To some, my decision to go vegetarian might seem sudden or somewhat out of the blue. To me, it’s a natural development of my thinking and lifestyle based on many encounters with people, animals, and ideas. What follows is some of those experiences. This is as much for myself as it is for anyone else as I try to honestly self-examine. (It might also be to out word count Ricktopher. No. Ok, maybe a tiny bit.)
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been especially drawn to animals. I loved watching the young frogs and insects in their various juvenile stages in the pond behind my parents’ house, and the occasional pair of ducks. I loved having pets. The intuition of my sister’s dog, Duke, as he would stay close to me when I was sick and seem genuinely concerned about me.
I vividly remember being on my parents’ bed, my Mom reading to me about the whole episode with Moses and the Israelites and Pharaoh’s chariots and horses. My main thought was, “How could God do that to those innocent horses? They didn’t choose to be used by Pharaoh’s armies.” I eyed God’s decision with incredulity. (Interestingly, I wasn’t as concerned for the Egyptians.)
At a summer camp at the Ziontario campgrounds in Canada, I watched in horror as a few children about my age threw tiny frogs at tree trunks for entertainment. I was livid. I’m pretty sure I yelled at them, but don’t quote me on that.
At some point before I was a teenager, I developed a disdain for fish tanks. They always make me a little sad. I always had this idea that despite what I was told, those lobsters did feel pain when they were boiled alive.
I despised circuses and rodeos. And while I did enjoy going to zoos, I always knew that those animals didn’t belong there. While they have better reputations than circuses and rodeos, zoos are typically more about making money than providing the best life experience possible for the animals in their care. Before I got the serious history bug at about age 12, I wanted to be a veterinarian (and president of the United States :D). I loved watching nature programs and bird watching.
Until recent years I didn’t think too much about how unusual it was for me to spend much of my birthday money every year on donations to World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and similar groups. I wondered why they sent so many mailings to me throughout the year; it all seemed so wasteful.
I remember thinking about vegetarians as kind of fringe people. I assumed they just didn’t like meat. I was like, “Ok, more meat for me!” I didn’t think about why they would choose to be vegetarians.
Paradox and Paradigm Shifts
When I was a child, despite having a love for animals, there were times when I would seek ways to dominate over our pets. I won’t go into details, but these unhealthy learned behaviors were something I hated in others yet did myself. (I don’t want to freak anyone out, I wasn’t lighting them on fire or anything, but I’m sure what I did to them made them feel bad.) When I was about 12 or 13, I had an epiphany during one such occasion. I realized just how awful I was being to these companions. I realized my treatment of them grew out of some anger issues and my desire to be in control. As embarrassing as this is, it’s important to mention because that realization has affected how I view my relationships with all beings, human and non-human. I wonder if the idea of humans having ‘dominion’ over animals is sometimes code for control. Far too often human control or management of animals is more for the benefit of humans at the expense of animals. I guess I’m channeling that need to control others into a challenge to self-control, and in the process, trying to atone for the sins of my youth.
Concern for how pets are treated and protection of eco-systems have been of great concern to me since I was a child. It wasn’t until I was in college, however, that I started to think seriously about how my life choices impact animals, my fellow humans, and the world we all inhabit. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started learning about factory farming.
If these collective childhood experiences provided fertile soil, Stephen D. planted what I point to as the first seed of my exploration of how my eating choices impact the environment. Interestingly, Stephen and I weren’t exactly close in college. We didn’t see eye to eye on a number of things. We were, however, both part of the campus ministries team.
On one occasion, we met up at Pizza Hut to discuss something campus ministries related. We were going to share, and he asked if I minded getting a veggie pizza. My favorite Pizza Hut pizza is a pepperoni and black olive. I didn’t mind getting a veggie pizza, but I didn’t usually go out of my way to get one. I asked Stephen why he wanted to get a veggie pizza; I now wonder why I asked. He explained in a simple sentence or two that he chose to eat vegetarian because of the insane negative environmental impact of the meat industry. I said, “Oh,” having never given it much thought. That was it. It took a couple of years for me to be ready to expose myself to the truth of factory farming and big agribusiness, but along the way, I had an inkling that I would eventually end up like Stephen.
Never underestimate how powerful your actions, combined with a few little words, can be. I may have ended up here anyway, but that one witness of Stephen’s has literally changed not only my life, but the lives of the voiceless many for whom I try to advocate. (You can blame this all on Stephen.)
One of my last college courses was intro. to psych. I chose to research fast food advertising for my term paper. I read books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. I couldn’t help but read other chapters; the ones that talked about how farmers are in perpetual debt to the big companies and how most of their farms go under, or the ones that talked about the treatment of the animals and the workers who “care” for them.
I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; though I was more struck by the plight of Jurgis and his family and fellow workers. I watched movies like Food, Inc.
