Wednesday, August 13, 2014
The Sadness and the Power of Knowing...
It’s interesting to me that even after being vegan for nearly twenty years, a simple question can still create such an unintentionally fervent storm within: What is the hardest part about being vegan? I think the people asking this would expect vegans to say that it’s most difficult to eat out, that family meals are problematic, that Thanksgiving is a pain, and it’s true, sometimes different situations can present challenges but they are usually more of an annoyance than a true impediment.
I was reminded of this recently when we posted this same question on the Vegan Street Facebook page and of the hundreds of responses we received, again and again we heard that the hardest part of being vegan is knowing what is inflicted upon animals - by the year, by the day, by the minute, in real time as we sit at our computers or brush our teeth - and needing to continue carrying on with our lives despite knowing this. There is an emotional bluntness that can be hard to mute when we’re asked this question, yet we’ve learned that the truth is too real for most people to hear about so we dance around a candid depiction of our experience. We water it down with a message that is more palatable. We change the subject because speaking about this honestly to anyone who is not vegan will likely not be understood. We keep our composure when we feel like crying. (Or we try to do that, at least in public.) We move on. Despite this, for many of us, the hardest part of being vegan is in the knowing.
It’s knowing what we know and realizing that we have to carry on with our own lives even as these other innocent lives are filled with completely needless torment and suffering. It’s knowing that gentle calves are torn from their mothers and when this happens, more than 100,000 times each day, their mothers often bellow and mourn in ways we can’t even imagine, and the cycle continues until they no longer produce enough milk and it’s time for them to become cheap meat. It’s talking about this to someone who is eating a salad sprinkled with cheese, being able to see the destroyed mothers and babies in the cheese that is not visible to most others, and remain composed.
It’s knowing that newly hatched male layer chicks are destroyed because they are worthless to the industry. It’s knowing that their mothers continue their cycle of laying egg after egg until they are depleted and then they must also become cheap meat. It’s knowing the fate of their female chicks and seeing billboards for .99 breakfast biscuits on our way to work, advertised on the subway, on the fast food bags blowing out of the garbage cans as we walk past.
It’s the beaks, tails, horns, testicles and whatever else that’s inefficient cut off and tossed out without anesthesia or follow-up care; it’s the ear tags, notches, tattoos and branding. It’s the castration and it’s the rape, day in and day out. It’s the numbing ubiquity of their commodification. It’s the sheer, paralyzing immensity of the violence and the deeply embedded habits that make people blind to it. Knowing all this is how an innocent question becomes an unavoidably prickly one.
Still, we live our lives because there is no pressing pause on the world as it is, on things as they are, so we continue on as best we can, knowing what we know, seeing what we’ve seen, trying to change hearts and minds as we go. It’s painful and most of the time I shut the ugliness out of my mind because I don’t know how I could live effectively if I didn’t. There is no un-knowing it, though. It’s always there, just below the surface, at the ready. It can spring out like a jack-in-the-box when we hear someone make a bacon joke, if anyone boasts about their cage-free eggs, when our mother-in-law asks if she can take her grandson to McDonald’s but also when someone asks us for vegan recipes, for alternatives to zoos, if we can give them information about the dairy industry. No matter the context, this knowing is there, it is part of us.
The bright side to knowing is the empowerment that comes from also knowing that we are not contributing to the violence and offering the example of another way of living. When people are on the precipice of going vegan, I think often they fear what they think their lives may look like, living in a world that is so profoundly enmeshed in exploitation, of feeling the vulnerability that comes with being different. This fear of vulnerability can cause people on the edge to back up and close off. What they are not seeing, though, is that despite the pain that comes from knowing, there is a tremendous opportunity to transcend business as usual, and in this transcending, they will reap countless rewards. It is scary to expose ourselves to knowing, though, and it’s also scary be on the verge of breaking with the status quo. This is why I feel that knowing what we know is at once our greatest vulnerability and, ironically perhaps, also our greatest strength. As with so much in life, there is a price to pay with moving outside of one’s comfort zone, with knowing, with being vulnerable. When the alternative is sealing off our hearts, living in denial, and limiting our growth to make others comfortable, it is a price well worth paying and I am grateful to be able to pay it every day.
While I write this, cows are forcibly impregnated. Chickens are stressed as they are put through forced molting. Babies are pulled from their mothers. Aquatic life suffocates in massive nets that dredge the ocean. Animals are trucked to slaughterhouses. Bolts are shot into brains. Throats are slit. This is happening at this moment and there is no getting around that. The best we can do is help people awaken to it and empower them to take positive actions. Yes, it is lousy to know. The alternative, though? It is immeasurably worse.
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