A Christmas Message: Peace on Earth

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A Christmas Message: Peace on Earth

By David Gerow Irving, The Protein Myth

Well here it is again.  Christmas Season with New Year’s right around the corner.  The good cheer of Christmas!  It fills the air!  The money!  The hustle and bustle! The last minute shopping!  The worry!  The anxiousness of the poor!  The laughter!  Jingle Bells and Boughs of Holly!  Christmas Trees, Ornaments, and Mistletoe!  Snow and Reindeers and Old Saint Nick!  Hot Cider!  Cranberry Sauce!  The Christmas cards!  Only X more days till Christmas!   

And of course, the music.  Joy to the world!  Hark the Herald Angels Sing!  It Came Upon a Midnight Clear!  White Christmas!  Silent Night!  Oh Little Town of Bethlehem!  Jingle Bells!  I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus!  And the nostalgia.  A Child’s Christmas in Wales!  It’s a Wonderful Life!  And hanging above it all is the Christmas message.  “The Christmas message?”  Yes, don’t you remember?  The Manger?  The Three Wise Men?  You know, Christ is born today and all that—for those who believe, that is, and for those who don’t, well, then,  Peace on Earth!  Good Will Toward All Humankind!  Now there’s a message that brings good cheer to everyone.  Sinner and Saint.  Gentile and Jew.  Muslim and Buddhist.  Atheist and Agnostic.  The hope of the ages.  The language of sages.  The words spoken by the poets, philosophers, thinkers, and dreamers of dreams.  The never achievable, the always sought after, the often prayed for, the endlessly fought for, the frequently killed for.  The simple message that finds a home in everyone’s heart and mind.  Peace on Earth!  Good Will Toward All Humankind!    

Small wonder with these reflections in mind that the topic of my Christmas message this year should be Peace on Earth!  But will it ever come?  How do we find it?  How can  we bring it here?  Shall we investigate to see if we can find out?  But be forewarned.  If you have yet to make the journey to the place where peace is found, you may never view life the same again! 

For me the road to the land of peace started at least as far back as Fair Isle, one of the Shetland Islands, where the family Irving found itself living in the 18th and 19th centuries.  They were called Irvine then and could claim membership in a Scottish clan that wore a greenish tweed—at least that’s the kind of tie belonging to the Irvine clan I bought in the little shop in Manhattan on 56th Street just off of Madison Avenue a few years ago.  They sold everything Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, also British if you wanted it.  It’s gone now, that quaint little shop.  The proprietors packed up and moved way up North to the Orkney Islands—just South of the Shetlands—to live among the treeless hills and seagulls and all manner of quaint Scottish things.  They could hardly wait to get there.  Is that the place where peace is found?  Well some people would think so, no doubt, though it is not quite the land that we are searching for.

By the time my grandfather Frank Byron Irving was born, some of the clan had already made their way to Canada and down to Boston.  Frank grew up in Boston and eventually fell in love with Charlotte Gerow of Blooming Grove, New York in the lower Catskills.  (How ironic that I now make my home in the Catskill region.)  Coming from such an isolated place as the Shetland Islands in the 19th century, who knows what kinds of aptitudes might get buried in the genes or what propensities a Frank Byron Irving might have inherited or how he might eventually turn out, especially considering the rumors of an incestuous birth lodged somewhere along the family line.  Add that together with an undercurrent of Huguenot beliefs, and one could only wonder what the final results might be. 


Charlotte Gerow Irving & Frank Byron Irving with children: Jean, Laurence, and Margaret

Now the Huguenot stuff, that came from the Gerow side after Frank Irving and Charlotte Gerow were married.  The Gerows were originally Huguenots by the name of Giraud, coat of arms and all, who settled in upstate New York in the 18th century after they fled the persecutions of Louis XV in France and changed the name to Gerow.  It cannot have been a particularly easy life upon which Frank and Charlotte embarked.  But, independent it was for sure, kindled by a lifelong love that had them exchanging letters of romance all their lives.  With Bible in hand, and supported by a loving wife, Frank became an itinerant Baptist preacher traveling the back roads in horse-pulled buggies, preaching in little towns and little churches wherever he went and wherever he could find a job as far North as Minnesota, as far West as Tekamah, Nebraska, and in the East, he preached in West Guilford, Vermont and Hampden, Massachusetts.  Frank and Charlotte had five children in all, three boys and two girls.  The first of the boys was Laurence Gerow Irving, born in New York City.  He would become the father of a son Bill, a daughter Shirley Ann, the opera diva, and twins David Gerow and Darrel James.


