Thursday, September 30, 2010

What's Sometimes Hardest


Let's face it: Old habits can be a pain in the arse to change. Whether it's something as general as procrastinating (for which I am notorious) or something as specific as biting your nails, knocking yourself out of cycles that have become part of your daily routine or of your regular way of flittering about in the world can be hard. When I talk to people about going vegan--particularly to people who seem open to the ethical arguments against animal use--I am asking them to change their consumer habits so that where possible and reasonable to do so, they refrain from using animal products. I'm not just asking people to change one habit, but am asking them to change the way they make all of their choices as consumers. That can seem pretty daunting, I've no doubt.

"Is this vegan?"

I remember spending hours reading off ingredients on items at the supermarket when I first started moving towards going vegan. (Thankfully, since I've spent much of my adult life cooking mostly with whole foods, I didn't have to spend all that much time double-checking ingredients in most of what I put into my fridge and cupboards.) I also remember learning to cut myself some slack when I inadvertently ended up making a mistake--something I still work hard to do today, because there is ample opportunity to inadvertently consume animal products in a world in which almost all processed foods on supermarket shelves either contains or comes into contact with some sort of animal product. In some cases, like sugar production, the edible item is sometimes actually processed with animal products. There's a lot to learn in the beginning, but for those of you still transitioning to veganism, you will eventually get the hang of it and the knowledge you acquire about different ingredients will make it easier for you to sift through options at the store as times passes.

Where non-food items are concerned, it can get even more tricky unless a product is specifically labeled "vegan" or "free of animal products". There are guides you can obtain or print-off from websites that list common animal-derived ingredients, so those can be helpful until you find a product you like enough to buy regularly (e.g. dish-washing liquid, shampoo). Even when you find a product and opt to stick with it, however, it's always important to check to make sure its ingredients haven't changed.
Thankfully, vegan-friendly options have become more common and clear labeling has been making shopping much easier over the past several years.

It's Not Just About Food

Veganism is a lifestyle that turns ethics into action through the avoidance of activities that involve using non-human animals as things existing for human use. Veganism is about respecting the interests of non-human animals and taking those interests seriously by refusing to use non-human animals as resources or commodities existing for human use and pleasure. Some would qualify this by saying that the devil is in the details of where this avoidance is reasonable. I could start an entire blog discussing this and do manage to cover bits and pieces here and there concerning the finer points of being vegan. What I want to emphasize right now, however, is that veganism isn't just about what you put into your mouth or on your body. A new vegan might feel bogged down with those aspects of going vegan at first, but if you ask other vegans, they'll assure you that with a little bit of research and practice, dodging animal ingredients will become more and more easy to handle as time goes by. I swear that it will.

What's Actually Sometimes Hardest

The truth is, though, that most "seasoned" vegans will nod emphatically when you suggest to them that the hardest part of being vegan in an overwhelmingly speciesist world isn't finding things to eat or products to use, but that it's dealing with other people in our lives. Those of us living with non-vegan family or roommates find ourselves continually faced with animal use in our immediate daily lives, sharing a kitchen--often a table--with friends and family preparing and eating differing animal parts and products in various states of decay.

Some vegans insist that their being vegan is a "personal choice" and that they don't "judge" others for consuming or otherwise using non-human animals, or that they even don't care whether or not others do so. This seems incredibly strange to me if and when it comes from vegans who purport to reject animal use for rights-based reasons and who refuse to use animal products themselves because they have come to the conclusion that it is unethical to do so. I mean, if I think that it's unethical for me to punch a toddler in the mouth, wouldn't it sound strange for me to say to you that I don't "judge" others for doing so and that I actually don't care whether or not people around me--loved ones or otherwise--also punch toddlers in the mouth?

Those of us who have non-vegan romantic interests or spouses find ourselves having to define or set our boundaries in sometimes even more awkward ways, and then some end up needing to periodically reexamine or reinforce those boundaries. In some cases, some of us end up compromising and compartmentalizing, trying--and sometimes failing--to rationalize living with and/or loving someone who continues to view animals as ours to use, and who may continue to use or consume them around us. In other cases, compromise happens all 'round and our partners opt to live "as vegans" (i.e. not agreeing with the ethics behind veganism, but perhaps out of deference to us or for pragmatic reasons intended to simplify maintaining a household together) or to at least not openly consume animals around us, albeit doing so "off radar".

