Choose love – true love that is deeper than involuntary inclination

Why I don’t think that the current catchphrase “you can’t choose who you fall in love with” is an argument for same-sex marriage or the morality of sexual acts between people of the same sex.

Disclaimers: I am not saying in what follows that to have homosexual inclinations is a choice. I am conscious of – and deeply troubled by – the inconsistency within my church institution, in sanctioning things that are against the New Testament standard of chastity for people who are heterosexual, while being strict (in theory at least) about them in people who are homosexual. Granted, I want consistency restored in the direction of restoring New Testament standards of chastity for heterosexuals at the institutional level, but I do recognise the real grievance and the real inequality in upholding these standards for one group of people and throwing them out for another.

I am not not NOT saying that sexual activity between two consenting adults, no matter how unethical I’d argue it is, is evil on the level of rape, particularly of the rape of the most vulnerable and the most entitled to protection and respect – i.e. children. And I do not, in any context, argue that something should be illegal merely because it is unethical. Moreover, I appreciate the historical need certain groups of people had to disassociate themselves vigorously from those who were trying to argue not for the legality of non-violent sexual acts between consenting adults in private, but for the removal of necessary and legitimate protections from children, and the cultural inconsistency I’m pointing out may partly result from that.

Now I shall proceed regarding what this post is actually about!

 

The current catchword for the liberal agenda on homosexuality seems to be, “choose love”. “You can’t help who you fall in love with, how you feel about sex, therefore, same-sex marriage and sexual acts between people of the same sex etc. must be good and right between people who are that way inclined”.

What I wish to argue is that this “therefore” is not actually correct. (That is, that the premise is true but that the conclusion does not follow).

It is a fundamental – and I believe quite correct – insistence of the agenda that uses the “choose love” type catchword, that people are not responsible for their romantic or sexual inclination: therefore, that this should not be subject to moral judgement, and I feel they tend to imply that it must follow that this means it must be good and right to indulge that inclination.

But one cannot then consistently say, as I feel our society tends to: “homosexuals and heterosexuals merely develop differently; this is completely involuntary,” and “paedophiles are inherently disgusting”, as if people with that sexuality are making the moral choice to have that inclination.

That is, if we assume that the development of a sexuality is not voluntary, and should always be respected and acknowledged as part of the person, we have to assume that this is so for everyone, including those whom we currently still condemn merely for being what they are, and who, it is a reasonable guess to say, are probably made to find it more difficult to be virtuous by the social disgust for their natural inclination (given that this seems to be what it has been like for people who are homosexual in the recent past). Acceptance of their experience and support in acting rightly towards children would be a far better response from society than condemning people because they are tempted to misuse children.

I don’t need to argue the case that it is evil to actually use children sexually – that is now mutually accepted on every side of this debate – however much some people on either side have failed to live it, or have wrongly condoned those failing to live it. (Our guilt as Christians is greater because we ought to be upholding a higher standard).

However, the fact of paedophilia, and the fact that it is agreed in the case of people who are paedophiles, that they must be celibate, means that it can never follow merely from the fact of a romantic or sexual inclination that it is right to act upon it. We cannot define doing what we are inclined to do as “love”, regardless of other considerations. Of course, this is not an argument for the whole of traditional Christian chastity ethics, but it is one of the main reasons why I feel that the “choose love” argument is not merely inconclusive, but actually false. It isn’t an argument for the things it purports to be an argument for. I find it deeply frustrating to be continuously bombarded with it as though it obviously ought to change my mind!

However, while I don’t think “you can’t help who you fall in love with” offers any moral conclusion about what it is right to do sexually or romantically, it does dictate certain things about the right pastoral approach. That is, we should not be saying to our young people “trust God and he will make you straight” – that does not seem to be true – but “trust God and he will help you find chastity and true flourishing – as he does all those of us who experience these things differently from you”. And this should be what is said to a teenager who is developing paedophilia as much as it is to anyone else. In fact, I get the impression that a lot of people who are heterosexual, particularly those from certain places and certain church cultures, have also been taught to regard their involuntary sexual desires as wrong in themselves. It is important to make sure it is understood that sins of thought in this matter are what we deliberately do (like consciously indulging a fantasy of being in bed with the last attractive person we met in the street), not what we involuntarily think or feel (such as a picture of that person undressed coming randomly and disconcertingly into our heads).

