I decided to become a vegetarian on Thanksgiving 1987. I had just moved out of my parents’ house and had a job washing dishes at a high-end restaurant called Veggieland. The owners had books in the kitchen extolling the virtues of a meat-free diet, and during breaks I would peruse them. Between the literature and the restaurant’s delicious vegan food, I began to embrace the vegetarian diet and lifestyle.
Discovering new foods such as tofu, miso, bean sprouts, and carrot juice was exotic for someone who had grown up on pork chops, fish sticks, and McDonald’s hamburgers. I had probably never even eaten a salad before I turned 18, but thereafter I practically lived on them.
My roommates and a few friends also became vegetarians around the same time. We would have long, deep conversations about the reasons that a plant-based diet is superior to one that includes meat. There is plenty of protein in legumes, so meat isn’t necessary. The human digestive tract is optimal for a plant-based diet. It’s cruel to the animals. And so on.
After a while, going meatless wasn’t enough, and I made an effort to live my ethos more holistically. I went vegan and avoided processed foods as much as possible. An almost daily trip to the local health-food store became mandatory, even though the organic food was three times as expensive as the chain grocery store down the street. I became convinced that the right foods, vitamins, or herbal supplements could cure anything that ails the human body. I embraced holistic healing. Not wanting anything to do with doctors or the medical establishment, I started treating my chronic asthma with homeopathic remedies.
I felt better physically, and I have to admit, maybe just a bit superior, too.
After all, I was stepping lightly on Mother Earth. I saw through all the phony corporate food advertising and knew that just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s good for you. I knew that soft drinks are addictive and that certain chemical additives can cause cancer. I was compassionate. I cared and was happy to show it.
I loved to engage anyone about my lifestyle. I’d explain how grazing cattle for beef ate up resources that could be used to feed the world and how horrible agribusiness was for the environment. I’d argue that it was immoral to make a sentient being suffer or die for food. My stepfather is an avid hunter, so we had many long and loud debates about that. Sometimes I would cite religious texts to back up my argument, which is funny considering I was an atheist at the time. If someone wanted to get on my good side they would identify with me. A jealous ex complained of my new girlfriend, “I saw her eating a hamburger the other day, and she didn’t even tell you!”
Once when I was giving my spiel to an old friend, he stopped me and said, “You want to be a breatharian, don’t you?” He was right. I longed for that kind of purity.
I was on a mission to proselytize. That must have been the reason I took a job canvasing for Greenpeace. It was there that I met the most sanctimonious human beings I have ever come across. After a few weeks it began to dawn on me that some of them would devote their lives to saving whales while treating their fellow humans like shit. That experience cured me of activism for good. I began to eat fish and eggs again.
As time passed on, explaining my reasons for abstaining from meat became a chore. Being the odd guy out with the weird diet became somewhat of a burden at social events and family functions. I hated to feel as though I was putting people out with special requests. And it was annoying having to explain to my coworkers why I didn’t eat turkey at the annual Thanksgiving lunch. Eventually I’d stop giving answers and just suggest they read Fast Food Nation or Diet for a Small Planet. I gradually stopped identifying as a vegetarian. My diet didn’t change; I just felt hemmed in by the designation.
A few years ago I attended a luncheon at the home of a friend’s aunt whom I’d never met before. She served turkey sandwiches for lunch. I didn’t want to offend the hostess, so I chowed down, and they were pretty good. After that I became meat-curious and slowly began integrating meat back into my diet.
At the same time I was reading about Buddhism and was struck by how Siddhartha Gautama, on his path to awakening, strove to overcome aging, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic and how enlightenment came only after he discovered the Middle Way. In other words: everything in moderation. I could relate to that. As an earnest young man I came about my staunch vegetarianism honestly. I really did want to alleviate suffering and thought that could be done by adhering to a strict animal-free diet.
In the final analysis it’s impractical and impossible to live one’s life without inflicting suffering upon another living being to some extent. Buddhists try by avoiding eating any being that is sentient, but what about plants? They’re alive, right? The fact is, we are all interconnected in some way. Without bees pollinating plants, you wouldn’t have the basis for a vegetarian diet. And not everyone has the option to choose a vegetarian diet—try suggesting to an Eskimo that he give up meat. I’ve come to believe that attempting ideological purity is folly. Breatharianism is unattainable for you and me.
I’m still a compassionate person who loves animals. And I wish to inflict as little suffering as I can upon this world. I still love tofu, but I also enjoy the occasional steak. And I adore the house cat that is currently purring on my lap as I write this, but if I were smaller than her she wouldn’t hesitate to eat me.