We each have a story. Here’s mine.
I was raised in a typical American family eating the typical American fare: pretty much anything that had once walked, swum, or flew. I wore leather, wool, and fur; slept under down comforters; went to the zoo; attended the circus; and even tried my hand at fishing and falconry.
Nightly dinners in our Irish-Italian home consisted of a rotation of pork chops, lamb stew, meatloaf, veal cutlets, and ground beef, along with some token vegetables on the side, smeared with butter or covered in cream-based sauces. With a father who owned ice cream stores and who kept a separate freezer just for the gallons of frozen treats he brought home, desserts were a daily (sometimes twice-daily) staple for my sister and me. Milkshakes and hot chocolate flowed from our very own countertop machines, and a year-round supply of gelatin- and milk-laden candies filled our kitchen cabinets and bureau drawers. There was no dearth of animal products in our home, and I ate them all with fervor.
What I know now is that much of my bliss was due to my ignorance about what – and who – I was actually eating.
Like most children, I cared deeply for animals and intervened whenever they needed aid. My affection for and connection with animals was fostered by my parents and the adults around me: I was dressed in clothing that featured images of baby animals; I had stuffed animals all over my bedroom; I sang songs, read books, watched movies, and played games that used animals not only to teach me how to be polite, generous, and kind, but – even more significantly – how to read, how to spell, and how to count. I was the child who saved injured birds, sheltered stray animals, and stayed up whole nights comforting my dog when she was a scared puppy or sick adult. My parents commended me for demonstrating such kindness, and they always supported my benevolent schemes, even when they were inconvenient or unreasonable. In every area of my life, I was given the message that animals played an integral role in the shaping of my identity and in the creation of my worldview. I was called an “animal-lover,” as so many are who share an affinity for animals, but I don’t think it is necessarily a fitting moniker. I don’t believe you have to love animals in order to not want to hurt them.
In fact, empathy for and kindness toward animals is one of the barometers we use to measure the emotional and mental health of both children and adults, and we’re justifiably concerned when someone is overtly unkind to – or derives pleasure from harming – an animal. It’s not that children don’t have to be taught that it hurts an animal when you pull his fur (they also have to be taught that it hurts Mommy when you pull her hair), but we shield children from participating in or witnessing animal suffering because we are aware of the trauma it causes – both to the victim as well as the onlooker.
Although I believe that all humans have the capacity to be violent and cruel, I believe also that we have the capacity to be fiercely compassionate, and I think most of us are inclined in the direction of the latter rather than the former. Not everyone necessarily has the desire to spend time in the company of animals – to “turn and live with the animals,” as Walt Whitman mused – but almost everyone has an aversion to animal cruelty, and we are wary of those who can look upon it – or partake in it – without empathy or remorse. In fact, lacking either is indicative of anti-social behavior.
Most of us can’t even look at a dead animal lying on the side of the road without turning away, and it’s not merely disgust that forces us to avert our eyes. It’s the awareness of potential suffering; and in those moments, we’re faced with the choice to either close our eyes and suppress our discomfort with (and sometimes our complicity in) animal suffering or face it full on and take responsibility. And so, when I was 19 years old, I made the connection between the animals and animal products I was consuming and the violence I was contributing to – and stopped eating them. But this desire to manifest in my behavior what I intuitively felt in my heart wasn’t love. I didn’t stop eating animals because I was an “animal lover.” It was much less sentimental than that. It also wasn’t altruism. It was something much deeper, something fundamental. It was compassion.
I had just read John Robbins’ groundbreaking book A Diet for a New America and faced for the first time the fact that I had been paying people to become desensitized to their own compassion as well as to the suffering of the animals they killed day in and day out. I stopped eating land animals, then all aquatic animals, and after several more years – and several more books – stopped buying, eating, or wearing anything that came off of or out of an animal or that in any way contributed to animal exploitation. I “became vegan.” I wasn’t looking for a club to join or a label to wear, and I certainly wasn’t looking for anyone’s approval, but I didn’t expect the negative reactions I elicited from society in general and my parents in particular. The praise and approval I had been given as a child was replaced with indignation and defensiveness, as if my compassion were a childish thing that should have been left behind with my toys and Barbie dolls. I was hurt and surprised but mostly confused given the fact that my motivation to become vegan sprang from the same source that motivated me to end suffering when I was a child.