Laurence & Adeline

My father followed in Grandpa Irving’s footsteps, leading the singing for the Sunday School gatherings and teaching his own Sunday School class.  He had a willing collaborator in my Welsh American mother, Adeline Thomas, who played piano by ear for the Sunday gatherings and taught a Sunday School class herself.  They were pretty good as shown by the invitations to sing and teach in neighboring towns and counties, my brother Darrel and I in tow.  (Brother Bill and sister Ann were old enough to stay home alone on their own.)  In the evenings my mother and father often sang duets, usually hymns or other religious songs with some classicals, but Sweet Adeline, My Adeline and Wild, Wild Rose were favorites too. 


Baptist Church in West Guilford, Vermont where Frank Byron Irving preached     

Our second home was the Baptist Church where we spent considerable time, and I too started to follow the footsteps laid down by Grandpa Frank as I contemplated becoming a Baptist minister.  I wrote away to Christian colleges to get their brochures and this included the most conservative ones like Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois and Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina where the founder, Bob Jones, gained notoriety as a blatant, scowling racist.  Given an inherent inclination toward rebellion, I wonder how I would have fared there considering that I had recognized and turned against racism from the time I was in the second grade.  An early hero was the heavy weight champion Joe Lewis.  My brother and I bought Joe Lewis boxing magazines and fantasized becoming a boxing great like Joe.  We cheered on the advancement of blacks in baseball, especially Larry Doby and Satchel Paige of the Cleveland Indians, our favorite team.  Fortunately, I never had to be confronted by Bob Jones University.  Much bigger challenges lay ahead, and besides,  I was also writing away to schools like Juilliard and the Jordan Conservatory of Music in Indianapolis.  I had picked up the French horn when I was 14 and from the moment I first touched the instrument, I knew that I was destined to become a musician.  Curiously, grandfather Frank wrote me a letter urging me forward on the French horn.  I still have it buried somewhere.  It was the only letter he ever wrote to me.

After graduation from high school, I entered the army where I was soon mixing with a fascinating ensemble of intellectuals, agnostics, athieists, iconoclasts, misfits, future vagabonds, alcoholics, geniuses, political radicals, the furthest out most outrageous people one could ever imagine, and great, great musicians, all of whom I met in the short space of about 18 months spent as a member of the 9th Division Army Band and the 7th Army Symphony Orchestra in Germany.  It was a baptism of a far different nature than the one in which I had been immersed growing up in my little Hoosier town of Bluffton.  After the army, with apprenticeship in hand, it was time to try my wings.  And far, far away it was indeed that my flight took me from its genesis in Fair Isle in the Shetland Islands and the small Hoosier town in which I grew up.  Mighty was the crash on more than one grand occasion when I sought to climb too high and was brought smashing to earth entangled in the wreckage of a craft not quite perfected enough for flight to the far and distant places for which I yearned.  But fly I would learn how to do and fly it is that I best know how to do today—at least those flights that coincide with the nature of poet, musician, writer, progressive, and independent thinker.  And that is why and how my explorations—greatly abbreviated in the small space of this modest document—have taken me on a great and fantastic journey leading to that place where Peace unmistakably resides! 

But just how is it that one gets there, one might legitimately ask?  The answer lies in that it’s all contained in the definition.  Define anything correctly and it will take you where you want to go. 

So let us begin by defining a few concepts.  Take thought.  What is it?  On the surface thought consists of internalized words strung together that symbolize deeper levels of perception.  Just consider the multiplicity of meanings of a word like “book.”  Or all that comes to mind when we speak or think a word like “dog,” or “cat.”  Or, “the dog chased the cat.”  It is at that place in the mind where the deeper levels of perception lie without words where we apply words to specific perceptions we have conceptualized to symbolize some specific thing so that we can communicate a meaning about that thing to another human being by using word symbols.

