A decade of being vegetarian - and why I chose to stop
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I’ve been a vegetarian for just about a decade. The other day, I decided to stop.
Around ten years ago, a constellation of experiences and feelings and philosophical ideas led me to becoming vegetarian. It had almost nothing to do with ideas about animal cruelty, and almost everything to do with the concepts of purity, of lightness of being, and of the historical precedent of revolutionaries throughout history. It was fundamentally a way to pursue being a different kind of human.
I learned a lot from vegetarianism. It practically forced me to try new fruits and vegetables, and to expand my palate far beyond what it had been before. I learned I could eat almost anywhere; I learned that having a lot of options wasn’t really important. It probably led me to trying new restaurants, where an omnivore could have simply tried new menu items.
But I had another philosophical commitment as well: I never wanted to limit my ability to choose. Giving up choice has always seemed to me to be the beginning of everything wrong and bitter in the world. And irrational commitments were the top offender.
It’s always struck me just how many people make broad declarations, and then feel compelled to follow those declarations far beyond the point they should have given them up. When my parents swore they would never use AOL again, I chastised them for exactly that reason; do you really want to swear off something for all eternity?
The AOL thing may not have had any negative repercussions, but to me, the principle remained.
So when I decided to be vegetarian, I simply decided to stop eating meat. I didn’t decide to make a commitment to not eating meat. My test statement was this:
If I ever wake up wanting to eat meat, I will do so.
I knew that if that statement ever became a lie, I would have gone too far. But that statement never became a lie for me. I never actually wanted to eat meat. Maybe a little bacon every now and then, but if I felt like it, I felt free to eat it.
In over a decade, I think the only meat I ate consisted of some strips of bacon, and a pinch or two of various things my relatives asked me to try.
I never wanted it, and so my decision never became a constraint. But the other day, two things became apparent to me.
I had been listening to “Back To Work”, with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin. And Dan, who is a Buddhist, had been talking about how many, but not all, Buddhists choose to be vegetarian. It made sense, he argued, that Buddhists would typically be the kinds of people interested in reducing suffering, and so would gravitate towards vegetarianism.
Now, it so happens that Dan is really into paleo. So, while he’s talking about this, it strikes me how deeply he’s aware of the suffering that killing animals causes. And it strikes me even more, that he believes that humans need to eat animals to survive.
So while he’s talking about animal suffering, the subtext is his belief that humanity is not a species capable of pure choices. Every decision we make implies some suffering, somewhere. Our very existence requires death.
He, being a Buddhist, regrets this, but is able to deal with it as simply a fact about reality. This is a very different idea than the pursuit of purity I had embarked on. And although I’m not sure how I feel about it yet, the existence of this entirely different concept was my first realization. And it led to my second realization:
I had learned all I could learn from being vegetarian.
It would be easy for me to go for another decade without eating meat. I wouldn’t feel like I was lacking in any way. But nothing significantly would change, and I would gain no new insight. In contrast, an excursion into an entirely new way of eating holds all kinds of realizations.
It’s tough, too. Most meat seems very gross, and even bacon isn’t as appealing as it first seems. I’m very wary of what’s inside things. I have no idea how there’s any sort of quality control. In addition, all kinds of people who’ve been inexplicably offended by my dietary habits are probably waiting to crow in triumph over what undoubtably seems like a victory.
But those things are just things, and point to the fact that there may be a lot for me to learn here. And it would do far more damage to my sense of purity, if I ever let pride or fear significantly constrain my decision-making.
So the other night, I ate salmon for the first time as an adult.
I’m aware that this is running in the opposite direction of many people I know. Many of them are just becoming aware of vegetarianism, and are considering it as a lifestyle change. It might be cooler for me to point out that I was an early adopter, and try to use that to increase my leadership points.
In addition, some people who admired my vegetarianism might be disappointed.
But I make decisions for myself, and I hope that those decisions always lean towards the bold, the risky, the experimental, and the uncharacteristic. To not do that, would be to become less of a human being.
So here I am, eating chicken, exploring new worlds.