The compassion that compelled me to save an injured bluebird was the same compassion that compelled me to spare the hapless millions we call “food animals.” The compassion was the same. The only difference was the recipients to whom I extended that compassion. And then it hit me. That difference was not insignificant at all. That difference was a massive chasm between what I realized was the selective compassion I had been indoctrinated in and the unconditional compassion I had always been inclined toward (and was finally fully manifesting).
Demonstrating kindness to dogs, cats, songbirds and other wild animals is acceptable in our culture, but extending that same compassion to the chickens, turkeys, pigs, cattle, and fish we kill and eat is viewed as an entirely different thing. And so we are taught – implicitly, of course – to temper our compassion and to compartmentalize animals into arbitrary categories of those we love and those we eat, those we live with and those we exploit, those worthy of our compassion and those undeserving of it simply because they happen to be of a particular species or bred for a particular use.
Couched in the defensive reactions to my veganism was the message that the injured birds who were lucky enough to fall into my yard were worth saving, but the chickens and turkeys whose boneless, featherless bodies lay lifeless on my plate were valuable only in so far as their flesh was tender and juicy. Chickadees friends, chickens dinner. The consequences of this cognitive dissonance are certainly grave for the victims of our appetites, but I would argue – as so many have before me – that they’re equally grave for us. Going from innately compassionate children who identify deeply with animals to desensitized adults who justify our violence against them cannot but affect us at the most basic level – both individually and as a society. And in this thinking, I am certainly not unique.
Choosing not to eat animals out of compassion for them is an ancient response that harkens back thousands of years; only the words used to describe this impulse have changed. We tend to think of “veganism” as a new reactionary trend against what we call factory farming, but for millennia, men and women have been thinking about, writing about, and expressing distress over the violence inherent in killing animals for human use and consumption. My veganism is part of a long continuum of men and women – from ancient times until today – who stopped eating animals (and their eggs and milk) not because they witnessed a modern, mechanized, industrialized factory system but because they didn’t want to be part of the brutal and unnecessary process of turning sentient animals into butchered bodies.
Sixth-century philosopher Pythagoras abstained from the flesh of animals – and advised his followers to do the same – out of a sense of justice not only for ourselves and our ancestors (he fervently believed in the transmigration of souls) but also for the animals themselves. Though we have no primary written texts of Pythagoras, the Pythagorean doctrine has been well pieced together from secondary sources, including Ovid’s 9th-century poem “Metamorphoses” in which he tells us that Pythagoras urged his acolytes to eat “food that requires no bloodshed and no slaughter.” Pythagoras was the first of many secular philosophers to contend that the killing of animals for consumption desensitizes us to the suffering of both human and non-human animals. Greek historian and essayist Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 AD) saw no difference between sadistic cruelty and customary butchery, declaring that the person who “tortures a living creature is no worse than he who slaughters it outright.” Similarly, it wasn’t factory farms that 3rd-century Greek philosopher Porphyry had on his mind when he wrote about the “injustice of carnivorism” in his essay “On Abstinence from Animal Food.” Recognizing the fact that we have no physiological requirement for the flesh of animals, he lamented that we “deliver animals to be slaughtered and cooked, and thus be filled with murder, not for the sake of nutriment and satisfying the wants of nature, but making pleasure and gluttony the end of such conduct.”
These anti-violence, pro-vegetarian sentiments did not preoccupy only our ancient predecessors. Modern Western figures have been equally disturbed by the slaughter and consumption of animals, from Renaissance scholars and Enlightenment philosophers to Romantic artists, 20th-century scientists, and 21st– century politicians.
All that is to say, it is not how we breed, keep, and kill animals for human consumption that has been the impetus for vegetarianism for thousands of years; it is that we kill animals for human consumption. Throughout the centuries, the common thread in the arguments against eating animals is the fact that since we have no nutritional requirement for the flesh or fluids of animals, killing them simply to satisfy our taste buds – or habits or customs – amounts to senseless slaughter, and senseless slaughter is no small thing. It takes quite a toll on our hearts and minds. Ethical vegetarianism – outside of religious doctrine – is not a newfangled, novel idea. At its core is compassion, a universal principle grounded in religions and secular philosophies, resonating with men, women, and children all around the world – all across the ages. The same compassion that penetrated Plutarch’s heart penetrates mine; it is different neither in substance nor degree.