Animals think on these deeper levels of perception, too, in spite of the unfounded view with which animal researchers managed to chain the human mind for a few centuries with the assertion that animals were incapable of thought.  These researchers did that to provide a cover for getting away with their cruel experiments.  [See note further below for the title of my  latest book which is about animal research.]  So we need to define a few things about animals, too, if we are to understand the role that thought has played in the peace process.  Animals think in just slightly different ways than humans.  That is because they have no words to apply to their perceptions to convey the meaning of their thinking.  [This is not to imply that animals would have the same capacity for creating word symbols as human beings if they possessed the anatomic mechanism for producing speech, though, apparently, some species, like porpoises, might come close.]  Among most species (excluding parrots, for instance), only humans are able to create word symbols to apply to these deeper levels of perception.  This is what differentiates Homo sapiens (our species) from other species more than any other factor.  Other differences also exist, but excepting the wearing of clothing, these are more differences of degree rather than of kind: bipedal locomotion, body hair (fur) or lack thereof, and opposable thumb dexterity.  In their bare essentials, animals and humans are physiologically and biologically more or less the same.  We all eat, drink, sleep and require air to breathe.  We move from place to place and stay alive by means of a circulatory blood system that includes a heart, arteries, capillaries and veins. We engage in sexual reproduction in order to perpetuate our species and our life spans are species-determined.  We communicate easily within our individual species, we all think, and we all have emotions.  When we are hungry or thirsty we  seek food and liquids to eat and drink and eliminate the remains after use.  And when we have an itch that itches, we scratch it.  Other than humans, most animals do not kill other members of their own species except under conditions of extreme duress.    

Now how does that scenario grab us?  It’s more than apparent that we humans are just as much an animal as a mouse—EEK!—no matter how we have endeavored to separate and put ourselves in a special category that denies above all that we could ever be such a lowly thing as an animal.  Horror of horrors!  Animals?  We are humans!  Animals are animals! “Why they’re, they’re—  You know what they are!  There was that story in the news the other day about this insane guy who just started shooting everyone in sight!  Why he was, he was—  Well, he was just an animal!  That’s what!  Just an animal!”

What role does our exclusion of animals from that noble sentiment Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward All Humankind play?  What difference would it make if we altered the words to read: “Peace on Earth!  Goodwill Toward All Creatures Who Live?”  Would that bring us the peace that passeth all understanding, the peace the  world so desperately needs? 

Let us take a little journey through history’s ancient pages where perhaps we will find our way to the land of peace.  We don’t think of and are mostly unaware of some of the most fascinating facts about our remote past concerning human existence.  Our human types (hominids) have been exploring the earth for seven million years, at least.  During nearly all of those seven million years, human types did not separate themselves from other animals in a hierarchical manner like we do today.  We knew and accepted that we, too, were a part of the animal kingdom.  But what was our essential nature?  During the 20th century a few anthropologists, including some of the most famous ones, sought to answer that question by trying to convince us that we were inherently “killer ape” types.  That was the chief factor that differentiated we human apes from nonhuman apes.  Nonhuman apes didn’t kill for survival.  Human apes did.  Besides trying to convince us that we were “killer apes,” these anthropologists also determined that we should be called “man the hunter” and claimed that we had grown our large brains necessary for human survival by confronting and slaying large predator animals and consuming their flesh.  This was what accounted for human evolution and divided us from other species.  It was a popular theory that achieved widespread acceptance and was even paraphrased in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The concept continues to be taught even today.  Funny thing about it, though, it’s not true.  Other anthropologists have since corrected the errors upon which the theory was based.  In fact, the archaeological evidence reveals the kind of people we really were over those long millions of years during which we evolved into our present species type.  And who were we?  We were a cooperative species who cared for our children, the infirm, the elderly, the injured, the sick, and the dying, and we were a sociable species.  We did not kill other species and other animals except on an extremely small scale, and even then rarely.  We developed trade, we created art, and we asked ourselves penetrating questions about existence like who are we and how did we get here.  In short, we were a type of animal that had learned that cooperation was the surest, most certain way to survive, not by picking fights with large predator animals over which we could not win.  And, most important of all, we lived on the earth in peace!  All those millions of years, living in peace without war, and without killing.  Oh, not that we didn’t occasionally get gobbled up by some large predator or have fights here and there.  We were far from perfect.  But when we saw a big predator coming our direction like a saber-toothed tiger, a panther, or a giant horned crocodile, we ran like hell!  “What?  Are you kidding with this story?”  Nope!  That’s the way it was.