 

As a philosopher and a Christian I would of course say to people who are homosexual, as to all others, “choose love”. But the set of actions which I think constitute choosing love are not those of the liberal agenda. What I would say in this context is: “choose love. Be physically celibate*. Choose the love which goes deeper than involuntary feeling, and respects the fact that the bodies of two people of the same sex are neither adapted nor designed for sexual activity with each other.”

The body in Christianity is part of the person, a good part of the person, and its biological and personal nature should be thoroughly and completely respected in the context of any sexual act. I am always frustrated, actually, by the similar argument in the context of Ellis Peters’ work, where Brother Cadfael justifies his (heterosexual) affairs with statements along the lines of “it would be an insult to repent of loving a woman like Mariam”**. It is not of loving her that you are bidden repent, but of the fact that you did not treat her with the fullness of love, to either not receive her body, or to commit your whole person utterly to her in marriage until the death of one of you***.

I am not, in saying that true love is deeper than involuntary emotion opposing “true love” and “involuntary emotion” in any black/white way. True love often encompasses involuntary emotion, or is built thereon. Despite the fact that I don’t believe marriage is about “two people in love”, I wouldn’t recommend a man and a woman marry without affection of that type, as the level of spiritual maturity it would take in this culture and in these circumstances to come to “true love” within a marriage without building its practical side partly on “in love” and on long term friendship, seems to me to be astronomical. But true love, love that really seeks the good of the other, can also sometimes mean overcoming our involuntary preferences, as when a mother or father lets their infant child attempt to climb up the climbing frame without assistance for the first time, despite the fact that they’d rather keep them completely safe and not let them acquire the probable bruises!

To those who would say to me frustratedly “you just don’t understand”, I know that this is quite true. I am heterosexual, and I am, more fundamentally, not you. The only way I can understand your experience of these things is by trying to hear what you are saying about it. And that is very necessary for moral enabling and practical support. We do need to build Church communities that support and encourage people in living the demands of the Gospel, rather than ones that lay heavy burdens on people and will not move to lift them themselves.

However, it does not seem to me that “you don’t understand the experience” is an argument for a change of principle. This is partly because the arguments I am making as to what it is right to do or not do are based on the dignity and nature of the body as part of the human person. I think that to argue that we can change the dignity and nature of the body by what we think or experience is to argue that the body is a possession of the mind, rather than equally a part of the person, and I think that to be incorrect. Mental and emotional experience matter, but they aren’t things that can logically overturn principles based on the nature of the body, because these principles are based on things which in this context necessarily take precedence over mental and emotional experience if the body is also to be truly regarded with honour. (This argument potentially works in an atheist/secular context, in that it does not rely directly on theology, though the emphasis I put on the human body as part of the person is undoubtedly shaped by the Christian tradition).

Primarily, though, within Christianity, the principle is based on the idea that God loves us, and he therefore gives difficult commands only because it is truly better for us, not because he is out to get us. There is no way it is consistent with the scriptural narrative to say “because I find this difficult, because it will lead to suffering, because it isn’t what I want, it can’t be God’s will”. Gethsemane alone would rule that out. On the other hand, there is also no way that we should be indifferent to human suffering or struggling. If one part of the body suffers, all others suffer with them. It is important that the approach within the church be pastoral, not in the sense of changing the principles, but in the sense of acknowledging the real extent and nature of people’s challenges in living the Gospel.

Ultimately, I would argue that this whole issue of how one behaves sexually and romantically, for anyone regardless of their sexual/romantic inclination, is not about choosing love or not choosing love, but about coming to understand what it truly means to love.

 

 

* I oppose same-sex marriage because it would be illogical in the context of what I think marriage is, but I have no strong opinion either way on romantic but physically celibate relationships between two people of the same sex.

