Letter to a new vegan

A few times in your life you are going to take actions that define who you are. Becoming an ethical vegan is such a time. Other people will now have a new label to attach to you and because of this, they may treat you differently. It won’t always be the same: from the diversity that is humanity you can expect a wide variety of reactions.

Many people will be supportive. Even if they don't totally connect with your reasons for becoming vegan they will support your decision and often admire that you have taken a strong ethical stance. Hopefully, some of these people will be your close friends and family, but you will find allies in unexpected places as well.

Some people may feel that you have mentally taken a step away from them. People are often drawn to others who are like them, consciously and unconsciously, and you have cut one of those ties of conformity. Those who have little else but those ties in their social lives may not understand.

Then there will be those who will ridicule or actively oppose you. Though these are rarely the people you care about they can still be difficult. Some people have so much negativity within them that it cannot help but spill out into the world. These people may know few other emotions than selfishness, and the fact that you have taken an ethical step in your life, perhaps not to your own benefit, will be a confusing affront to their very being. You can and will endure them, and maybe even open some of their minds in the process.

Finally, there will be people who have made the same connections as you, people who just get it. Discussing your ideas about the world with them will feel like wandering across an oasis in a desert, even when you differ you will enjoy the difference and learn from it. These are the people you should join with in a movement to make a better world, but perhaps that’s something for another letter...

Most people will be a mix of the above, as such defined boundaries rarely capture the complexity that is humanity, but your relationships with many people will be changed. People will apologise when they eat around you, make assumptions about what your opinions are, judge all vegans by your behaviour, or your behaviour by some vegan they met one time, fuss over what you eat or wonder why you are making a fuss over not eating something. You now represent something many people do not understand and you will need to find ways to deal with this new label they will attach to you, even though you may feel you've simply removed a few ingredients from your diet. Couple this with the fact that you have decided not to look away from the cruelty inflicted by humankind in our world, and you will be dealing with thoughts and some negativity others perhaps don't. It would be unfair if your caring about other beings came at the cost of some personal happiness, so almost as a political statement you need to make sure you can channel negative energy around you into something positive, something that empowers you. That leads us from the changes in how other people define you to how you might start defining yourself.

Becoming vegan for ethical reasons is something of which anyone should be proud.

The Egyptian god Annubis was said to weigh a person’s heart against a feather on entering the underworld. If you can imagine yourself standing in front of him making a case for your destination in the afterlife, I feel one of the most compelling things you could say in your defence is that you have chosen to be vegan. Alas though our hearts may not be as light as a feather, becoming vegan is clear evidence that we are really trying to love in a universal way, that we can put the interests of others before our own. I always think to myself, if I have erred in this decision to become vegan, I have erred on the side of compassion. If there was any eternal judge worthy of reverence, they should understand and appreciate that.

I see being vegan in the modern world in the same way the Russian author Tolstoy saw vegetarianism in the late 1800s when he said “vegetarianism...serves as a criterion by which we know that the pursuit of moral perfection on the part of man is genuine and sincere”. As much as the word "moral" is unfashionable these days (and the exclusionary “man” unacceptable), I think Tolstoy divines one of the highest goals worth striving for as individual; that our life should be a journey of continual improvement morally, ethically and compassionately. I think the morality of the past rightly became unfashionable because it was too much about finger-pointing. When Tolstoy talks about moral perfection or progress I try to think not just about the failing of others, but also my own failings and how the two might relate to each other. In the words of the Roman poet Terence "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me", how can I be harsh on others for looking away from one issue when I know I look away from others myself. There are few heroes in the world, there is no completely cruelty-free existence which we or anyone else can achieve, but every step towards it is still meaningful because it means other beings breathe easier. Each personal step is also a potent form of activism, it shows others how to embrace ethical principles in their lives and thus offers us almost limitless potential to have a positive impact upon the world, that will live on far beyond us.

A quote attributed to Gandhi is “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. I believe this is aligned with Tolstoy, though talking about the societal rather than individual level. Collectively we have almost total dominion over non-human animals, around the world billions exist in sunless prisons and barbed wire enclosed fields. The lives of these unfortunates reflect the collective ethic of our nations more clearly than the stories we like to tell ourselves, particularly in children's storybooks and advertising, about our relationship with the rest of the animal world. Cut, killed, abused, their freedom taken from them in every way imaginable, no society based upon such suffering can be considered to have achieved significant moral progression. Changing society, of course, has to start somewhere. Each new person who chooses to stand apart from the oppression of others is especially important whilst we build our movement, and that's what makes it so consequential that you have taken this step. One day it will be self-evident that we should care about all that can suffer, compassionate food will be easy to get wherever we go, our products will be made ethically, and it will still be an honourable thing to be vegan then, but somehow being one now when it isn't always easy makes it a more beautiful choice you have made in this life.

So here you are, somehow you have done what others could or would not do, seen the injustice in our dominion of the world, and taken an active, positive step to reduce your participation in it. You have a new way of being in and seeing the world and though your journey is not over yet, just pause for a moment to admire the view from here. Most vegans see this as a highpoint in their life: the moment the veil of ignorance finally fell and they understood the famous words of the Buddha deeply within them "may all beings be free of suffering". The greatest regret of most vegans I know is that they did not do it sooner, but don't dwell on the past, be thankful that you finally did awaken.

I say to you with the force of the voiceless billions, well done my friend.