The fascinating question that arises then, is when did we stop living in peace?  And when did we start killing and making war?  Because the answer to these questions tells us how we can live in peace today.  Gather around then, my good friends, because these are the facts that are breathtaking to grasp.

It was about 200,000 years or so ago that we Homo sapiens first arrived on our fair earth.  Were we killers?  Hardly.  Did we kill each other?  No.  Well when, then, since we are so good at killing one another today, did the killing all begin?  For the first 50,000 years of our existence on mother earth we lived in the same manner as the hominids who had preceded us, more or less in the cooperative way described above.  But then something happened that had never happened to any other species before in the entire history of the earth.  It appears that the human larynx, which contains the vocal chords, descended, freeing up the tongue so that it could suddenly articulate new kinds of sounds, consonants and vowels.  With these new kinds of sounds humans began to create words.  And they refined these words, stringing them together in different ways over the next 100,000 years during which they created language.  And it is language that permitted them to conceptualize and to THINK with word symbols.  It is because of this kind of thinking that humans have been able to create the marvel of civilization that is the world today.  Thus it is language more than anything else that has separated humans from the other species which cohabit the planet.  This is what has allowed humans to prioritize, categorize, hypothesize, and create a hierarchical pyramid for life in which they put their species at the top and all other species beneath them.  And as soon as they had these new abilities and priorities sufficiently in place, say about 70,000 to 90,000 years ago, they began to do something else that no other species had ever done before.  They began to kill!  Oh it wasn’t that they had never killed before—a squirrel here, maybe a rabbit, but only rarely.  Now, with the new weapons their new abilities for communicating ideas was leading them to devise, along with new planning strategies, they began to assault even the large predators.  Now they did become “man the hunter.”  They killed and they killed and they killed with a vengeance, driving many species to extinction, so great was their passion for killing. They have been doing it ever since.

When we look backwards now we see that it was less than 100,000 years ago that we became killers, a mere fraction of time in the entire seven million year history of hominid types.  Even so, we had yet to participate in another first, that which few other species do except under conditions of extreme duress: we became killers of members of our very own species.  And when did that unholy occupation begin?  The very first archaeological evidence of two groups of Homo sapiens standing on opposing sides and killing each other occurred only a mere 13,700 years ago, just prior to the onset of the Neolithic era that opened the gates to creating the early civilizations of Sumer and Egypt.  Since then we have become so comfortable killing members of our own species that we don’t even stop to think just how abnormal it is for any species to kill members of their own family.  We have long forgotten that our birthright was not as killers, but to live in harmony with one another. 

The message our ancient history reveals is clear.  It was the killing of other animals that led us to the killing of members of our own species.  And once we started killing animals we become increasingly dependent upon them for meeting our needs.  At first, after we settled down to a sedentary lifestyle (some 12,000 years ago), we just used animals for food, clothing, labor, transportation, and for sacrifices to the Gods we invented.  To be sure, the sacrifice of animals seemed such a good idea that we decided to try it out on ourselves.  And thus we invented human sacrifice.

 Today we are an animal-dependent world, especially in the West.  We use animals for food, for clothing, for drugs, for animal research to cure the diseases caused by consuming animals, for product testing for our household and commercial products, for the development of military weapons for killing members of our own species, for toxicity testing for poisons, and in byproducts for cosmetics, plastics, fireworks, automobile tires, and film for making movies.  Our animal dependency is cruelty derived, but because we have relegated all animals to the status of things, we don’t even notice the cruelty or the suffering and torture we impose upon other species with whom we once coexisted as equals in the great kaleidoscope of the animal kingdom less than 100,000 years ago. 