** I have not the book at present, so while I believe the attribution correct, this may not be a precise quote. The argument I am making does not rely on its source.

***See also 1 Corinthians 6:18, and the following verses.

 

People are welcome to comment. However, I suggest reading at least the disclaimers at the beginning again first (make sure you understand more or less what I’m really saying – or ask if I haven’t been clear), assume the goodwill of anyone who disagrees with you, and use arguments (“I think X because…”) rather than trying to shout others down.

Magnificat

The_Embrace_of_Elizabeth_and_the_Virgin_Mary source wikimedia commons, photo credit and author unknown, no copyright
The Visitation, St. George Church, Kurbinovo, North Macedonia. Source, Wikimedia Commons, author and photo credit unknown.

 

My soul gives glory to the Lord; my spirit delights in God who saves me,

For he has chosen to honour me despite my insignificance.

Look, look!  For now, all people shall for ever call me blessed!

He, the all powerful, has lent me glory, and HOLY is his Name.

His mercy is with them that adore him, throughout all ages of history.

 

He is showing strength and power,

He brings the desire of those who boast of themselves to nothing at all.

He has overturned presidents and prime ministers,

Exulting the underprivileged to power and wealth.

He is filling those in need with all they could want,

While those stuffed full of luxury are turned away with nothing.

 

He remembering his kindness has come to help his servant Israel,

As he promised to our ancestors from time immemorial,

Promised to Abraham’s family for ever and ever.

Cherry Foster

 

P.S. An academic note: I have called this “Magnificat”, and in a sense it is, but I know almost no Greek, so ultimately it is my own linguistic impression of the English versions (all however many ><) that I know, and my interpretation of the poetry, not an actual translation.  There is no avoiding, for instance, choosing between “he has exulted me because I was humble,” “he has exulted me because of my low social status,” and “he has exulted me despite my low social status”, and I’ve had to do that without any reference to the original language, according to what I think is most coherent with the poem as a whole and with my opinion on the theology of poverty.  It is a devotional poem rather than a scriptural translation.

Also, I partly wrote this as an exercise in exploring the problems with trying to put liturgy in truly modern language, being annoyed by the notion it was worth swapping the beautiful prayer book Magnificat for a version which referred to the “lowly” apparently on the grounds that the second version was more “modern” (I’m not sure I’ve ever referred to the “lowly” in any serious way – it is just as dated, if not more so, than “humble and meek”).  I’m also intrigued by the problems the limitations of word choice that would be caused by being truly idiomatic create when writing to be read aloud (stylistically, it should really be “on them who” not “on them that“, but the “e-o-or-i” sequence there sounds excruciating; similarly, “unimportance” would have been more idiomatic than “insignificance”, but it has a clumsy rhythm, and poor, clumsy, bad-sounding language doesn’t communicate the beauty and majesty of God).  Another problem that intrigues me is that society has changed in ways that mean there simply isn’t a modern equivalent to some things – it isn’t possible to communicate the relationship between master and servant by talking of an employee – and I think this is even more problematic when it comes to theological concepts like “blessed”, “holy”, and “mercy”.   Besides, trying to make it sound like an excited teenager talking for the first time about something utterly momentous to her in the confused context of greeting a relative whom she hasn’t seen for some time and who has also had her life turned upside down is quite complicated in terms of choice of technique.

Anyway, it was very interesting, and I have a bit more sympathy now with the people who have to write liturgy and make compromises between all the different considerations.

Transfiguration

Of old upon the mountain paths

The unnamed God revealed

In unconsuming flame his call,

Yet with his face concealed.

 

Of old upon the mountain side

The wind and fire did rage,

But God unseen in silence there,

Spake to his lonely sage.

 

But now upon the mountain top,

In glory old and new,

The Son the Father showeth forth,

To God’s full image true.

 

Cherry Foster

 

Transfiguration by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov source wikimedia commons no copyright
Transfiguration by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

A Nice Story from the Old Testament

Elisha and the Syrians

Prophet Elisha, Russian Icon from 18c Source wikimedia commons no copyright
Russian Icon of the Prophet Elisha, 18th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For some reason this obscure and comforting story keeps coming into my head, so I thought I would share it.  It is one of my favourites.  While I am not advocating an unwillingness to engage with the “uncomfortable” parts of the Old Testament, it is worth remembering sometimes that it is not all like that.