And so I recognized, as so many others have before and around me, that the most rational, merciful, and obvious way to reflect my compassion for animals was to not eat them. The only difference between me and my compassionate forebears is the word we use to describe our desire to avoid causing someone else to suffer when we have the power to do so.
The word “vegan” has gained traction in the public consciousness especially in recent years, but misunderstandings still prevail about what it actually means, particularly the misconception that being vegan is about striving to be perfect, as if there is such a thing as a 100%-pure certified vegan. I think one of the reasons people tend to equate veganism with perfection is that they’re operating under the mistaken idea that being vegan is an end in itself, and so you find non-vegans trying to catch vegans in all the ways they’re imperfect – stepping on insects while walking, driving a car whose tires contain animal products, wearing leather shoes leftover from their pre-vegan days – and vegans, too, beating themselves up for accidentally eating something that contains eggs or for not being able to afford to replace the leather couch they bought just before becoming vegan.
But all of this entirely misses the point about what it means to “be vegan.” Being vegan is not an end in itself; it’s a means to an end. And that end is compassion: doing our best to not contribute to violence against animals when it is possible and practical. Being vegan is a powerful and effective means toward attaining that end, but it is not the end itself.
Had I been asked before I was vegan if I considered myself a compassionate person, I would have answered with a definitive “yes!” I perceived myself to be a compassionate, empathetic, and nonviolent person. But looking back, my perception of myself was not in alignment with my actions, and my actions were not in alignment with my values. Paying people to do things to animals that I would never dream of doing myself was not a reflection of my compassion. Supporting an industry that is by definition violent was obviously not an expression of nonviolence. It’s not that there weren’t areas in my life where I displayed compassion; of course there were. But compassion when it’s convenient or prudent is not really compassion. True compassion doesn’t have boundaries or conditions. It is without prejudice and doesn’t play favorites according to who the recipients are.
In supporting an industry defined by killing, I simply wasn’t immersed in the fullness of my compassion. How could I have been? I was supporting the very things that are antithetical to my core ethics. When I became vegan, which is just a succinct way of saying that I removed the barriers to the compassion that had been inside me all along – unexpectedly, the guilt and hypocrisy I had experienced while I was reveling in the fat and flesh of animals just disappeared. No longer did I have to make excuses about who and what I ate, and any conflict I had felt about how I perceived myself and how I was actually living just melted away. My behavior became consistent with my values, and the sense of peace I experienced was palpable.
I’m tempted to say that I returned to the unconditional compassion of my childhood, but I don’t think that’s the entire truth of it. When I was a child, I acted compassionately without any thought – as if I didn’t know any better than to respond to those who needed my help. It just came naturally. As a conscious adult, I act compassionately with thought, and I regret only that the innocent kindness of a child is valued more than the informed kindness of an adult. It was only when I was willing to look at how I contributed to violence against animals that I became awake, and in doing so, I have not so much returned to the innocent compassion of my childhood but instead have found a deeper place – where my eyes and heart are open not because of what I don’t know but because of what I do know.
And what I know is that you don’t have to be Adolf Hitler to perpetrate violence, and you don’t have to be St. Francis to reflect and foster compassion. There’s so much we can do in our own individual lives to manifest compassion, and you don’t have to be a saint to do so.
What I know is that it is not the cages we need to make bigger and the slaughterhouse walls we need to make transparent. It’s our hearts. When we make compassion our barometer, we don’t settle for violence on a small scale. We aspire to kindness on a huge scale.
What I know is that the problems we have in this world are not because we have so much compassion we don’t know what to do with it. The problems we have in this world are because we are not living according to our own values of compassion and kindness. It’s one thing to say we’re against violence and cruelty. Most of us are. It’s quite another to manifest our values of kindness, justice, compassion, and nonviolence in our every day behavior.
Being vegan enables us to do just that: to reflect these values – our deepest values – in our daily choices.
And so I do — as best as I can.
~Excerpted from On Being Vegan.