The obvious question that arises is, what gave our Homo sapiens ancestors the right to start killing?  We can’t just say that it’s normal because all animals kill, because they don’t.  And there is a tremendous difference between killing because it is a requirement of nature for survival, as is the clear case for carnivorous animals that must kill in order to survive, than to kill by choice when it is not necessary for survival.  And we Homo sapiens are not carnivores.  Nature does not require us to kill.  When we kill, we kill by choice.  To kill by choice is to assume that we have the right to kill.  And since we must assume it, but do not know it for a fact, nor is it a part of our inherent nature as defined even by our anatomy, it cannot possibly be right.  It is just an assumption.  It is a right that we take whether it belongs to us or not and we take it by force.  This is what creates the “might-makes-right” philosophy for living to which humankind adheres everywhere in the world today.  As long as we keep a philosophy of might-makes-right in our hearts and minds we will never achieve peace.  

So it is up to us, “each and every one,” as Tiny Tim said, to ask ourselves the hard question that we hide from, that we are afraid to ask ourselves, afraid of what the answer will reveal about ourselves, and that question is simply this: what kind of a person am I?  What do I have in my mind and heart?  Is it peace, or is it killing?  And if I answer that I believe in peace, that I am a person of peace and yet participate in the might-makes-right way of life which we Homo sapiens have adopted and been depending upon for the past 90,000 years, then who am I really?  Am I a person of peace?  Or am I a person of killing?  It is not a question that is pleasant to ask.

But this is the hard question that I have brought to the surface today, dear friends.  It is a question that I have had to put to myself and answer.  And when I first asked myself the question, I did not like the answer that came back to me.  I still don’t like it because we have devised a way of living based on cruelty that is very difficult to escape.  So I put this question to you today not as a confrontation, but in the spirit in which the abolitionist Quaker John Woolman put the question of slavery to his Quaker friends and the Quaker communities with which he was involved in the 18th century.  There he pointed out as gently as he possibly could, just how wrong slavery was.  He was the kind of person who refused to wear dyed clothing because the dye was manufactured using slave labor.  By his example and his work, Woolman inspired many Quakers to turn against slavery and to free their slaves.  His efforts helped in leading the Quakers to petition the United States Congress to abolish slavery.  He also advocated for the rights of animals and, in the same way in which many vegans today refuse to wear leather because it is the product of factory farm cruelty, Woolman refused to ride in stage coaches because of the cruelty this mode of transportation caused the horses.  

Today it is the enslavement and the torture of innocent animals by our might-makes-right way of living that we are dealing with.  As we have seen, all animals on earth are essentially the same in their essence, with one major exception.  Nonhuman animals do not have the capacity for speech and for thought communication that human animals have.  All other differences between species are differences of degree only.  Do we Homo sapiens kill other humans because they differ in certain degrees such as one person being more intelligent than another?  No.  Then by what right do we apply such standards to other species?  Shall we continue to stand by and do nothing when this brutality toward innocent animals our Homo sapiens species is responsible for goes on before our eyes, yet we feel nothing inside?  Shouldn’t it frighten us that we have become so inured to the suffering of other species that we feel nothing when they are abused, tortured, and killed right in front of us?  Let us be honest enough not to pretend that we don’t know it is happening.  It is!  It is happening right before our eyes!

We tell ourselves, well, if I was alive back in the 17th and 18th century, I would have stepped forward and done something to stop the enslavement of my African brothers and sisters.  I would have helped steer runaway slaves to freedom along the underground railroad even if it meant breaking the law and risking my life.  Well, we have the opportunity today to step forward and do something to put a stop to the enslavement of other species to which we are related by virtue of life itself and we aren’t even required to break the law or to risk our lives.  The first step is a simple one.  It is something that each and every one of us can do: stop eating animals. 