Then the king of Syria warred against Israel, and took counsel with his servants, saying, In such and such a place shall be my camp.

And the man of God sent unto the king of Israel, saying, Beware that thou pass not such a place; for thither the Syrians are come down.  And the king of Israel sent to the place which the man of God told him and warned him of, and saved himself there, not once nor twice.

Therefore the heart of the king of Syria was sore troubled for this thing; and he called his servants, and said unto them, Will ye not shew me which of us is for the king of Israel.  And one of his servants said, None, my lord, O king: but Elisha, the prophet that is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchamber. And he said, Go and spy where he is, that I may send and fetch him.

And it was told him, saying, Behold, he is in Dothan. Therefore sent he thither horses, and chariots, and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city about. And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do? And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

And when they came down to him, Elisha prayed unto the LORD, and said, Smite this people, I pray thee, with blindness. And he smote them with blindness according to the word of Elisha. And Elisha said unto them, This is not the way, neither is this the city: follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek. But he led them to Samaria. And it came to pass, when they were come into Samaria, that Elisha said, LORD, open the eyes of these men, that they may see. And the LORD opened their eyes, and they saw; and, behold, they were in the midst of Samaria.

And the king of Israel said unto Elisha, when he saw them, My father, shall I smite them? shall I smite them? And he answered, Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master. And he prepared great provision for them: and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master.

So the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel.

2 Kings, chapter 6, verses 8-23.  King James Version.  With thanks to all who have put Bible texts online – it is an amazing resource.

Cherry Foster

 

P.S. A recording of the post.  Excuse its amateur nature!  Please tell me if you find it useful/like it. 

 

Is all-age worship possible?

“Children prefer all-age worship,” someone says. The sense of loss and weariness and “this church just doesn’t have a place for people like me”, remains with me for days. True, to be painfully honest, everything about the church is “ouching” me at the moment. But the focus on children to the exclusion of anyone else is one of the worst and most ongoing difficulties I have. Of the things that parish priests could do to assist religious vocations, I would say that a reasonable value and respect for silence and focus, not relegated entirely to private prayer or low Masses, and respect for those who suffer from noise in worship, is among the most important things. Otherwise the spirituality of a contemplative life is being crushed out before it can even begin*.

I also believe it is very important to welcome children  – and their parents/carers, whose needs aren’t met if the children’s needs aren’t, but who also have a whole complex set of needs of their own. This tends to result in my wanting to contrive and support as much creative and fruitful separation of children’s activities and worship as possible. On the other hand, driven crazy by the refusal of others to hear the reality of my needs and problems, I am very eager not to do the same to others. If being part of services which involve the whole church community is important to children, then it should matter to the rest of us as well.

My reasons for hating what I’m used to thinking of as all-age worship are of several different types. The main one is quite simply: noise. And lack of stillness. I am a contemplative, an introvert, a person with two different health conditions which increase my sensitivity to background noise, and someone who has never lived with young children since I was a young child myself. I do my best, but I don’t respond very well to short services of spoken words alone (thankful though I am that these are often quiet actually during the service). The occasional high sung Eucharist which is accidentally quiet I seize on like someone starving – but without being able to expect it to be quiet I find it difficult to respond as fully as I might – in the same way as I have a lot of trouble going to sleep if I’m expecting to be woken up. While I doubt many people are unfortunate enough to have all five of my difficulties with noise combined, there are plenty of introverts, plenty of people without children, plenty of people with disabilities which make noise more difficult out there. And possibly plenty of contemplatives – but who knows?

There is also the fact that most of the things I respond to naturally are thoroughly adult. Long services, lots of silence, lots of symbolism, music that’s technically good, lots of things that appeal to the intellect, lots of sensory input of different kinds, no distractions – and minimal surprises or unexpected or out of place happenings**. It seems to be inherent to my personality to need a combination of complexity (to hold my attention) and order (to keep things calm). And this is not likely to suit children under a certain age.

