Going Upstream: A Parable for Our Times

Going Upstream: A Parable for Our Times

Have you ever heard a story that so influenced your understanding that it changed the course of your life?

A story containing truths that were so…well, True, that hearing the story compelled you to see things differently ever after?

I heard such a story in the winter of 1996.

I had just begun my undergrad work as a Community Studies student transferring to the University of California Santa Cruz from a community college. I was on a mission (as usual!). This mission had its origins in a series of experiences I had in 1991, several years after entering recovery to heal from childhood trauma, specifically sexual trauma. As a result of my healing process, I felt a surge of creative energy. In releasing coping patterns of denial and control formerly used to keep myself feeling safe, the creativity began to pour forth in the form of original songs. These songs were an integral part of my healing, expressing the pain, hope, betrayal, terror, and ultimately the triumph of the journey.

I had never studied music, did not play any instrument, and certainly did not know how to read or produce written music, but this outpouring of lyrics and melodies through my voice reminded me that I used to sing original songs as a child as well. I had forgotten my youthful attempts to find comfort in a sometimes constant stream of make believe imagery set to upbeat, repetitive melodies. It was lovely to remember and to acknowledge the creativity and resourcefulness of the child I was, the resourcefulness that so many children muster up in the face of oppression, confusion, and abuse.

When the recovery era songs began to move through me, I started sharing my songs with others in recovery from childhood sexual trauma. I found that the messages moved them deeply, helping them to courageously touch their own pain, to connect with their internal strength, and to feel hopeful in the face of hopelessness. The mission was born. I would go back to school and study music, starting with community college. Once I obtained my Bachelors degree in music, I would get a Masters degree in music therapy so I could help other survivors heal as I was healing. I even picked out the school where I would get my Masters degree, even though attending that school would entail a move to Stockton, and I wasn’t sure if I could get healthy whole foods in Stockton!

As is often said in spiritual circles, we plan and God laughs.

My plan did give me several delightful years of studying music. This introduced me to long term friends and gave me the capacity to write chord charts for my songs so I could speak to my accompanists in their language. But an undergrad degree in music was not to be, nor was music therapy. The first glitch was finding out how poorly I fit the model of the successful music student at UCSC! As I prepared to transfer, I realized that the program was no fit for a single mother who had come to the study of music late in life. I held onto the dream, declared music as my minor, and took on the Community Studies major with the intent to use that major to focus on healing childhood trauma.

It was in my first Community Studies class, perhaps in my first week at UCSC, that I met the story that was to change the course of my life. The class was CMMU 100: Health Activism. The class was an introduction to the theory and practice of social change through the lens of issues related to health. The class introduced me to the public health model, a model that looks beyond individual choice to examine social, cultural, and other contextual factors that influence outcomes and produce trends. Without further ado, I present the story here, as I remember it. I acknowledge that I have certainly embellished upon the story over the course of the years, so I hope the original writer will forgive my liberties.

Once upon a time, a group of professionals was walking alongside a river, deeply engaged in inspiring conversation. In the group there was a doctor, a social worker, a therapist, an elected official, a minister, the director of a nonprofit agency, and many others who cared deeply about children and families and worked to make their lives better.


Suddenly, a nurse in the group spotted a child drifting by on the current, struggling mightily to keep from drowning. As the child succumbed and began to disappear beneath the surface, the nurse jumped in the river, pulled out the child, and began resuscitation procedures. Just then, another struggling child appeared in the currents, and the doctor jumped in to retrieve her. Then another came down river, then another, and another.


Pretty soon, all of the professionals were jumping into the river, pulling out the children, performing triage, and helping those they could help to the best of their abilities. But it was, in many ways, a lost cause, because the children kept pouring downstream, struggling to keep from drowning, and in many cases being pulled under to their death. The professionals simply did not have the bandwidth to save all of the children.


Finally, the minister, having just lost yet another child, stood up and loudly declared, “I’m going upstream to see what’s causing all these children to fall in the river!”

And so ends the story,

at least as I heard it in CMMU 100, and at least as the potent impetus that provoked my shift from focusing my studies on the healing of childhood trauma to prevention. That decision proved to be much more than an academic choice. It opened up a different way of thinking that ultimately led to different career choices. I never became a music therapist, but after that incident the lesson of the story had informed my rich and varied career. And eventually I did get my Masters degree, but in a different field than envisioned.

The story has deeply impacted how I think about problems in the world.

Where there are trends, there are macrocosmic causations, and the most powerful place to make change is at the level of those macros, rather than with the individual. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fish the kids out of the river, but by all means, let us also go upstream and keep them from falling in if we can.

Fast forward to now.

That story, and the systematic approach it inspires, is now deeply embedded in me; yet, as most people enculturated in our individualistic society, I often find myself looking for the cause of things within the individual. Up until recently, when I spoke with people about the connection between food and health, I have been focusing on the individual food choices that result in disease and those that result in health.

