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You Never Used To Be This Way

There are many reasons for becoming a vegan. Perhaps the most powerfully motivational one, and the one that produces the greatest passion, is the choice that stems from the desire to do no harm.

Recognising the sentience in other beings, accepting their right to their lives, and then respecting that life, can create a revelatory consciousness. If you make the choice to adopt a fully vegan lifestyle (one that ultimately eschews all products harmfully stolen from other beings) it almost becomes a personal mantra. There are no half measures.

Like religious converts experiencing their ‘road to Damascus’ moment, those who wake up to the recognition of the preciousness of animal lives, hold their new-found values dear. They wish to do everything in their power to act upon those personally liberating tenets. They want to make a difference. Whilst they may not be able to change the world, they can change everything that is within their control; and the obvious starting point is in their own home.

I have a friend who is just such a convert.

Recently, she relayed to me the tale of a forthcoming visit from a large group of her family members. She had offered to play host, throwing open her home, and providing a rent-free holiday destination for them all. But as the date grew closer and they were firming up plans, she realised she needed to make it clear that during the time they were with her, she could not accept any non-vegan foodstuffs in her house.

Their reaction was angry and negative and very quickly, things got ugly. Rather than pause for consideration, they berated her for trying to control their food intake choices and foisting her ideas and values upon them. En-mass, they ‘ganged up’ on her, trying to pressure her to change her mind, even using emotional blackmail by asserting “You never used to be this way”. There was no attempt to explore her reasoning or perspective. She didn't even get so much as an iota of support from another family member, who had himself (notionally) turned vegetarian!

Nonetheless, in the face of considerable unpleasantness and hostility, she bravely stood her ground and remained true to her convictions. Alas, the final result was that the long-anticipated visit was cancelled, and a rift developed within the family unit. I find this situation worthy of comment for several reasons. It is, perhaps, a salutary tale for all of us who are faced with situations where our vegan beliefs place us in conflict with our loved ones. You may, perhaps, imagine what you would have done had you been faced with this situation. Here’s my take on it:

I believe it is an extraordinarily insensitive person who enters the world of another and ignores or disrespects their beliefs and values. We may not agree with them, but it is surely a matter of common courtesy to at least demonstrate a level of acceptance, through our behaviours and actions, if those beliefs do us no harm. Granted, it may be jarring when we can see no logic, reason or purpose behind another’s value base (extreme, oppressive religious beliefs being, perhaps, a good example), and we may struggle to empathise with another’s viewpoint.

But is it a bridge too far for any of us to allow ourselves an imagined, exploratory trip into the world of beings we slaughter for food? Is it that hard to empathise with harmless creatures, dragged away from their homes and loved ones, only to be cruelly and mercilessly slaughtered for our pleasure?

My friend, in dealing with her family members, faced a group of people who were apparently unprepared to consider why one of their number might have changed their position, vis a vis the lives of animals. She didn’t demand that they change their lifetime habits for any more than the week they were due to be with her. She would have provided them with sumptuous vegan meals, wherein they wouldn’t even have noticed the absence of a living being’s flesh. They would have participated in a culinary adventure that could have been eye-opening. They would have had the opportunity to experience a week wherein they momentarily removed themselves from their tacit complicity in the theriocide that they willingly participate in for the remaining fifty-one weeks of the year.

Yet sadly, they seemingly couldn’t bring themselves to do that.

Instead they mindlessly chose to behave like spoiled children, railing against something that wasn’t of their choosing. They elected to put their stomachs and their intransigence before a basic consideration of another’s sensitivities. They allowed their habituated beliefs to overrule their recognition that maybe, a member of their kin was simply doing what she believed to be right. They didn’t allow themselves to look at their own actions and choices, or question their own values. Instead, they elected to drive a wedge into a previously happy and loving family unit.