I don't think that there are easy answers when it comes to how we navigate our relationships with non-vegan loved ones, but I do think that offering an ear to other vegans--new vegans or otherwise, really--concerning these issues could ultimately prove to be as useful in the long run as offering up animal-free ingredient guides. I think that many vegans could benefit from discussing with each other how it is we each go about living our lives in a predominantly omni world--how we set and guard our boundaries with our loved ones and where or if we compromise or compartmentalize when dealing with their non-vegan behaviours, how or if we talk to them about their considering going vegan, themselves, and how or if we maintain the hope that they will.

I suspect that for some vegans who are primarily motivated by ethics that these sorts of situations weigh more heavily than trying to find egg-free soy patties at the supermarket; I also suspect that these things may also have more of an impact on whether or not some actually stay vegan than is ordinarily or readily discussed. I may be wrong. One thing is certain, and it's that our relationships with non-vegan loved ones--friends, family or otherwise--are on our minds and weigh on our hearts, however we navigate them. And those are just our interactions with people we like or love, or those people we choose to have in our lives! I could (and will, over the next while) write a few other posts about our interactions with non-vegan acquaintances, coworkers, extended family members, and so on. In the end, though, the truth really is that the hardest part of being vegan isn't so much learning which ingredient is or isn't vegan, but it's the day-to-day exchanges you'll have with others and how you learn to stay afloat.


Heidi said...

Just yesterday after lunch out at an expensive restaurant I was feeling incredibly sad that I have not been able to influence my relatives ( who I dined with ) to go vegan. I was also frustrated as the restaurant - chosen because they have a seperate vegetarian menu that I thought I could find something to veganize - had a delicious sounding vegetable and tofu curry made with fish sauce. On the vegetarian menu! Fish are not vegetables! Even mynon vegan relatives thought that was wrong.

veganf said...

I think harder still is when we choose to raise children on a vegan diet...think of the questions & criticism we often receive, and then try to imagine that multiplied many times over when making those choices for a baby or young child. Birthday party junk food, zoo field trips, exclusive breastfeeding (there are no vegan formulas available in the US, besides the fact that formula is not a healthy choice period), requesting ingredient pamphlets at the dentist, the non-violent choice of not circumcising in the US, avoiding vaccinations that are chock full of animal products & tested on animals & probably utilize more eggs than the food industry, etc. These parenting decisions faced by vegan parents make the usual issues a walk in the park.

x said...

Great post, so informative for new and long-term vegans :)

veganelder said...

Excellent and thoughtful post. Navigating through a culture and with dealing with a society that blandly promotes and supports cruelty and expresses dismay at any objection is difficult and sometimes disheartening. Being thought of as strange because of avoiding gratuitousness oppression, slavery, suffering and death can be disorienting.

Dealing with relationship issues in addition to the previously noted factors can sometimes result in a daily life that is overwhelming.

Support is necessary and needed, in any and all venues available.

Thanks for discussing this issue.

Vegan4Life said...

I agree that dealing with other people is the most difficult thing about being vegan. I was in a relationship with a meat eater for several years. I was a lacto-ovo-vegetarian when we met and at that time I didn't have a problem with his eating habits. After I went vegan it became more and more of a problem. I tried to influence him the best I could, I offered to buy shampoos, soaps, washing-up liquids etc to make sure everything was vegan and I often offered to cook for us both. We even watched Earthlings together and even though he thought some of the scenes were horrible, it didn't stop him from eating animal products.

In the end I couldn't take his speciesist ways anymore and moved out (we were living together when I went vegan). Now I have a vegan household and I won't allow anyone to eat non-vegan items in my home. I wish I could keep all non-vegan items out, but some of my relatives still wear leather, and I haven't told them they can't enter my home wearing it, even though it's gross. At least it doesn't smell or stain, like food items do.

M said...

dbass, the funny thing is that many non-vegan friends of mine have agreed that veganism is consistent and that lumping in animal products while refusing to consume others on ethical grounds doesn't make much sense. The not-so-funny thing is that although they claim to respect me for sticking to my what I believe in and being consistent about it, they disagree fundamentally that animals aren't ours to use, or that non-human animals interest in not being enslaved and/or slaughters trumps the satisfaction of human taste-buds. :-(

veganf, I can't even imagine how hard it must be. I mean, I've had non-vegan friends gripe to me about unwanted advice from family, friends and strangers concerning their parenting. Throwing veganism into it would surely augment it.

Annabelle said...

Excellent post. I can really relate to the social aspect. It is very difficult at work and with friends when they show no or little interest in veganism and the very few who do seem to quickly forget what we have talked about it, even so much as to go back to simply confusing the difference between vegetarian and vegan.