I also associate all-age with a particular type of stifling of spiritual growth. There was a cultural tendency in the church I grew up in to try to make stuff all-age by reducing it. Everything had to be aimed at a child of 8, and anything that wasn’t suitable for young children was supposed to be scrapped, trapping everyone at a certain stage of growth and forbidding them to go further or deeper in their journey. Anglo-Catholics don’t tend to do that, as far as I can see. What we do tend to have is an attitude that being in the building where Mass is being said is “worship” regardless of what we are actually doing or thinking during that time, which I would respectfully suggest is not actually consistent with our principles!

It seems to me that all age worship usually either means a group of adults doing things along with the children which seem to be done entirely for the children’s sake, rather than in order to worship, or it means the young children playing, screaming, fighting, and banging their toys around in some isolated corner, while those adults who are fortunate enough to be able to worship despite this get on with doing so, and those of us who are not sit there in protracted agony. In no way is either all-age worship. Being in the same room should not be considered as enough.

If the problem is that children, in being separated off to do something else, feel as if they were not part of the church community, perhaps there are ways in which this can be ameliorated other than all-age worship. Our church has a custom I love, of bringing the Sunday-school children in with the procession of clergy, and having the celebrant bless them before they leave to do something different during the liturgy of the word. As an adult helper, I felt that our part in what the church was doing was being affirmed and blessed and included, and I hope the children more or less felt the same. Moreover, I have been told by people who have tried it that it is possible to get very young children joining in meaningfully with adult worship with minimal alteration – much younger than is spontaneously possible – if the effort is put into teaching and assisting and the expectation is that this is something they should mostly be joining in with too – when the time they are being asked to be quiet and engage is age appropriate. So it may be that it is possible to look for other ways of making the children feel included while sticking primarily to a “separate group” policy, or by enabling them to engage much younger with “adult church”, thus making that closer to all-age without rendering it useless to a proportion of the adults. Whether this is so or not can, of course, only be answered by them.

I should also say that I am aware of the possibility that this is not so much about all-age worship as the fact that a vocation of the sort I have is like a fish out of water in a parish. While there is certainly an element of that in my reactions and feelings, the degree to which it is unacceptable to say that you have difficulties worshipping without silence and focus leaves me unsure of how much of my experience is unusual.  I don’t know how much my impression of isolation is caused by the fact that it is just not ok at the moment to admit to having difficulties caused by anything children are doing or by anything done for the children.

Anyway, to my original question “Is all age worship possible?” I think the answer is that it is something very well worth trying to do, both for the sake of those who want it and on the grounds that ultimately we are a single community.  But it needs to be attempted with the real consciousness that if we mean “all-age”, we have to mean that we are trying to make it work equally well for everyone. If it is working for the toddler, but not for the single young adults, the parents, the middle aged, or the elderly and frail, it is not working, just as much as it is not working if it is not working for the toddler. I think also it is necessary to accept its limitations and to do other things as well, rather than attempting to make all our worship fit that pattern and no other. It is an adventure. It is worthwhile.

Cherry Foster

 

*The current precedence of noise over silence is a much wider issue than children alone, but children do seem to me to be one of the major genuine issues, i.e. where there is a real pastoral need on the side of noise as well.

**I do usually manage to avoid fainting! While I’m well aware of a different side of this – the need to accommodate disability, including my own, without allowing it to disrupt worship, that issue is not one I want to talk about in public about at the moment.

You are worth more…

Towards a positive view of Christian Chastity

In 2014 there was a scandal when private “naked pictures” taken of various celebrities were leaked to the press.

One of the women involved said: “I started to write an apology, but I don’t have anything to say I’m sorry for. I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”*

If it is possible for someone to say of a relationship which only lasted four years, and in which the woman felt her boyfriend would look at porn unless she made a substitute for him out of pictures of herself, that it was “healthy”, “great”, and “loving” what does that say about what Western culture now means by those words? And how it is possible to communicate a different set of values across such a language barrier?

