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Behind the scenes of the fight for the protection of animals and workers and the preservation of the environment - my experiences as a Tyson slaughterhouse hanger/killer turned activist. Exposing the evils of factory farming, by Virgil Butler. If you have arrived here looking for the Tyson stories, view the early archives. Some of them are now featured on the sidebar for easy searching.
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
I hadn't really given that much thought to this before that email, but after reading it and giving it some thought before answering, I was reminded of those last months at Tyson and how hard it was to continue to work there. I was also reminded of the inner struggle I fought during that time.
The email didn't say a whole lot in and of itself. It was simply another wonderfully supportive email similar to others, except for one thing. This one also recommended a book that the person thought I should read, with the following recommendation:
I think it will take you further on the path it seems that you're taking. A good path indeed.
And, then, then following comment:
Congratulations, Virgil, on finding the real you.
Now, this person had no way of knowing how much that would get me to thinking...and talking...
I was going to write about this yesterday, but, like I said, these things are hard to talk about. They are intensely personal and provoke strong feelings. I have never been very comfortable talking about my feelings to others, especially the soul-deep ones that really pull on the heartstrings. So, I got busy and never got around to it, still turning it over in my mind whether I could talk about something so personal and whether I wanted to talk about this to the whole world. That is a hard thing to deal with - having everyone with nothing better to do and time on their hands to go through your life with a fine-tooth comb, looking for things to give you a hassle about. That takes a certain amount of courage in and of itself. But, it is even harder to talk about what is on the inside than what people have seen on the outside by looking at my past actions. Personal things are hard to talk about, especially to people you don't know.
Perhaps that is because I suppressed my feelings for so many years in order to do that kind of work and survive. It was a necessary thing, but not very pretty. In fact, looking back at the kind of life I was living, it is downright shameful. Those are hard things to talk about to anyone, but especially to put up here for the whole world to read.
But, it should be done. People should be comfortable with their feelings and emotions. Why do we feel embarrassed to admit to others that we care? Why does that make us feel so vulnerable? Why are we shy about this? Why should men be embarrassed to fawn over a little baby kitten? Why is this loving, caring, compassionate attitude considered a weakness by our society? Why do people have to pretend not to care in order to show they are strong? Why do people call them sissies (or worse) if they care?
It obviously takes much more strength and courage to care. Anyone who has looked deep inside themselves for what is there knows how hard this is to do. It takes great courage to examine your entire life and motivations for doing things and not lie to your own self about what you find. It is even harder to talk to others about it. It takes much more strength of character to look honestly and deeply within and take stock of what you find there.
We all know deep down why this is. Everyone has done things they are embarrassed about. Everyone has done things they are ashamed of. Everyone has done things that they regret. Everyone has done things that they would never do again.
These things are what you encounter when you first start looking within. Many people stop there. It starts getting a little uncomfortable, so they admit that they wish they hadn't done whatever it was: "sorry about that-won't do it again-can you forgive me?" And then they move on. They feel better and think they have dealt with their demons.
That's not what I'm talking about. While uncomfortable, that's not so hard to do. I'm talking about reaching way deeper than that. Do we dare to go there?
Well, I did. Or, that is to say, Laura and I did.
This all started during the ice storm I have referred to in earlier posts. This was the winter of 2000-2001. This is the ice storm that killed so many trees and shut the whole area down for about 2 weeks.
Laura and I were living at the time over in Watson, OK in a little shack next to my family. We had just gotten together before the ice storm hit. When we were not out gathering firewood for the stove to keep warm, we spent a lot of time by the fire or covered up in bed, reading and talking. We were really getting to know each other. Laura and I started to become very close during this time.
I have told all of you how I hid all the bad stories about the happenings at the plant from Laura because of her love for all animals. But, I haven't said much more about her. She was reading some interesting books at that time. She had just finished studying and taking a course in herbal medicine and was starting up learning about energy medicine - Healing Touch. She has taken the first level of that course.
Now, anyone that has ever read anything about how alternative medicine works - at least when it is done properly - knows that in order for you to get better physically you must address the mind and spirit equally. Therefore, the books that teach these things address these issues.
The energy medicine books go quite deep into this. The practitioner must go deeply within, meditating on various things. You must also look deep inside and do quite a bit of spiritual work in order to "tap in" to the energy that makes this work. Now, I'm not going to get into the physics of how this works, except to say that it is very real, and it works very well. I was just laying a little background here so that you could get an idea of the conditions that prompted this self-analysis and change in thinking.