Let’s not forget the “you never used to be this way” accusation they levelled at my friend…

Of all the stupid and inane things they could have said, this maybe tops the bill. Why on earth would they imagine that she would be the same as she used to be? Is it not fundamental to all of us, that as we progress through our lives, we change and grow and evolve? Do they imagine that development stops when a certain age is reached? Are they really that stupid a group?

Perhaps what is really behind this glib phrase is vested interest coming into play. We all like others to be as we believe we know them. We fix them at a certain point in time and want them to stay that way. (Perhaps it is only when we live in close proximity to others that we allow them to change without rancor; and then, only because, like infants who grow taller before our eyes, we fail to notice their growth, until something forces recognition upon us.) This group wanted my friend to be the same person they had fixed her as, because that best served their purpose. It would allow them to believe they fully understood her, and that person could be manipulated so as to allow them to get their own way under the circumstances.

Let’s be honest here. We may like to imagine that we know people well, particularly those closest to us. But we don’t. Not unless we pay considerably more attention than most family relationships allow for. Therefore, we can only conjecture, and hopefully demonstrate empathy and acceptance when somebody doesn’t quite fit the mold we had envisaged for them. To demand otherwise is surely unrealistic, naïve and disrespectful of anyone’s need/right to become the person they intended to be. Yet that’s what this family was trying to do to my friend.

And what about that family member who didn't speak up in support of my friend?

I understand that some people like to avoid conflict. I get that to be contentious can damage personal popularity and reduce influence. I know that to go against the flow can be threatening. But is it really right, when somebody ostensibly shares the same beliefs that we do, to not support them when they find themselves under attack? And my friend was under attack.

If you make the choice to go vegan or vegetarian for the (rather selfless) reasons outlined above, is it not beholden upon you to stand up and be counted? If you too are trying to do your bit to end theriocide, why would you not come to the aide of another who was taking steps to achieve that end; especially when the circumstances are hardly life threatening for you? To abandon one in need of support, to me, demonstrates a certain moral cowardice, and frankly, a rather lame commitment to ending animal suffering. Then again, perhaps this individual’s reasons for becoming vegetarian were not so pure. So, what can be concluded from all of this? Well, I believe this, or something similar, could have happened to anyone who has the strength of mind to go it alone and be true to their convictions. This is not the first situation I have come across where those we trust most, behave poorly when their comfort zones about their loved ones are challenged. This blog is simply written in response to my friend’s deep and on-going distress at what has come to pass. She is reaping the not-so-nice rewards of demonstrating courage and integrity, and standing up for what she believes in. It would have been much easier for her to cave in to the pressure and acquiesce to her family’s demands. But she didn’t.

Make no mistake, this is how people make a difference. Nothing happens when we sit on the sidelines, pretending that all is well, and ignoring that which is within our power to influence. My friend, in this situation, is a hero.

As for her family…  shameful and thoughtless as their responses may be, they are not untypical. Disappointing for me personally, is that I have met many of them, and found them to be (very) intelligent, sensitive people, who one might otherwise have expected better from. I doubt very much that they recognise the stress and hurt their unthinking self-focus, in these circumstances, has wrought upon my friend. I consider it an egregious level of selfishness on their part to run roughshod over the (obviously) deeply held values of one of their kin, irrespective of how different she may have been in the past. To ignore (or at best, fail to) accept her sensitivities, particularly when her viewpoint is such a kindly one, is stunning; more so when it comes from such ostensibly caring people. I can only imagine they found it threatening, as so many do, when faced with even the slightest measure of their culpability in unnecessary suffering and agony. I guess it’s their choice, and that has to be respected. But that choice sucks. They should get over themselves. 

I offer kudos to my friend for sticking to her guns. Her commitment and determination to do what is right may have been the spur that damaged family relationships, and the cost may prove high for her in this respect; but there is no fault on her part. We must all stand up for what we believe is right if we are to create the ripples of change that will impact the world; irrespective of the personal cost. Her actions should be an inspiration to us all.

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