Choosing compassion

My 34th birthday is coming up. It isn’t really a “milestone” year, but since entering my 30’s I’ve tried to use birthdays as a reason to set a goal for myself — kind of like a secondary new year’s resolution. Sometimes it’s crossing an item off my “bucket list” and other times it’s a permanent lifestyle change.

On my last birthday, I decided to quit smoking cigarettes. I procrastinated a lot, and then went “cold turkey” shortly after St. Patrick’s Day. I won’t pretend to have been completely smoke-free this entire time — but I think I’ve done a good job overcoming most of the mental triggers that used to make me want to smoke. Nobody ever talks about how hard it is to quit when you’ve been self-medicating your anxiety with cigarettes, but fellow quitters tell me it’s an ongoing process and eventually stops being a struggle.

Although I didn’t plan it, another thing I quit last year was meat eating. I was a vegetarian once before, in my early 20’s. I didn’t really think about it again until I had a routine physical exam that showed my cholesterol levels were not ideal. It was a disheartening thing to hear, since I’d assumed I was leading a pretty healthy lifestyle up until that point. For the last couple of years, I’d been mostly following a “paleo” style diet, which advocates eating more meat, ditching grains/legumes, and replacing processed foods with animal products (for example: putting butter in coffee, cooking with lard). When I told my doctor this, she didn’t seem too surprised. As it turns out, a diet full of saturated fat was bad for me. :(

A game changing moment for me happened when I read a book by Dr. Michael Greger called How Not to Die — it really drove home something that I already knew, but didn’t want to admit about myself: “thin” does NOT equal “healthy.” Reading the book prompted me to begin doing more research, which led me to the conclusion that if I wanted to be proactive in avoiding the health problems that run in my family (including colon cancer, IBS, ulcerative colitis, heart disease, diabetes, and dementia), I would likely be much better off adopting a plant-based diet… for life. It’s not a panacea by any means, but it would likely help my odds.

Unlike cigarettes, I didn’t quit meat “cold turkey” (pardon the pun) but over the months that followed, I drastically reduced my consumption of all animal products. I didn’t feel deprived of anything; in fact, I rediscovered how delicious something like a simple bowl of beans and rice can be. I started having more energy for physical activity, and felt genuinely good about how I was fueling myself. At a follow-up with the doctor, my cholesterol had dropped and I’d lost a little bit of weight. I’m sure running a marathon also helped, but I hoped a plant-focused diet would make it easier to be healthy while not actively training for a race. (So far, it has.)

Most people are supportive when someone quits smoking, drinking, drugs, etc. for their health — yet they often aren’t so supportive when someone quits eating meat for the same reasons. Still, the majority of people I know were pretty chill about it, but I would sometimes hear things like, “That’s cool, just don’t become a vegan.”

Hey, y’all! Guess what?

While a plant-based diet is simply about what you eat, being vegan is a lifestyle approach in which the aim is to not intentionally exploit, kill, or be cruel to animals. [More information here.]

Going plant-based was just about addressing my own health, and I’d never considered going vegan before. However, as I did more research, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole that led me to re-evaluate many aspects of my worldview that I’d heretofore taken for granted. I think it may be extremely difficult to go plant-based and not pick up something about, for example, the interconnected nature of animal agriculture, public health, environmentalism, and ethics. I watched a few documentaries and TED Talks on these subjects, and everything I saw seemed to point me toward going vegan. I used to be one of those people who thought veganism was just a fringe movement adopted by people who live on trust funds and take private jets to Burning Man. When I went on YouTube, I mostly found regular, average people (who work full-time and live frugally, not ‘trustafarian’ hipsters) sharing their views — and I was actually agreeing with a lot of what they were saying.

For me personally, I don’t see how I can be a secular humanist, a feminist, someone who mostly agrees with libertarian principles of non-aggression, and NOT also be a vegan. It seems logically consistent with the philosophies I hold as moral and ethical guidelines for my own life. In a capitalist society, I also have the freedom to be an educated consumer, vote with my dollar, and feel good about the things I’m buying… which is about the most that an average person can feasibly do.

However, despite feeling that, just like quitting cigarettes, this was a positive lifestyle change I wanted to make — I was afraid to say anything about it to anyone. If you want to know the hardest part about going vegan, I’ll tell you: it’s other people.

Unless you want to be my friend. Because I love salad.

Vegans are everyone’s favorite punching bag. I have social anxiety, so the last thing someone like me wants is to feel like everyone secretly (or perhaps openly) hates me. I was worried that my family and friends would think I had become “militant” since that’s the common impression people have of vegans… some kind of carrot-wielding Stalin, marching meat-eaters to the gulag.

(Even though vegans are the ones who are stereotyped as being aggressive and intolerant… if you want to make a normally levelheaded person flip over the table and ragequit, just try to have a conversation with two magic words: “I’m vegan.”)

Of course it’s possible for vegans to be dogmatic, but that could be said about almost any group of people, and the presence of a few extremists doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think the problem is that many people believe ​that everyone has to have the same morals/ethics, which leads to creating an “us vs. them” mentality between meat-eaters and vegans. This simplistic, binary view of “good vs. evil” is pretty common, but I reject it. Just thinking something is wrong doesn’t mean I always think that people who do the thing are inherently evil. There’s a lot of nuance that many people miss.

But since I had no idea how to communicate this to anyone, I just kept all my wacky plant-eating ideas to myself. I would often share pictures of vegan meals on social media, but I never came out and declared myself to be a vegan; in fact, I would try to dodge answering if someone asked me about it. I thought, as long as I don’t say those two dreaded words {I’m vegan}, then nobody will hate me! Problem solved.

Unfortunately, by not saying anything, it became harder and harder for me to socialize because it seems like 90% of all human interaction somehow involves food. I was either anxious that people would suddenly hate me for wanting to go vegan, or anxious that people would think I was being rude to them because I kept refusing food — creating an ouroboros of anxiety. The only other option I had was to eat something even if it contained animal products, and then feel bad about it.

When I figured out that I wanted to “officially” go vegan this year for my birthday, I thought I should probably say something about it, since I wanted people to understand where I was coming from rather than hear the word “vegan” and jump to conclusions. It’s easier for me to write out my thoughts and share them in a medium that everyone can digest at their own pace.

It’s probably silly that I even have to say this, but I don’t expect my approach to be flawless, nor do I expect the whole world to be vegan too. My intention isn’t to put myself on some high horse of perfection. It’s about doing my best to be mindful of what I’m eating, avoid unnecessary violence and mindless consuming, and be more deliberate and compassionate with my choices, since I have the ability to do so.

Cheers to a new chapter!

Don't worry, most alcohol is vegan.

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