Confucius says: Those with rich man’s intolerance will drive you nuts
The rise in food allergies is a luxury afforded to the wealthy, and it's giving the genuinely afflicted a bad name
A few weeks ago I shared the earth-shattering news that the “ancient Chinese curse” which dooms the hearer to “live in interesting times” is neither ancient nor Chinese, although it could feasibly be considered a curse that has damned most of the world to eternal ignorance.
A few days later someone told me I was wrong. This saying most certainly was an ancient Chinese proverb, he said. He was convinced of this because he had once bitten into a fortune cookie and there it was, in black and white, printed on a small slip of paper. What was more, said my interlocutor, according to the cookie contents the expression was coined by Confucius, and you don’t get more ancient or more Chinese than that, therefore my attempt to bust a myth was entirely unwarranted and I should apologise to all my readers.
I haven’t had a fortune cookie for ages. Nor have I heard much about Confucius for a while. He was a real historical figure but at least half the stuff he was supposed to have said was made up by graffiti artists or the bakers of fortune cookies. You could usually tell what was really said by Confucius and what wasn’t by whether the phrase began with the words: “Confucius says ... ” (If it did, chances are he didn’t say it.)
I remember one fortune-cookie filling that was particularly popular among collectors of cheesy aphorisms: “Confucius says be tolerant of everything except intolerance.” That was in my susceptible teens and I took to heart what Confucius said. Damn intolerant people! This thing that Confucius more than likely did not say lingers still in my subconscious. I find it hard to be tolerant of the intolerant – especially those who claim to suffer from food intolerances.
When I was a kid, the excitement of a visit to the zoo was made all the more thrilling by a brown paper packet of unshelled peanuts. These we would feed to the bears – who caught them delicately in their claws or snapped them from the air with impressively large mouths – and the crocodiles – who didn’t eat them, but it was fun to watch them shoot into the water in hopes of a severed finger having just landed in their moat. Mostly we ate the nuts ourselves, peeling off the fibrous hourglass shells and choking on the papery red skins.
That doesn’t happen anymore, not only because zoos have become more vigilant about the diet of their inhabitants, but because so many children are now allergic to peanuts that you could be sued for selling them. Some schools have even banned peanut butter sandwiches in case an unsuspecting allergic child should be offered a bite by a bully.
Have you noticed a marked increase in people allergic to peanuts, or is it just me? One explanation is that foods have become more toxic due to fertilisers, pesticides, landfill, fracking and the like, but if that’s the case why have bears and crocodiles not also developed allergies?
Apart from the genuinely allergic children, who most certainly exist, there are some whose only affliction is an overanxious parent. In certain quarters it is fashionable to accessorise your child with a little bracelet – similar to the ones that tell paramedics not to administer penicillin – only these bear a picture of the food your kid isn’t allowed to have, such as eggs or sugar.
I can’t help thinking that this kind of intolerance, like complaining to the body corporate about the Egyptian goose that has taken up residence in the complex swimming pool, is a luxury afforded to the wealthy. You don’t hear people below the breadline complaining about gluten and lactose. Or geese in swimming pools, for that matter.
Maybe there’s a genuine reason intolerances strike the rich – given the connection between mind and body, perhaps the digestive system is paying attention when we read our bank statements. “Hey, look at that,” the colon might say. “He’s doing really well. He can afford to buy overpriced imported quinoa. I think I’ll develop an aversion to wheat.”
Before you call me intolerant, let me add that there are two teams on this field. There are those who genuinely have a life-threatening disorder – who deserve nothing but sympathy – and those with too much time on their hands, who give the other lot a bad name.
I know a few people afflicted by the second disease. Claiming intolerance to everything but the internet, they will scan a restaurant menu and say: “I can’t eat any of this”, because a guy on TV has convinced them they should live on fermented kidney stones, or an old lady living in Minsk says they should avoid any food with an identifiable name.
Not all diet gurus and old ladies from Minsk are wrong, of course. Some offer rational advice from which we could all benefit. And some allergic conditions are only too real. It’s all very well to scoff at fads and fussiness and be intolerant as hell of picky eaters, but some people wear bracelets for a reason. Confucius should have said something about that.