Rewind the clock. I am a struggling sometimes-vegetarian and have been such on and off for the whole of my adult life. Vegetarianism–what began as a thought experiment connected to Buddhist studies and the concept of non-attachment–has become a bizarre dietary tic that friends, family, and partners alike have all come to ignore in general befuddlement. They don't know, on any given week, what precisely my new dietary rules and philosophies are, and I don't blame them because I am just as clueless as they are. I know that when I really stop to consider eating animals and animal products, I am filled with discomfort and confusion, but I don't know exactly why this is and I honestly try to shy away from thinking about it as much as possible.
After all, cheeseburgers taste so damn good, and the gelatin in my favourite gummi bears is just an animal by-product–I didn't cause the demand that made that particular animal die. Besides, I eat far, far less meat than most people do. I only eat meat maybe once or twice a week. Hell, I don't even much care for chicken or pork. Give me the occasional steak and burger and, really, I am way ahead of the curve on this whole "vegetarian" thing.
I keep coming back to it, though. It nags at me in a quiet voice that has nothing to do with trends (I am a current pop-culture idiot) or peer pressure (I don't know any vegetarians; my friends are cheeseheads and game farm owners, dairy hands and 4H boosters). I find the whole examination of the idea to be awkward, distasteful, and embarrassing every time I turn down some homemade bear sausage or pass on the pork chops, and yet I am lying awake late at night, thinking again about the ethics of consumption.
My internal monologue chatters on, sounding for all the world like a spoiled child. "Don't dedicated vegetarians understand how HARD it is to not eat meat? It's miserable! And vegans, jeez, don't even get me started–you would have to be a raving lunatic to give up cheese, period. Do they think they're that much better than people who eat local grass-fed beef and eggs? I'm not even sure skipping meat is healthy, frankly, and all of that extremist animal rights stuff is for crazies."
Eventually, I decide that someone out there must have examined this in a rational, careful, normal light. "Maybe," I think, still confused and comically indignant, "someone with the same questions who was just, you know, a regular person. Not a PETA supporter or an ALF terrorist or one of those ANGRY vegetarians…just somebody who maybe sometimes thought it wasn't necessarily the greatest thing to eat meat all the time, kinda." In the morning, I promise myself, I will find just such an examination, and I will read it, and I will try to wrestle fully with these questions for the first time in my life.
I find what I'm looking for and am reading it on my beloved Kindle in a flash. It is called "Eating Animals," written by Jonathan Safran Foer, and I like the extremely straightforward title. I am puzzled by the tone and style at first, but I settle in quickly and decide to withhold judgement. I am finished with the book after a long few hours, and without pause I flip back to the beginning and read it again. I talk about it ceaselessly for the next few days. I read it to Shane. For the first time I experience a wince of sympathy for fish, of all things–creatures I have traditionally felt fear and distaste for. I feel as though I do not learn anything I did not, on some level, know before, as I have seen the videos and read the accounts of slaughterhouses, but still I am riveted and I am undone.
It isn't what Foer wrote in "Eating Animals" that finally made veganism start to make sense for me. Rather, it is how he wrote it. In it, I saw a man who had the same past I had in this arena–a past full of confusion, discomfort, avoidance, and waffling that was easily papered over with platitudes like, "All eating is death," or "Humans are animals, too, and omnivores to boot." In Foer's highly personal and unconventional approach to the topic, I met someone who had grown just as frustrated with his own questions, avoidance, and hypocrisy as I had become with mine. I met someone who finally sat down to look all of the questions right in the face, and who swore not to back down until he had answers that he was comfortable with…and I saw that I could do the same.
Foer and I didn't necessarily come to the same conclusions on everything. I feel that some of his assertions are mildly flawed and that his ultimate individual decision doesn't go quite far enough. I personally knew that, having asked and answered all of my own questions, I couldn't stop at being vegetarian. With enormous trepidation, I became one of those cheese-foregoing loonies known as "vegans." It was the right thing for me to do; anything less would be dishonesty and dishonour of the worst sort. Differences aside, though, it was Foer's "Eating Animals" that gave me the kick in the ass I needed to do my own soul-searching.
"Eating Animals" got, and still gets, mixed reviews. But, consider my opinion–do you know, mostly, who doesn't like "Eating Animals"? People who, when it comes down to brass tacks, really don't want to think about eating animals. Sure, they will say they want to think about it. They will probably really want to, and they will give it the old college try, and they will write articles for The Washington Post and Slate and The New Yorker about Foer's book. They will think and talk and write and go around and around, and they will come to the same conclusion. Go ahead–read the reviews I mentioned and come back. I'll wait.
Interesting, isn't it? Every last one of those reviews seems to grope around blindly, say lots of very nice and/or very conventional things that are carefully spun to sound appropriately open-minded and thoughtful, and then crash up against a massive mental wall of DOES-NOT-COMPUTE-DOES-NOT-COMPUTE…and then end with toothless, petty statements that, sadly, all translate into, "I really can't think about this anymore; it is too hard and I quit."
I have no anger for these people; I've been there, and I dwelt there for a very long time, and I understand exactly how difficult it is to take the first real step in wrestling with these issues inside yourself. I applaud anyone, in fact, who even tries to take that first step, even if they fail many times as I did. I genuinely believe that the idea of veganism and ethical consumption is a powerful seed that can be planted in one's mind. It might be dormant for a long while, but it might also grow when one least expects it–perhaps the more mainstream reviewers of "Eating Animals" will have this experience.
Perhaps they won't. Logic makes this seem much more likely–veganism is still considered "fringe" and even un-American in some circles. And, perhaps, those who feel Foer didn't go far enough either personally or politically in the book are absolutely correct. If you haven't read "Eating Animals," pick it up and give it a try. The beauty and the power of this book does not come from the stories about boltguns, pigshit, pain, or pleasure–it comes from the way this book forces you to ask your own questions and come up with your own answers.
And, ultimately, to live by those answers.
Read the book? Have thoughts? Leave a comment.