What’s great about an individual focus is that since we do each have choice, we are empowered to make a new choice. What’s not so helpful is that in failing to acknowledge the labyrinth of contextual factors which condition and sometimes even constrain our choices, sustainable change cannot occur. Some very resourceful child or a child with proactive parents might learn how to be a super strong swimmer, and therefore survive the dunking in the river, and her act might inspire others to also learn to swim well. But the paradigm remains the same, and the majority of children are still being swept up into the treacherous currents.

This is the place where we find ourselves

in the realm of food today in the 21st century in the United States of America, and increasingly around the world as people adopt our dietary patterns.

If the minister in our story went upstream to find out what was causing so many of our “children” of every age to be drowning in the river of overweight, obesity, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, etc., she would find that the Standard American Diet is throwing the people of America into this mess. And if she looked further upstream at what was putting the Standard American Diet onto so many people’s plates and forks, she would find a complex interconnected collection of contextual factors, intentionally chosen by industries and other vested interests who are more focused on their own bottom line than on the health and well-being of those drowning in the river.

I write a little about the specific components of the web of contextual factors that condition our food choices in my post “Set Up for Disease? We CAN Overcome!”

For today’s post though, I want to return to the story of the river.

I told this story recently in one of my classes, and I got a very astute question from one of the participants. She asked what happened after the minister went upstream. In retrospect, I realize the answer I gave her was less than visionary. I told her that is where the story ended. While it is true that when I heard the story, it ended there. As a parable, that ending makes the point of the lesson, I think, because it provokes the insight that proactivity is essential, and that reactivity is unsustainable. I truly hope, however, that a river of people “drowning” as a result of the food they are eating is only the current phase, and not the end of the actual story.

If I could go back to that class, here is the ending I wish I had given:

The minister started her journey up the river, joined by the physician. Now this physician had been a very proactive and resourceful person all her life. When she was attending medical school and, like her peers, was only given one cursory nutrition class, she decided to learn more about nutrition so that she could more effectively steer her patients toward a healthful lifestyle. She completely continuing education through the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Her friend, the minister, was also well versed in whole foods plant-based nutrition, having started on a health food path in her very early years.


When the two of them made it upstream to the cause of the trouble, neither one of them was terribly surprised to find that the Standard American Diet was throwing not just the children, but most of the people of the United States of American into a fast moving, treacherous river of disease, that was sweeping up people of every age, putting them on a fast track to death and robbing them of their vitality for the final years or even decades of their lives.


Being smart and curious professionals, the doctor and the minister decided to go upstream a little further to figure out what was causing that diet to be the choice of so many Americans. They found the first layer of causation in nutritional confusion, significant cultural pressures, and the addictive nature of so many of the food items of choice. They also noticed that the Standard American Diet with its emphasis on meat, dairy, and convenience foods, was the most accessible, normalized choice. Inquisitively, they headed upstream to see what was normalizing these toxic foods and making them the most expeditious choice.


What they found amazed them! It turned out that billions of dollars were being spent to get the American people to eat this dreadful diet! They found a cluster of individuals, groups, corporations, industries, governmental bodies, and policies that contributed to the confusion, the cultural pressures, and the food addictions. And they found that the reason these expenditures were being made is that these individuals, groups, corporations, industries, and their buddies were making trillions of dollars off of the sickness of the multitudes being swept into the river of disease! It was no accident that so many people were sick, disabled, and dying; it was entirely intentional, strategically created for the purpose of greed.


And it turned out that sweeping people into this river of disease by promoting animal-based diets was also causing the torture and death of billions of animals each year, and the destruction of our precious earth. Sadly, it was also contributing to food shortages and economic instability in third world countries.


These realizations catalyzed our dynamic duo into action! Together, they rallied all their friends. They used the power of social media, their Facebook networks, YouTube, LinkedIn, and so many other tools of connection. They spoke to all of the groups and organizations who truly cared about human health, the earth, the animals. They spearheaded a coalition of concerned parties that were stronger together than any single entity was on its own.


As this coalition earnestly set about the task of dismantling the constellation of factors that had resulted in the pervasiveness of the Standard American Diet, they also began putting in its place supports, incentives, and education that promoted consumption of whole plant foods. Their efforts began taking hold and a paradigm shift began to happen. Meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and processed food were moved to the margins of many people’s plates, and entirely off the plates and forks of many more people. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds began to take their rightful place at the center of the plates, and entirely filling the plates in many, many cases.


And what was happening downstream? Well, as the cause of the epidemics was being addressed, the rescue team had fewer and fewer people to pull out of the river. They were able to more effectively address the downstream victims, because the upstream measures insured that far fewer individuals were being pitched into the roiling waters of disease.


Eventually, the whole culture was changed, and those peoples around the world who had previously copied the toxic eating patterns of Americans had a new, healthy, vibrant model to emulate. Health and vitality became the norm. The earth began to recover. Mistreatment of animals ceased. It was a new age of Eden, and everyone tasted of the fruit that was good.

Is this fable possible?

I don’t know, but I do know that it is worthy of our time, love, energy, and attention. If you feel called to be part of this upstream revolution and want to go there with me, please let me know!