I think Christian ethics, including chastity (that is, sexual activity within marriage only, where marriage is between one man and one woman, and is a commitment for life) is partly about God’s care for human worth and human dignity**. An understanding of this aim can be seen very plainly in what is said about social justice***, but it doesn’t seem to be as quickly applied to sex.

You, and your living body, made in God’s image and destined for resurrection and eternal joy, are worth more than this. They are worth more than to be reduced to a matter of casual enjoyment for yourself or another, worth more than to be used against their biological nature and physical potential****, worth more, even, than to be given in any situation other than an absolute commitment for life to you and to any children you may have together*****. You are worth having another commit their life completely to you, and the intimacy of your body should not be given or received at any lesser value.

Wedding_ring_Louvre_AC924 Byzantium 7th c AD Wikimedia com no copyright
Byzantium wedding ring, 7th century AD, showing Christ uniting the bride and groom. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

*Jennifer Laurence, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/10/jennifer-lawrence-photo-hacking-privacy. Though I oppose the attitude to relationships expressed, my sympathies are entirely with her regarding the wrongful violation of her privacy.

**See previous post: “On the nature of God’s commands”.

*** For example, when people talk about the dignity of labour and the fact that the person should be paid a living wage.

**** It is impossible to write on this issue in modern times, and completely avoid the issue of sexual activity between people of the same sex: I appreciate the issue is both complex and sensitive, and what I wanted to say touches on it obliquely rather than being about it, which in some ways I feel is not ideal. However, I think it is better to be immediately open about what I mean and where I’m coming from, as confusion about what different people are really saying is a serious problem in this debate. I believe God’s love is unconditional and is given freely to all people regardless of their inclinations, sexual or otherwise. I have no strong opinion either way on the question of romantic and physically celibate same-sex relationships, though in accord with traditional Christianity I oppose same-sex marriage (I will write on why I don’t think same-sex marriage makes sense in detail sometime: it is one of the most interesting academic debates I’ve ever been involved in). I also think that non-violent sex between consenting adults should be legal.

However, I do in all honesty believe that sexual activity is always unethical between people of the same sex, (a) because it doesn’t make sense to set aside the scriptural standard and replace it with one of our own, and (b) because part of using our bodies to love others is to respect the reality of the potential and nature of the human body, and the bodies of people of the same sex are not adapted or created for sexual relationships with each other. It is worth noting that I would apply (a) to a lot of similar issues, including cohabitation and our approach to divorce and remarriage.

[N.B. I will be interested to read and publish comments of the form “I don’t agree because”, whatever you have to say, but I will not publish anything along the lines of “these dreadful people who…” whether referring to people who are homosexual or people who don’t agree with the liberal agenda.]

*****This is not to condemn every sexually active relationship between two people who are not conjugally married as evil in every way. From the academic point of view, it is possible to admire the commitment a business owner has to their workers, while wishing they would not go in for sharp practice on the stock exchange or dodge their taxes. Similarly, it is possible to admire the good things about a relationship, while believing it would be even better – meet more fully the plans God has for our joy – if it were also chaste (i.e. if the couple abstained from sexual relations unless and until marriage was appropriate). From the personal point of view, I am also a sinner, and have no right to judge.

Cherry Foster

Eliminating the Freezer Bag

Some thoughts on making an aspect of ecological living work

I suppose it’s compulsory to mention human caused climate change in any article on ecology – so I will say I’m highly sceptical of it!  This is mostly due to seeing most of what is put in front of us as bad science from the methodological point of view: misused statistics, dubious chains of proxy data, tiny samples, lack of falsification conditions, insufficient data for the conclusion drawn, lack of attention to the extent and nature of pre-human natural shifts in temperature and sea level, over-reliance on models, insufficient attention to and research on other possible theories*.

However, there are plenty of excellent reasons for believing in ecological living.  Human-caused climate change or not, an ongoing lack of sustainability can reasonably be expected to ultimately destroy our habitat in some way – which is not exactly a good idea.  We are supposed, according to Christian theology, to be the stewards of creation, which means using and not abusing it.  Overuse of things isn’t really good for us as people (Emily Smucker puts it well here, when she talks about wanting to refuse consumerism on the grounds that it is a form of greed).

