A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.
Nobel prize-winning physicist 1921
The words of Albert Einstein capture the very essence of “why vegan”. Becoming vegan is about making an ethical decision to widen our circles of compassion. It requires taking a stand against deeply rooted customs and traditions; customs and traditions that are often strongly held by people we love, respect and admire. For most of us, this triggers a long, hard battle with our conscience, in which our conscience prevails.
For me, the battle was waged as a young child, as it is for many people.
I spent countless hours picking worms off sidewalks after a rainfall. I remember regularly asking my mother for 2 cookies – one for me and one for my friend. I also remember the look of astonishment on my mother’s face when after insisting she meet my friend, I brought home a big yellow lab. And, I will never forget the shock and devastation that engulfed me when my family, while vacationing in Spain, decided to attend a bullfight featuring Spain’s most celebrated bull fighter, El Cordobes. I was 3 years old. Ten thousand cheering fans erupted in thundering applause when El Cordobes entered the stadium. I suspected that this beautifully dressed man was going to fight a bull, and I found the thought quite distressing. I could never have imagined that he was going to kill the bull. The picador, his accomplice, swiftly put pics into the bull, and each time he succeeded, the crowd roared with excitement. With each pic, the bull weakened and I winced. I was stunned by the spectacle of this innocent animal being tortured, and not a single soul coming to his rescue. I found it confusing and horrifying at the same time. I wanted desperately to help the poor creature, but I knew I was powerless. Towards the end, the bull stumbled, then with one last mighty effort he gored El Cordobes and sent him flying. The crowd gasped, then fell silent… you could have heard a pin drop. My heart leaped. I naively thought that perhaps the bull had scored enough points to be spared. I jumped up and cheered with all my might. People glared with anger at my insolence. My parents quickly quieted me. I had been awakened to a new reality.
Despite this natural compassion for animals, I somehow became desensitized to their plight as years passed. Somehow, as I ate the flesh of animals, donned their skins and enjoyed their circus performances, their suffering did not weigh as heavily on my mind. Perhaps it was because of the assurances I received from story books, teachers and relatives. The party line was consistent – the animals humans use are well cared for; they don’t have to worry about predators or food. Sure, many eventually pay the price with their lives, but their deaths are quick and painless. In adulthood, I began to question the party line. Vegetarianism intrigued me, although the only vegetarian I had ever met was my grade 8 science teacher. He was a hippy with long hair, a beard, and a gentle spirit. My father, who taught in the classroom opposite his, was disturbed that he would deny his children the protein they needed to grow. I was simply fascinated. As I went on to study human nutrition at university, I became increasingly convinced that a plant-rich diet was optimal. However, the battle of my conscience was not fully re-ignited until a rather remarkable interaction with my friend, the deer hunter. The year was 1989. The friend asked if he could drop by for coffee on his way deer hunting. Although my response was positive, I immediately began trying to figure out how to make him feel as guilty as possible before he killed another deer. After dispensing with the usual trivialities, I asked him how it was that he could justify pulling the trigger on such a beautiful animal. I pointed out that it wasn’t fair – the deer had no defense against his bullet. I asked him if it made him feel like more of a man to shoot and kill another creature. His response stunned me, and changed the course of my life. He said, “You have no right to criticize me. Just because you don’t have the guts to pull the trigger, does not mean you are not responsible for the trigger being pulled every time you buy a piece of meat camouflaged in cellophane in the grocery store. You are simply paying someone to do the dirty work for you. At least the deer I eat has had a life. I doubt very much you can say the same for the animals sitting on your plate.” I was silenced, because he was absolutely right. I vowed to take responsibility for the food I was purchasing, and to find out about the lives of the animals I was eating. What I learned filled me with shame, guilt and outrage, but more importantly, it reawakened my compassion for animals. There was no question that war was over and my conscience had finally won. At the time, I was a public health nutritionist, encouraging the consumption of a balanced diet, including lean meat and low fat dairy products. As you can appreciate, I faced some interesting personal and professional challenges. With two young children, aged 4 and 1, I was uncertain as to how my husband Paul would respond to my desire to live on plants. I should have known better. Even though his closest friend was the deer hunter, Paul was always a step ahead of me. He smiled and said, “I thought you’d never ask”.
When I think back, I realize that at 3 years of age I understood that animals have their own feelings, and their own purpose. Still, it didn’t fully prepare me for the interaction I was to have with my son at the same tender age. I can’t recall where we were going, but somewhere along the way, we drove by a McDonalds. He was excited just to see the golden arches. He asked me if we could go to McDonalds and buy a McDonald’s hamburger. I knew he had watched the advertisements on television that showed the Hamburglar stealing hamburgers off trees. I suspected that he pictured a lovely grove of hamburger trees behind every McDonald’s restaurant. I decided that the time had come to tell him about meat, and why we did not eat it. I explained that the hamburgers at McDonald’s were not the same as the “burgers” at home. While our burgers were made of plants like beans, the McDonalds hamburgers were made of cows. He looked at me as though I had completely lost my mind and replied quite emphatically, “Mommy, people do not eat cows”. He seemed shocked I would say such a strange thing. When I went on to explain that people do eat cows, he began to cry. And through his tears, he pleaded, “But mommy, them have eyes, and he pointed to his eyes. He went on about their ears, noses and mouths in the same way. Finally in an exacerbated voice, he asked… “Mommy, don’t they know that cows are people too?” I understood. He could see that cows think, feel, smell, hear, eat, sleep and love – just like people. He could not see why that was not enough.
Many people believe that being vegan is about eschewing hamburgers and ice cream. It is not. Being vegan is about widening our circles of compassion to include those who are commonly excluded, be they human animals or non-human animals. It is about understanding that our choices have consequences for ourselves, and beyond ourselves. It is about recognizing that eating animals and animal products is both unnecessary and potentially harmful. Being vegan is about making choices that are a true reflection of our ethical and moral principles, and acknowledging that custom and tradition justify nothing.
Vegans share a vision of this world as a place of goodness and peace, where life is supported and cherished; a place where violence and indifference are unknown, and where purposeful injury to living, feeling beings is unthinkable. Such a place is hardly conceivable in a world so profusely littered with hatred, greed, cruelty, and war. But each and every one of us who prays for peace, who dreams of a kinder, gentler world, has a responsibility to turn these thoughts into actions, to do what is within their capacity to bring us a little closer to this reality.
Our hope is captured brilliantly by the words of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Nobel peace prize recipient and esteemed humanitarian:
“…the time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race existed so long before it recognized that thoughtless injury to life is incompatible with real ethics. Ethics is in its unqualified form extended responsibility with regard to everything that has life.”
The first critical step is taking the blinders off.
Adapted from: Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition, by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina (2014)