Anyway, regardless of what makes a person take stock of themselves in this way, in order to reach any sort of enlightenment, this is the first step in that long process of figuring out who you really are and what you want your life to mean. Not to mention how you will feel about it when it comes your time to go. Will you be happy about the way you spent your life and feel good about it? Or will you have regrets?
What came as such a big shock to me was that, for years, I had prided myself on being the best damn killer they had down there. And I was. And can't any of them dispute that. But, I realized that what I had taken so much pride in was really something to be ashamed of - not something to be proud of. And, it made me mad because it felt like they had taken something from me for that.
And, I decided that I had a moral obligation to make it right. Especially since I had played such a big part in it myself. That's what really got me.
Now, I didn't go out of my way to heap extra abuse on any innocent living creature in my life, and I looked down on those who did. Even at my worst, I never believed in heaping extra abuses on any feeling being that didn't do something that warranted it, especially the poor chickens that had never done a thing in their lives to deserve what was happening to them. But, there was a time when I was "Mr. Efficiency" as far as the company went. I thought of myself as "disconnected" in the way that allows you to do something that may cause pain to another living thing without getting very involved with them. Just being coldly professional about it.
Once my eyes were opened, I realized that attitude was just as wrong as anything anyone else had done. Maybe even worse. I had turned my emotions off. In reality, I had turned off my very humanity.
That was nothing to be proud of.
I still have a hard time admitting it.
My coming forward is, in a way, trying to atone for some of the things that I did. But, it is also because I just can't stand the thought that it is going on anyway, (all the killing) without me doing anything about it. I felt like I was wrong for keeping my mouth shut about the things I knew. I felt like I was somehow helping them by not saying anything. I felt responsible.
In fact, some of the things I have told on here, I was breaking a law by not telling. Legally, that would have made me an accomplice. By setting the record straight and admitting what I know, I have done my part, and they can't blame me anymore should they find out on their own. Now, I wasn't really much worried about this part of it, and it wasn't a big part of my motivation, but it is still a fact. That's the industry's fault, in fact. Under the deregulation they ushed so hard for, it put the responsibility on the employee to report things, instead of the keeping the entire burden on the inspectors. There was and still is more responsibility on the industry to police itself.
But that is not what matters here. I just mention this. The point is that I felt morally and ethically obligated to do say something about it. At the time that I wrote that first statement, I had hoped it would be the easy situation of me simply reporting on the situation what I knew and letting them take care of it. Then I would have felt like I had done my job and moved on.
Well, that obviously didn't work, now did it? It wasn't and isn't that easy.
Anyway, after we went back to work after the ice storm, I had a different attitude toward things. I had cracked open my heart and cared and couldn't seem to get it closed again. You can't imagine the turmoil that went through me for that last couple of years. For the last year, I just almost was hoping that they would fire me. I wanted it to be over. I even tried to ru Laura off a few times subconsciously with my behanior, but she didn't let me get away with it. She knew some of what I was going through and didn't let me quit. She wrote about this once after I asked her to. The truth is that she loved me through it and didn't give up on me. Damn, I'm glad. My life is so much better now. To get all these things off my chest has been such a relief.
It made me physically ill to work there after I started caring again. I was sick all the time. Mostly, upset stomach and all that nasty business that goes with it. My blood pressure soared and I was angry all the time. I would come home in the mornings and just be absolutely furious from what went on the night before at the plant and the lack of caring I saw i others. I blamed everyone and everything, and took it on many other people.
But, what it really boiled down to was that I was mad at myself. I felt guilty for working down there and being a part of it when I just knew it was wrong.
I tried to rationalize it for awhile, saying that I had to make a living. I tried to tell myself that since I didn't buy it and didn't eat it, it wasn't my fault. That, even if I wasn't standing there, that those chickens would die anyway. Someone else would still be killing them. And, they might do a much rougher job than me. They wouldn't know the tricks I did.
See, I had done it for a long time. There are tricks you learn in order to do this and keep up the pace for that many hours. Hanging one chicken every two seconds for hours on end is hard. It is really hard. It's hard on the hanger, and it's hard on the chickens. It just is, even if you do it right. There is no really gentle way to pick up a live animal by its legs and hang it upside down in a metal shackle, especially doing it that fast and hitting a moving target in the dark.