On the other hand, it is necessary to accept that people aren’t automatons, and cannot just do this or that, without thinking about the practical implications.  Precisely what percentage of the washing up I do by hand is recycling is difficult to judge, but I have enough physical difficulties that it is quite a substantial task.  And I suspect it would be or is found to be by a lot of other people in a variety of situations.  It’s true that I think the question of “do you have to be this busy?” is a legitimate one, but I also think that the answer would probably be some variety of “yes”** for enough people, that it is necessary to look at the practicalities of ecology too, and look for ecological ways of doing things which are not a massive burden.  After all, the more easily any single ecological thing can be done, the more effort someone will have to spare for another thing of the same type.

So, finally, to the specific freezer bag problem.  I live alone in a rural place without a car.  I generally have a shopping delivery once a month.  This means I don’t eat very much fresh food, but tend to live out of my freezer.  I’ll buy a packet of sausages or mince, or a joint, and divide and freeze it.  I also cook more than one portion of things at once to freeze, or freeze a cooked portion of something that takes longer to cook, such as lentils, or of things that go off and can be frozen like bananas (for cooking – they aren’t a food that returns to its fresh state after thawing).  And I often take a packed lunch with me on Sundays or festival days when the service is at 11 and it is usually rather late for lunch by the time I get back.  I initially did pretty much all my freezing in bags, which was a lot of bags.  And having mostly got on top of washing the recycling, I decided single use plastic was a good thing to target, because it is a major source of straightforward environmental pollution and damage, and I think it is very unlikely that the alternative I’m trying to use – plastic boxes – is actually worse for the environment***.

My aim was to eliminate the single-use freezer bag, as used by myself in my own kitchen.  I’m not trying to do anything about single-use plastic packaging that comes with products, nor am I particularly concerned about, for example, the freezer bag I’ve been carrying my books in every day for the last few months.  It might be good to find an alternative, but it could not be justly described as “single use plastic”.  I haven’t yet tried to tackle shopping bags, except for reusing them when I can, though I’m getting to a point where I probably could.

DSCN0620
My freezer at present – moving towards boxes rather than plastic bags. (N.B. I don’t normally freeze bananas like that. They were about to go off so I thought there was nothing to lose).

The first problem I encountered was the sheer expense of purchasing that number of boxes.  It may be cheaper overall – I can’t tell at this stage – but buying another packet of plastic bags every month at a small regular cost is very different from trying to lay out a few hundred pounds in an appropriate variety of sizes of freezer box.  And (second problem) it is necessary to have a variety of sizes because rigid boxes take up more space in the freezer anyway.  Adding a lot of wasted space because the boxes are bigger than they need to be isn’t practical.  I’m still working on both these issues, and am gradually building up a stock of boxes.  In some ways doing this over a year or two is better anyway because it’s becoming clearer exactly what I need.  Optimising use of freezer space is still a bit of a fog – I’m still puzzling that one out – but square boxes of the same size do at least stack quite nicely in a chest freezer.  I tried folding silicone boxes, which squash down, and those I have have been useful, mostly for fruit, but they are more expensive and in some ways harder to handle.

The third problem is where on earth do I store that number of boxes and lids between uses?  And for a further complexity, they need to be stored in an organised way which actually makes it easy to get them out and use them.  I made sure I got a lot of duplicates of the same type of box, which are easier to store together and recognise as being of a particular size.  I’m in the process of adding on-worktop storage, having carefully put the same size of little box in things like ice cream tubs on the top shelf of my cupboard until I ran out of space.  On worktop storage is likely to be fine because the under cupboard worktop space in this house isn’t really useable anyway due to the cupboards being low.  Putting all the boxes of the same size together with the lids with them is, I think, probably essential, but apart from that, how to do it would probably need to be worked out separately for each kitchen/house.