I'm very grateful for blogs like yours and feel just a little less on my own :)

OhSoooSara said...

Ugh Mylene....this post really hit my heart. For me, finding delicious vegan food is a breeze, a walk in the park! On the other hand, I've been madly in love with my non-vegan partner (now ex)of seven years, but I have only been vegan for the past two years. Four months ago he left me because he didn't think he would ever want to become vegan, and said that our lives were going in different directions. He didn't see how we could raise a family together. We had previously discussed having children, and I was very open about the fact that I would most definitely be raising my children vegan. How could I teach my children the noble mission of living a vegan life if daddy eats and wears animal products? On the night he left, he went on about how we couldn't raise a family together, how he would not give up his heritage and the non-vegan foods commonly eaten in his Chinese culture. He couldn't imagine giving up family fishing trips with his father, and he didn't want to. My heart is broken. I always thought he was the one, and although I didn't really know how it could ever work if he didn't become vegan, I couldn't give up on him. I didn't push him, but tried to educate him and cooked him amazing animal free meals. In my darker moments I cry, feeling that he chose his steak dinner over me, and without my ever telling him he had to make that choice. In the midst of this heart ache, I cannot imagine EVER getting involved with someone unless they are already vegan, or willing to make the change, and for ethical reasons. Friends tell me that he did me a favor by walking out. Of course I hope that he'll come back, that he will wake up and change, but I can't hold on to that. I chose to trust that my future holds a relationship with a man that stands next to me, united for peace. I will view his departure as my life opening up, and making room for a person that I don't have to convince. I look forward to a deeper and more profound love.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for starting the dialogue on such a prevalent topic for us vegans.

I am blessed to have a really great community of vegan friends and a supportive family but I do face some opposition from non-vegan friends so I am looking forward to more posts on this topic.

I wholeheartedly agree that "many vegans could benefit from discussing with each other how it is we each go about living our lives in a predominantly omni world--how we set and guard our boundaries with our loved ones and where or if we compromise or compartmentalize when dealing with their non-vegan behaviours, how or if we talk to them about their considering going vegan, themselves, and how or if we maintain the hope that they will."

GB said...

I really enjoyed your post. :) Just like the others, I can relate very well to what you wrote. Though, recently I had to re-evaluate what I think about my difficulties with urban consumers. In an attempt to engage in vegan organic gardening I moved to a rural area here, in Hungary. Well, it was nothing less than torture.

Maybe in the Western countries it is different now, but here rural people are still heavily involved in using and slaughtering pigs and other animals. A day could hardly pass without hearing an account on, or reference of, the slaughter of nonhuman persons. It doesn't matter where I was: I heard it in the grocery; I heard it in the bus stop; I heard it from my host... And several times I saw those poor, frightened beings transferred for slaughter, typically by intoxicated, deranged-looking men. Occasionally I heard the screaming too. Basically, they made the killing part of my everyday life, part of my everyday consciousness, and I wasn't able to do anything about it.

I rented a room in a house where "normal" people are living. It was a recommendation from an acquaintance of mine who are following a plant-based diet, so I thought that there will be no significant problems. But then, in January, the owner informed me that he will buy two pigs for slaughter, and that he invited his friends to hold a celebration about it. I went away for that weekend, but the whole thing weighed extremely heavily on my consciousness. Am I responsible by not preventing it? What should I say, how should I say, when should I say? How should I relate to such people? I tried to talk about the moral issues politely, without much effect. Then, in the springtime he told me again that he will have a birthday party with his friends, and for that party they will buy and slaughter a piglet. Even though it was not about my own life, I felt sheer terror; and again, I went away for that time.

One of the most repulsive aspects of the whole thing is that the owner has a small child; two or three years old. He can hardly know which is his head and which is his butt, but he already started to speak about how he will slaughter when he will be older... I'm not kidding: slaughter (and hunting) was literally an everyday topic for him, including casual references and downright suggestions to his parent that they should slaughter pigs and piglets.

In the beginning I was able to handle these things, but as I became more and more involved in the psychological burden, every time I heard the child speaking like that started to feel like pushing a burning steel into my skin... One day, when the child talked about being "strong" by slaughtering pigs I wasn't able to stand it, and I broke out into telling them that I can't live any longer with lunatic murderers. I packed and left a few days later; it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Now I'm positive that I was thoroughly traumatized, and the only reason why I remained there for so long is that I was completely overwhelmed and paralysed psychologically by the environment. I'm a Buddhist for a long time, and when I went there I was able to meditate quite well. Now it's completely gone... No peace at all; constant thinking, even when I'm sleeping.