Now, I had done it for a long time, but most of the people back there hadn't. I would try to show them how to do the work, using these little tricks, but most people would would just work themselves to death trying to keep up, and then get mad and take it out on the chickens when they couldn't. So, by my staying there, I figured that less chickens were being hurt as bad as they would have been if I wasn't there. Besides, if I wasn't there, nobody would show anyone these little tricks I had of making things easier. Therefore, all the chickens and all the workers would have it harder than it already was. This may sound like I am full of myself, but it is the truth. I was good at what I did, and I have the plaque and jacket to prove it. Anyway...
I tried to fool myself into feeling better about the job this way. It only slightly worked. I also admittedly drank a lot and did some drugs. So did just about everyone else. That is the way a lot of people cope with doing such a horrible, gruesome, barbaric job. They just numb themselves to it, one way or the other. It is hard enough when you are standing there, but you don't want to think about it when you go home. Then, you have to act like a normal person who doesn't kill living creaures for profit and be a caring human being again.
Well, this is around the time I also started butting heads a lot with Richard, among others. I was pushing for different things to make it better down there, like turning the stunner up to where it belongs. I also tried to get him to turn down the line speed to where it could be worked by the new-hires. Logic says that if the hangers can't work fast enough to get the chickens in the shackles, and you have empty shackles going out because of it, you would slow it down. Logic would have it that you would not speed it up, but that is what would happen. Then they would come in and scream at you to keep it full, like some kind of punishment. This makes the new-hires' attitudes even worse because they already can't keep up, now they are just going nuts and really having a hard time. You can see where this is going, can't you? I kept trying to make things better and being a squeaky wheel. They fought me at every turn, and things continued to worsen the longer Richard was there.
I had most of the workers behind me for these improvements, and many times I was acting as their unofficial spokesman. But, when it came down to it, everyone down there is watching out for #1. Nobody wants to do anything to get themselves in trouble. They all know that dissent gets you fired quicker than anything else. The only reason I got away with it for so long was because I was so good at what I did. In a way, I guess I was trying to get myself fired because I couldn't quite bring myself to quit. I am just not a quitter. I hated quitters. I was raised to hate quitters. I don't hate anyone anymore (not really hate them) because I am a different person. Anyway...
But, when I tried to get the authorities involved in it, getting those OSHA forms downloaded from the net and getting everyone to sign them, I had gone too far. It wasn't goping to be an internal matter anymore that they could simply ignore or deal with easily, and they got rid of me.
I can't tell you exactly how that felt, but I'll try. I was glad they fired me. It was actually such a relief. I pretty well expected it the night it happened. I had been off of work for a couple of days sick again. This one was very real, though, wrose than the illnesses before. I got a certified letter from the hospital that next week telling me that they needed to do a CAT scan on my sinuses because of something they saw on the X-ray they did on me when I saw the doctor at the hospital. I still have the letter and the note from the doctor excusing me from missing work. But, that didn't matter to Tyson. By then I had lost my job and insurance, so the CAT scan has never happened. I still wonder what is wrong. But, I've got no way to pay for something like that without insurance, so I never did anything about it. (No, I'm not begging for money or sympathy here, just informing you of the facts.)
But, I digress yet again, like another blogger I read. Maybe that's why I like reading him so much. He digresses. He's human, in other words. Real. When we digress like that, you see the real person inside that is writing just thinking aloud. It is what is on the inside of us - what we think and what we feel - more than what we do on the outside that is what makes us who we are. I forgot (or didn't know) for a long time that that was true.
I even referred to myself as "just a chicken hanger." That is what I thought of my life and who I was. But, that was not so. I am not just anything. That took awhile to sink in, though Laura told me that every taime she heard me say it. I am me - the me inside that feels and thinks and cares about things. That was simply what I did, not who I was down deep inside. I had just never looked that deep, too scared of what I might find there, especially after everything I had done in my life. I certainly didn't want anyone else to look that deeply at me. How scary!
But, somehow, that happened anyway that winter in that pitiful little shack we were living in, barely surviving and trying to stay warm in an uninsulated shack with holes and big cracks in the walls with no electricty, no running water, and no running vehicle. Laura and I did a lot of talking during that time. A lot of very serious, deep, soul-searching talking.
That was when I began to realize what I was really responsible for. And I was ashamed.
I really couldn't see how someone that cared as much as she did about things, especially animals - all animals, could care about me. I especially didn't she how she could possible truly love me. In fact, I figured she was probably just waiting on something better to come along. I have never admitted this to anyone else besides her before today (and part of me wonders why I am doing it now to you) but for a long time, every day when I came home from work, I expected to find her gone. And I wouldn't have blamed her.
