I had never really been a particularly healthy person growing up. I guess I ate mostly what everyone else, my family, friends and the rest of New Zealand society ate. Meat and two veg for dinner, plenty of fruit, cereals and grains, a lot of dairy. It was the simple things I remember eating – meals of baked beans on toast, mince & mash or sausages in bread with tomato sauce or cheese and vegemite sandwiches.
As I grew older I was inclined to pay more attention to eating habits and health in general, although seldom was any of my newfound knowledge put into practice. I did however know that there was nothing wrong with lean red meat and dairy in a well balanced diet. In fact, I was quite sure that my iron levels were lower than average and thanks to persistent advertising, more than aware of the vital role of probiotics from dairy in promoting healthy gut flora. I made my own yoghurt, drank plenty of milk, made sure I bought, cooked and ate enough red meat and fish (omega 3!) and sophisticatedly indulged in eating cheese of varying varieties while drinking red wine. Little did I know I was flooding my body with cholesterol and fats and probably a not-so-healthy dose of antibiotics and hormones too!
The plight of animals never really crossed my mind. Sure, they were killed for our consumption. Of course they were; that’s what they were raised for. And anyway, if I didn’t pick up that chicken breast at the supermarket, someone else would, or it would be wasted. The damage had already been done and all I was doing was making good use of the product of an industry, not letting it go to waste. In a land full of farmers you seldom encountered opposing views. In short, you ate what you were given and were thankful.
After graduating, travel led me to all sorts of places and introduced me to a range of cuisines. Seeking desperately to avoid the ‘fussy’ label I had earned as a child I ate all manner of delicacies served for my consumption, including sea snake, puffer fish, raw horse meat, raw chicken, liver and cartilage. Somehow, this made me and my companions feel good. As if we had conquered the dead and lifeless meat in front of us and as if this was cause to congratulate ourselves and boast. None of this bothered me at the time. It is only now, when I look back on myself at those moments that I am saddened.
I have been vegan for a year and a half, vegetarian before that for a good six months or so. It has changed my life completely and continues to do so. I can’t really say that there was a definitive moment in my life that led me to adopt a more compassionate lifestyle, or that I woke up one morning and it all fell into place like the pieces of some terribly sadistic puzzle. But rather, things happened gradually. I was aware of issues surrounding the consumption of animal products in almost a peripheral sense, as if they were always there but I had never chosen to focus on them. It really is amazing what our minds and hearts will ignore in order to maintain the status quo and avoid change.
Most of the peripheral information I was aware of came via my partner, who had a colleague at work recently ‘convert’ to vegetarianism. He would come home with tales of conversations he’d had with his colleague, Matt, while sharing a beer during their lunch break or after work. I didn’t know Matt particularly well at the time, but one thing he was known for was his penchant for logic. He is a very rational and reasonable guy, not to mention patient and tolerant of others’ opinions. And here he was, giving up meat!
Somehow it didn’t quite compute. The stereotypes I had of vegans and vegetarians in my head did not look like Matt. But, hey, we were living in the 2000s and was willing to listen to his theories on a cruelty-free life second-hand anyway. I found my ears pricking up whenever my partner mentioned he’d had a conversation with Matt recently and low and behold I began to realise that I was actually interested. Could I be one of those people who ‘goes vego’, who opts for pizza without cheese..? The more I thought about it and researched things, the more sympathy I had for vegetarianism and the more I came to realise that there was nothing inherently ‘weird’ or ‘anti-social’ about these people. They were simply normal people; normal people who wanted to try and make the world a slightly better place to be in by not eating animal flesh. In just the same way that I recycled my plastic bottles and newspapers, reused my own bags at the supermarket or shared a smile with a stranger in a busy street, they were out to see if their actions couldn’t make life better for all of us.
It seems like a lofty idea and you could be forgiven for thinking I’m naïve and idealistic. But, in truth, I have never seen anything wrong with either of these qualities and much prefer them to pessimism and cynicism. Sure, opting for a salad over a hamburger is not going to instantly transform the world into some heavenly utopia, but it does make a difference. Less demand for meat means less demand for farmed animals who live pitifully short lives of suffering, less slaughterhouse workers who leave for home every night with blood on their white overalls and aprons, less trees and forests cut down to provide pasture for grazing, less habitats lost, less grain fed to animals, less people fretting about the price of food, less starvation, less high-cholesterol, less heart disease, less obesity, less taxes for health care, less resources wasted. Less suffering and death.
I suppose you could say that once I had made these connections there was no going back. Something had changed in the way that I viewed the world and my place in it. I had become so much more aware of how my actions, simple, small and everyday things, could have much greater implications elsewhere and create a knock-on effect. Soon I had decided to stop eating dairy, eggs and then processed foods that contained animal products. I was reading labels, thinking about ingredients and then thinking about them again. I had expected this to happen. But one thing I hadn’t expected was the influence this way of thinking had on the rest of my life. I began to find myself questioning if I really needed to buy another magazine or book or T shirt and wondering where and how and for what purpose these things had been produced. Who was I helping with my money besides myself? Was I making a difference in the world? Was this a positive action or a negative one..?
‘Awakening’ implies that you had to have been asleep beforehand, but I know that I wasn’t; I was fully conscious and considered myself a good human being. However, I chose to blind myself to many of these issues because to acknowledge them made me slightly uncomfortable. Many issues in the world still do. But veganism is not a journey that ends once you’ve completely rid your life of animal products and cruelty, cleared out your cupboards and given your leather boots away to the Salvation Army. It is an ongoing journey and one that you will be able to travel with throughout your life, like a good companion. Veganism is the voice that asks you to reconsider, asks you to live your life in accordance with your beliefs and to aspire to be better.
Even now I am continuing to learn and change and improve the way I tread on the planet’s surface. Do I tiptoe? Do I thud? Do I run? Flit? What sort of footprint do I leave?
Our diets have a far greater effect on the planet than many of us realise. ‘What’s one banana?’ you might ask. But realise you are fundamentally similar to the majority of the population of the earth, with similar needs, wants, desires and the question soon becomes ‘what’s six billion bananas?’. Thinking big is the only way to assess our true impact on the earth and it can only be done when we are able to recognise that our choices matter as much as the next person’s. The earth is our dwelling place and we have a responsibility to be in it and of it and to care for it. It is not up to politicians, governments, or other people in other countries to organise the way we live and the way we treat the world. It is up to ourselves.
In the same way, if one person avoids eating animal products, it really does make a difference. We may feel as though it doesn’t when compared to the large numbers of meat eaters out there, but the world consists of people just like us and surely if we can change, others can too. It really is as simple as supply and demand. No one buys animal products, animal products go out of business. No one supports industries testing on animals, industries look for alternatives. Every circus needs an audience, for without one there is no circus. This is truly exciting and it’s what prompts me to respond with patience and sincerity every time I’m asked about living a cruelty free life.
The only reason I ever even considered ‘cutting out meat’ in the first place was because I knew someone who had adopted a vegetarian lifestyle. Not a family member, or a close friend, just an acquaintance. And one who was particularly rational, patient and open to others’ viewpoints. Just knowing Matt existed and was thinking about these things led me to do a little research of my own. I firmly believe that if he had been judgemental of others or the type prone to proselytising, my curiosity antennae would have curled in on themselves and I never would have found out how much I agreed with his views. It pays to remember this when airing your beliefs in the company of those who still eat animal products. Be open, be humble, be kind and let their antennae roam.
~ Sarah, London UK