The Tipping Point
For my birthday in early 2010, I asked for Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. (I also asked for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; an excellent book.) My parents got it for me (so you can also blame them, too). I had passed by this book day after day as I worked at Barnes & Noble, and with each passing, I asked, “Why do we treat these animals differently? What happens in our minds and in our cultures to categorize animals into categories of “food” or “companion” or “clothing”? I devoured it in a single night.
After reading this book, I knew that I would eventually stop eating meat. It just changed me. For me, it truly was a transformative text. (Ok, now I’m thinking about scripture and what defines a text as scripture. This text has been more life-changing for me than lots of biblical passages. Interesting to think about.) It was hard not to share quotes and ideas with Ricktopher and others. I tried to balance sharing my new understandings–caring as I did and do about what they put in their bodies (antibiotics, growth hormones, etc.) and knowing them to be caring people–with the reality that not everyone wants to know where their food comes from and what suffering might be involved (both human and animal) in that burger they just enjoyed. I still struggle with this.
I didn’t want to push Ricktopher to read what I read or to share my convictions. I wanted him to learn when it was the right time for him; when he was ready. When we lived in Ohio, Ricktopher and I considerably reduced our meat intake. He still liked his meat. We compromised by being more intentional about how our meat was cared for. We tried to buy free range eggs and grass finished cow. (It’s good to look for “grass finished” on the label. It is my understanding that all cows are fed grass for a period in their youth, but then most are switched to revolting dross for the bulk of their miserable lives. These companies can then say, “Grass fed!” and people will pay more.) I was squeamish about it, but I figured it was an improvement. It was at this time that I read (a good chunk of) John Robbins’ Diet for a New America. (Thanks to my Mom for the recommendation.) Despite its failings, I gained an appreciation of why someone would choose to refrain from consuming all animal products; foregoing dairy and eggs (and even things like fish oil).
This Past Year
When we lived in Ohio, we hardly ate with others, so it was much easier to rarely eat meat. When we moved to Idaho, we spent a few weeks eating out with others, eating in relatives’ homes. I struggled with questions like, “How can I not reject someone’s hospitality or avoid annoying the waiter when I always ask for ‘______, but without the bacon…’ while not compromising my morals?” I still struggle with this. I don’t want to be the one who complicates where the group eats. As much as I want to educate, I likewise don’t want to make people equate eating with MLE with feeling bad about that turkey they just ordered. (Ok, I kind of do, but you get what I mean.) I didn’t want to be ‘the vegetarian’ in the family–the quirky, hippie relative who prompts people to think, “She thinks I’m a bad person for eating meat;” the one we put up with. We ate meat. Probably more than we had in the previous six months combined. But I knew better, and my conscience was gnawing at me.
More recently, I’ve read books like Marc Bekoff’s The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons to Expand Our Compassion Footprint. I’ve been toying with the idea that eating locally sourced foods is better for the environment than going vegetarian. Surely, right? Not according to a study Bekoff cites. He says,
In fact, when comparing the relative environmental impact of being a vegetarian versus being a ‘locavore,’ a 2008 study at Carnegie Mellon University found that ‘foregoing red meat and dairy just one day a week achieves more greenhouse gas reductions than eating an entire week’s worth of locally sourced foods. That’s because the carbon footprint of food miles is dwarfed by that of food production. In fact, 83 percent of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food consumption comes from production; transportation represents only 11 percent; wholesaling and retailing account for 5 percent.’ It’s been calculated that the carbon footprint of meateaters is almost twice that of vegetarians.
My big reason for not eating meat is that I can’t justify killing another sentient being so that I can enjoy eating their flesh. Physically, I don’t need to eat meat. I have to be more deliberate about what I eat, to make sure I’m getting the proper nutrients, and in this respect, I’m probably more mindful of what I eat than ever before.
Being vegetarian is hard. It requires discipline. Ricktopher has been a huge blessing to me. He’s my accountability buddy. We’ve both had times where we’ve said, “Oh, that sounds so good right now,” or “they don’t seem to have anything here that doesn’t come with meat, let’s just order a cheeseburger.” Thankfully, in some of our weaker moments, we’ve been there for each other, just in case our consciences fail to override the temptations.
One thing that’s surprised me, though, is how easy it’s been. I thought I’d have cravings, like I’d go into meat withdrawal, and that’s just not happened. I thought I’d somehow be ‘hungry all the time.’ Not happened. As when I ate meat, I often get full with food left over. One thing that has changed is that I don’t feel that gross feeling I often got when eating meat, especially fatty or greasy meals.
I’d like to eventually go vegan, but for now, this is where I’m at.
And finally, one of my favorite passages of scripture, a vision of peace from Isaiah ch. 11:
6The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the
hole of the asp,
9They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the
knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.