I didn't understand what unconditional love was then. I am still having a hard time understanding the scope of what all that encompasses. I'm talking about true unconditional love. The kind that says honestly that, "I will love you no matter what." Now, I can understand that kind of love between a parent and a child, but you have to learn to feel that for everything and everyone. That is what a person that wants to practice energy medicine must be able to do in order to make it work. They have to feel that way about every person they talk to. You care about that person simply because they are a living being. And that is what we were discussing on those long, cold winter days and nights when we sat in that shack alone. She was trying to explain the concept of unconditional love for all things. It did sound like a beautiful thing, if it were true. Did I dare to hope?
Little by little, I started opening up. I cared. It scared me, but it felt good. It felt good to be loved, and it felt good to love back. It felt good to care.
There is, of course, a downside to everything. There was to this as well. Once you start to care, really care, about things, you can't go back. At least, not in good conscience, you can't. And caring about things leaves you vulnerable to feeling pain and sadness, among other things. Maybe that is why society has this twisted view of what is strong and what is weak. It's a pity things are this way. Maybe they won't be that way forever. I like to think not.
I can tell you, though, facing all this and dealing with it has taken more strength than anything I have ever done in my life. Opening up and caring about things is no weakness, I can assure you. Anyone who has taken this step knows exactly what I'm talking about.
That's because a true inventory of yourself, and the true meaning of the word karma, does not limit itself to those actions that you have done in your life. It equally refers to those actions you did not take, but should have. Those things you leave undone. Those things you didn't say or do, even though you know you should have. Those things - you all know what I am talking about. That's how deep you go and how far you take it if you really want to see what your life has meant up to this point.
But, the hardest thing of all, is to change those things you find that are wrong about yourself. Nobody finds it fun to admit they were wrong. Most people, even when they do admit it, try to soften the blow to themselves with an explanation. An, "I'm sorry, but..." What we call a non-apology. You are not truly sorry if you try to make an excuse. And you not truly sorry if you do it again. And, you are certainly not truly sorry if you don't try to make things right. I believe AA puts a lot of emphasis on this one, too. It is called, "making amends."
That is what I am doing now. I am guilty of murdering millions of living creatures. I am guilty of profiting from that killing. I am also guilty for sitting there and doing nothing when someone else was doing something I knew to be wrong. I am also guilty of making the excuse that I was not guilty, since I didn't do those things to stop the wrongs.
We are all responsible for those things we left undone in our lives. Now, there are a lot of things I could have/should have/would have done, but this is probably the biggest. This is definitely the thing that has bothered me the most.
I was guilty of enough things wrong that some other people used me as an excuse to show that they were not so bad. "Well, at least I'm not as bad as Virgil. Look what he has done. You want to point finger at someone, point it at him." Well, I'm not the one anymore to point a finger at. And, I am not really trying to point the finger at anyone else. I think that people's own consciences take care of that rather nicely. They may not listen or do anything about it, but they know it deep down inside. Now, that I have admitted what I have done is wrong, a lot of people are faced with looking at their own actions and their responsibility for those actions. And for those non-actions. And here is where it gets personal and uncomfortable.
People that benefit from the suffering of others, even if those others are chickens, know that their actions cause harm. Now, I don't think anyone would debate that point. When you cause suffering, especially killing, you are responsible for harm. However, you are no less responsible for the harm and suffering if you are just standing there letting it happen. That is where we get down to the controversial part that gets people all worked up.
That is the point where people start getting defensive and pointing fingers at everyone else around them, especially those they perceive to bepointing fingers and holding them responsible for their actions. Because you can't properly take responsibility for a wrong you have committed, whther by your own action or non-action, without doing something about it. That means an admission of guilt and change.
That means that you don't do things anymore that you feel sorry for, at least you try real hard not to. But, it also means that you have to look at yourself and everyone else in a different manner. That's the hard part. You have to feel compassion for even those who annoy you or commit grievous wrongs.
To truly care about another person you have to understand yourself, not them. You don't even have to know them. You care about them simply because they are alive. They were born into this world just as everyone else. Everyone of us is in the same struggle. Some of us do well, and some of us do not do so well in life. And, I'm not talking about material things or money. That is not what makes a successful life or even one to be proud of.
No, what makes a life to be proud of is one that, when it comes your time to go, you can honestly say that you have no regrets. Honestly say this.
How many people can do this? How many people even care to try?
How many things have you done that you are sorry for?
How many things have you left undone?