And if we don’t stop eating, abusing and exploiting animals?  Where has this enslavement of other species led us?  It is not difficult these days to get the information which shows that the human exploitation of animals is responsible for much of the destruction of our planet and our personal health.  So there is no need to lengthen the narrative by searching it out here.  But surely this is information of which every concerned and socially responsible person should not only be aware, but very seriously desire to be aware.

The cruelty by which we abuse animals on factory farms and animal research laboratories, the torture we inflict on animals on fur farms and in rodeos, the entertainment we derive from zoos and circuses where we take our children to enjoy the products of cruelty, and all the other countless different ways in which we exploit animals, offer abundant testimony of the cruelty that we Homo sapiens have permitted to invade our consciousness.  We are so desensitized to this cruelty we barely recognize it.  But none of it is necessary.  We can get rid of it.  We do not have to accept the heritage of killing that some of our less than prescient ancestors started when they began their rampage of hunting those tens of thousands of years ago.  They were like the bison hunters of the American plains in the 19th century who nearly decimated the bison population and did succeed in totally wiping out the passenger pigeon population that once numbered an estimated five billion birds.  Should we follow that bloodthirsty path just because our predecessors took it?  Of course not.  Why, then, do we follow these ancient traditions of killing that has led us down such a trail of destruction?  We are like children incapable of thinking for ourselves. 

When Christmas rolls around next year just maybe we will consider that we don’t need to have that turkey, or ham, or chicken, or beef, or fish that we were planning on serving for Christmas dinner.  Maybe we will opt for a day of real peace, not just one we call a day of peace, but beneath which, in reality, sits a foundation of violence and killing.  So many delicious alternatives are available and it is only a minimal inconvenience to break the habit of consuming animals.  Are we so spoiled and so consumed by the need for self-gratification that we cannot take this simple step that will relieve so many animals from needless suffering?  How can we live with our consciences or ever achieve inner peace when we participate in cruelty, which, by definition, the consumption of animals undeniably is?  I am not naïve enough to expect the impossible, of course.  But I have yet to abandon my faith in truth.  That is where I shall put my hopes for, as a wise person from whom I learned much once said, truth has its own action.    

The journey toward peace can be a lengthy one.  It took me years and years before I finally arrived there.  But when I finally did, I found that many people had already been living in the land of peace for many years.  They were busy there constructing a whole new world.  It took only a moment to recognize that this is a land where hope also prevails and where indifference and apathy toward the plight of the animals enslaved, exploited, and abused by our societies have been set aside.  There is so much work to be done, yet nobody assigns what to do.  People just know what their responsibilities are.  For me it is to write a little music here, a few words there.  Right now I’m finishing up another book.  It is titled: The Smartest, Most Cruel People the World Has Ever Known:  Animal Research from Aristotle to the 21st Century. 

I thank you for your attention to this lengthy Christmas message.  I had no idea it would go on so long when I first began.  I guess that’s what happens when one stirs up the ancient ancestral depths.  Today it all emanated from Scottish shores of yore.  Tomorrow, it might be an exploration of the green hills of Wales.  That’s where all the stirrings of rebellion began for the Irving/Thomas clan—way back when my Welsh grandfather ran away from home after his father beat him unjustly while his older brother held him down.  The 17 year-old William Thomas, the coal miner, caught the next ship for America.  He too had a journey to make.  For wherever injustice strikes, justice will rise up and will never cease until it has summoned the power to prevail against it.  Perhaps that is what all of us are doing in our own private and quiet ways as we struggle against the oppression bequeathed to us by our ancestral history.  In this we are blessed for we have the power to fight back.  Let us rely upon our compassion, then, when we consider the miserable plight of other species who cannot fight back and who cannot raise a cry for help.  Let us work to protect them from the bullying ways of Homo sapien types who believe in the philosophy of might-makes-right.  For the animals are innocents and they are defenseless against human cruelty.  Let us take back our birthright of compassion from these bullies who steer our ship of state and attempt to control our fate.  Let us stand against cruelty whenever we witness it. 

Your friend ever and always,

David