M said...

Mandee, thanks! I hope so.


Being thought of as strange because of avoiding gratuitousness oppression, slavery, suffering and death can be disorienting.

Dealing with relationship issues in addition to the previously noted factors can sometimes result in a daily life that is overwhelming.

Well said. Having our non-vegan friends and family dealing with others perceiving us as "strange" can put a strain on things, as well, particularly when romantic interests or spouses find themselves having to deal with some of our veganism (e.g. when accepting a dinner invitation from the boss/extended family and having to explain that his or her partner is vegan).

Vegan4Life: I think that once you start realizing that animal use is wrong (and not just the consumption of "some" animals) that you're bound to have a more difficult time observing and accepting different things going on around you. It's important to have a place to set your boundaries firmly. We spend the rest of our time having to watch others treating animal use as normal around us, so it makes sense to want to limit or eliminate others' doing so in our own homes.

M said...

Annabelle: Thank you for the kind words and I'm glad to hear that reading posts like these helps in some way. It can feel pretty isolating to be vegan. It's good to be reminded that there are others who share our ethics and beliefs. :-)

OhSooSara: I'm so sorry about what happened. Some of what you've written came up in conversations I would have with my non-vegan ex several years ago while I was transitioning to veganism. I'm sure that many of us who've been in similar situations can relate to feeling as if your SO opted to place more significance on his or her taste preferences and occasional past-times than on the relationship. I think that sometimes our loved ones, by virtue of not understanding why we would choose to be vegan, also fail to understand or value the significance and weight of that choice--of its importance. Many hugs to you.

Bea Elliott said...

My issues are also complicated.I'm in an otherwise 20 yr happy marriage.So evaluated anything in the way of our differences is very painful.

We began our relationship with a common "hobby" which was fish killing.Yes, for years we both enjoyed hunting those innocent sea creatures for the satisfaction of their flesh.I started to be uncomfortable with this years before I became vegan or became aware of AR.I started to listen to my gut which told me:fish suffer. They are not "mine" to take. And well, the whole "fishing" affair started to become distasteful to me.

But it wasn't until years later that I began to see the whole picture.And during that time I just didn't participate in the outings. But now, things are so much different. I share a house and a life with someone who steals the lives of others. My views and judgments of killing nonhumans has been radically enlightened.

I keep hoping that he will recognize the entire sphere of AR. He doesn't eat land mammals.And hasn't for several years.Dairy is reduced to practically nil.But he still justifies the fishes because he goes on these hunts "so infrequently."(I know-It's like someone who "only" molests children every few years.) :(

And finally as he sees it It's who he was when we met.Yes, but there is change.And growth.And information that should alter one's actions.But if I say these things terrible arguments surface and it's all just too much to go into.I sincerely doubt there will ever be much agreement about "fishing".

So I remain quiet except when I can vent/talk about it on forums such as this.

Thanks for opening up the conversation.Obviously this advocate needed to talk to someone. Appreciate you listening.

M said...

idreamofgreenie, you are indeed fortunate to have an offline support group of vegan friends. Outside of vegans living in more urban areas, this is the exception for most.

Akheron: Thanks! Rural life here in North America (I'm in Canada, myself) definitely involves being surrounded by animal use and animal slaughter. Between the farming and the hunting, it's hard to get away from it. I'm sorry about the events you went through; I would certainly have left, as well.

Bea, thank you so much for sharing your story. I think that many vegans aren't comfortable sharing such stories about their loved ones--particularly their spouses/partners--because they feel a sort of guilt-by-association or fear that other vegans will judge them for not being able to convince their partners to go vegan. And the truth is that from what I've seen in some online forums, there definitely are vegans who are poised to tell fellow vegans what failures they are for either a) getting involved with non-vegans or b) being unable to get pre-existing partners to come around to veganism. The truth is, though, that many of us live with and love non-vegans and deal with it (or don't deal with it) in a variety of ways and with such a wide range of emotions and I think that we need to accept that this is the reality and that we need to talk about it. There needs to be more support and more exchanging of ideas.

Bea Elliott said...

You're right Mylène, it is difficult to admit. I have my times of thinking that somehow I've "failed". But I have to come to the conclusion that everyone goes on their journey in their own way. All you can do is offer the valid reasons, set an example and hope they never stop thinking. It's been a challenge and honestly, if it weren't for friends and online support I doubt I'd be so understanding about the whole process. Veganism has certainly taught me "tolerance" and to accept my limitations.

Thanks for the non-judgmental appreciation of the situation.