentaries every year, many of them ferociously political about some topic or another—and mostly I’m just responding to them as pieces of filmmaking. I watched Inside Job—Charles Ferguson’s insightful film about the 2008 financial crisis—and never once considered occupying any sort of street. I watched Blackfish—the Sundance hit about the plight of orcas in captivity—and didn’t immediately lament my childhood visits to Sea World.
It was different with Fed Up, though—and not because it was a great piece of filmmaking, because it’s not. As is the case in nearly all such advocacy documentaries, director Stephanie Soechtig followed a rigid formula of combining talking heads, statistics in the form of colorful graphics, and up-close-and-personal stories to give the issue a human face. It was competent, albeit fairly single-minded, about laying the American obesity epidemic at the feet of our insatiable appetite for processed foods and sugar sugar sugar.
On a certain level, I probably shouldn’t even be one of the most alarmed audience members for such a message. Compared to most families, mine cooks significantly more of our dinners from scratch; I’ve even enjoyed baking my own bread for a long time. For virtually all of my 47 years, I’ve maintained a stable body weight, despite generally being only slightly less sedentary than my desk. At first glance, I would probably not be the poster boy for “Scared Straight Into Wholesale Dietary and Lifestyle Changes.”
But once you start knowing things about the way a healthy human should actually be eating, you can’t un-know them. My soda-a-day habit was doing nothing for me but increasing my chance of developing Type 2 diabetes. The tight rotation of vegetables in our family’s diet—mostly so as not to risk the annoyance of finicky kids—almost completely ignored the leafy greens that Pollan championed in particular. And while I still find it hard to see myself ever completely abandoning meat, it was clear that, as a proportion of many meals, it was … well, disproportionate. So I started looking at things a little more carefully. I alarmed my kids with an experimental break from purchasing certain processed foods that were typically in our fridge or pantry, and brought some Brussels sprouts and asparagus to the dinnertime mix. I personally went cola cold turkey, slipping once or twice but still reducing my intake by a fairly significant percentage. I even discovered along the way that club soda, fresh lemon juice and fresh lime juice make for a pretty delicious substitute mixer for a 7 & 7.
The strange thing, though, is that I still can’t entirely explain why this issue, right now, became A Mission. Maybe it’s just crossing a certain middle-age threshold, facing a few extra doctor visits and figuring that stasis was no longer a wise course of action. Maybe it’s looking at my kids’ eating habits and thinking I’m somehow being a terrible parent by shrugging and thinking, “Eh, it’s what they like.” Or maybe that documentary and that book were just really good at what they were trying to do, more so than I initially gave them credit for.
The thing about A Mission though—as though I need to explain it to many of the residents of Utah—is that you have to be willing to accept the call. On a regular basis, we’re all provided with information or an experience that asks us to change something, whether it’s something in our own lives or something in the world. And most of the time, we respond with, “Yeah, that’s OK, I’m doing just fine over here.” Our tendency toward complacency hates the idea of A Mission, telling us all the time that changing anything is too hard, so come on, why bother? I don’t know how far or how long I’ll be prepared to stick with this particular Mission. I just know that doing nothing has ceased to be an option.
You might not know yet what your Mission is, but you might be astonished at what you can change as soon as something pokes at your sense of what has to change. There’s something powerful about getting that call, and deciding to say yes.