I have been a vegetarian my whole life—not because vegetarianism was imposed upon me by my parents, but because for one reason or another, I had a natural aversion to meat. My mother likes to tell the story of how, on our weekly trips to Friendly’s after church, I would order a hamburger but ask the waiter to “take the cow out.” Though they didn’t restrict me from eating meat, I have no doubt that they had a hand in my early ability to make the connection between what appeared on our plates and the animals that, as a child in rural upstate New York, I had seen grazing around our home. They must have taught me at that early age to empathize with other creatures. So many people go through childhood, if not their entire lives, without bridging the mental divide between cow and hamburger, pig and bacon, and all those other carefully created euphemisms.
Still, I went for nearly three decades—until my 29th birthday, this year—as a lacto-ovo vegetarian without seriously considering going vegan. What held me back was a fear that if being vegan would turn me, an essentially happy and joyful person, into a negative being, and that my entire existence would come to be about what I was not, what I couldn’t do. I feared that it would take so much time and energy to be vegan that it would take over my entire identity until vegan was all I was. I feared that my social life would suffer because my friends and family would feel alienated, judged, or offended, and because I wouldn’t be able to eat out anywhere. And I feared that I’d become full of anger and bitterness about all the terrible things that other people did to animals. In short, I believed all the stereotypes that our culture has about vegans, and I sold short the people in my life by expecting the worst from them. So, I decided that vegetarianism was enough and I stuck to that.
But looking back, it’s clear that part of me didn’t believe that I was doing enough, because while I hadn’t made the full “vegan plunge,” I was, without realizing, going through a gradual process of eliminating the use of animals from my life. After college, I started buying vegan cookbooks, and I took on vegan cooking and baking. I switched to from cow’s milk to soymilk. I stopped buying leather, wool, silk, and down. I made all sorts of gradual changes, until only a handful of animal-reliant habits remained, all of them dietary: ice cream, eggs, and—most looming of all—cheese.
Cheese was my crutch, my lifesaver, every time I went out to a restaurant. Not only that, but I was passionate about it. Pizza and macaroni and cheese were the staples of my diet. This became embarrassingly clear once when I went to a branch of Sbarro near where I worked after having been away for a couple of weeks, and the guy behind the counter gave me a “welcome back” discount. So the difficulty of envisioning life without cheese was immense.
But in the end, it was something surprisingly simple that convinced me to take that last step. I had been reading vegan magazines and websites (another testament to the fact that I was still seeking, that I knew that my diet still wasn’t fully reflecting my values) and all of a sudden, a confluence of examples of positive, joyful veganism came into my life. One was VegNews Magazine; another was Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s podcast, “Vegetarian Food for Thought.” (I still swear that the “Life after Cheese” episode was written with me in mind.)
I discovered that being vegan could be positive, affirming, and expansive. It didn’t have to be all about what it wasn’t—though of course, animal abuse is, to some extent, the elephant in the kitchen for anyone who knows the truth about modern food production—but could be about what it was: a transformative, enlightening, lightening, compassionate discovery of a new way of life. To discover that you can live happily, healthily, and in a whole way without causing needless suffering is a reason to rejoice.
My goal from here onward is to become for others what I myself sought for so long: an example of a life lived with not just conscience but with joy. I think veganism as a movement can grow and flourish as long as people can see examples of vegans who are happy and whole. Being whole also means having a lack of judgment of others, which may be one of the most important thing vegans can strive for. (I think the feeling of being judged is what gives some omnivores such unwarranted venom toward vegans and vegetarians.) For my part, in the short time that I’ve been vegan, I do feel happier, and, contrary to everything I had expected, more free. So, I’m leaving behind my welcome-back discount at Sbarro, but I’m looking ahead to a better life for myself and all this planet’s other beings.
~Erin, Cambridge, MA