The fourth problem was the problem of labelling the food.  I’m hoping to find reusable labels, which could just be stuck on the box and left, though at the moment I’m using paper stick on labels.  I hope the extra environmental burden of a square of sticky paper per use is less than that of a plastic bag, but this is the sort of hidden environmental cost that tends to throw me when trying to work out what to focus on.

I found that having rigid boxes was an advantage when it came to rewarming food in the microwave, because the box can be heated whereas the bags can’t.  And it is easier to scoop liquid food out of a box than of a bag.

The main picnic problem proved to be that most of the rectangular boxes haven’t got sufficiently secure or liquid tight lids to be used on their own in a bag.  Granted it is easier to put coleslaw in a box, but I then ended up putting the box in a freezer bag to prevent it leaking – and it needed it.  I had more success with screw-top yogurt pots on this point.  And I got to packing the different boxes into an old ice cream tub rather than a bag, which works up to a point, but again, takes up more space.  On the other hand it is more protection for the food.

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A screw-top yoghurt pot and a baker’s box with clip-on lid, for carrying picnic food without freezer bags.

I haven’t completely succeeded yet.  The baked potatoes in my freezer are still in bags rather than boxes.  On average, I probably use one freezer bag, and sometimes some clingfilm, per picnic – less than I used to.  What I’m expecting to find with this one, is that having once solved the problems, the practical (not merely the environmental) advantages to using boxes rather than bags will outweigh the difficulties.

So, to summarise, the problems I had were:

1: the start-up cost of boxes v.s. bags

2: the fact that freezer boxes take up more space in the freezer

3: the need to find and organise easy-to-access storage for the boxes between uses

4: labelling

5: lids too insecure for enclosing carried food on their own.

Solutions, such as I’ve found them, have involved:

1: buying boxes of the same type one set at a time, and accepting that in the meantime I will run out of boxes sometimes and need to supplement with freezer bags.  Reusing brought boxes: e.g. ice cream tubs.

2: studying the best size and shape of box for what I typically have to store in the freezer (in my case, I have a lot of 200ml boxes, and even more 400ml ones).  Using some folding silicone boxes.

3: choosing duplicate sets of the same size and shape of box, choosing boxes which will fit inside each other when out of use, having boxes to put each type of box and their lids in together, extending storage onto unused worktop space

4: No completely satisfactory solution yet; using disposable stick on freezer labels

5: Using screw-top yoghurt pots or boxes with clips on the lids when important

Disposables have their place.  But I am glad to be on the way to eliminating this particular not-really-necessary-in-my circumstances disposable from normal use in my kitchen.

I hope, some time, that I meet a turtle that’s alive because I did it.

Cherry Foster

Chelonia_mydas source wikimedia commons photo credit Brocken Inaglory copyright to attribution
Chelonia mydas. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Brocken Inaglory

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Most of this comes from dinner conversations with family members who are physicists, and cite things like actually trying to get the hockey stick curve from the published numbers.  However, the “lack of falsification conditions” is more of a philosophical comment.

**This is a question that fascinates me in a lot of situations.  I wrote on “have to” in as far as it seems to me to be a linguistic moral problem here.  “Have to” in domestic life seems to refer to a very wide degree of pressures from “realistically we wouldn’t be able to eat,” through a range of things which matter but aren’t essential to life such as “we’d never be able to travel to see our parents,” “we’d never have any sort of holiday,” “we would lose the house which we have made our home,” “our teenagers wouldn’t all be able to have their own room,” to a completely different set of things such as “my vocation demands full time work,” “the needs of young children really do require this much attention”, to things which really can’t be considered “have to” issues such as “we would only be able to go on two luxury holidays abroad per year rather than three”.  The thing I would emphasise is, again, the fact that we do still have a choice to some degree despite the pressures on us to choose in a particular direction.

***The main risk, I think, in replacing disposables with reusables is the possibility that either the ultimate waste product or what’s needed for effective cleaning – hot water and chemicals – is actually worse for the environment than the disposable was.  However, it is at least a reasonable assumption that one needs less energy and chemical to wash a plastic box than one does to make a plastic bag, and that the waste product is not worse and probably better.  If anyone has specialist knowledge to confirm or deny this, I’d be very interested to hear.