I grew up eating standard American fare: turkey sandwiches, ice cream, and hamburgers. I didn’t necessarily choose these foods. They were chosen for me. Nobody told me what they were made from, and when I asked, my parents and the adults around me either evaded the question entirely or deceived me completely. Early on, I learned that animals were arbitrarily categorized in our society – into those worthy of our compassion and those undeserving of it because they happen to be of a particular species or bred for a particular use. Puppies good. Calves food.
As a child, I was taught that my dog was worthy of love and affection, but the animals, whose dismembered bodies covered my dinner plate and who are as capable of feeling pain and fear as any dog, cat, or human, were worthless. I was taught that the injured bird who was lucky enough to fall into my yard was worth saving, but the chickens and turkeys who I was deceptively told “gave their lives for me” were valuable only in so far as their flesh was tender and juicy. Chickadees friends. Chickens dinner.
When I discovered what had been methodically hidden from me for so long, I stopped eating animals and their eggs and milk. I “became vegan.” For the first time, I was able to truly manifest the innate compassion with which I had been born, and it was a profound and liberating experience. However, people didn’t quite react the same way they did as when I was a child. Helping fallen baby birds or taking in stray animals were considered admirable childhood pursuits, but when that very same compassion followed me into adulthood and extended to pigs, cattle, chickens, and other animals killed for human consumption, it was met with hostility and suspicion. The message was: Limited compassion good. Unconditional compassion bad.
The day I discovered my role in this socially sanctioned dynamic of selective compassion was the day I woke up – literally. A veil was lifted from my eyes and heart, and I saw the immense suffering and terror that billions of animals experience every moment of every day, for naught but satisfying our taste buds. I woke up to the fact that the truth about the systematic exploitation and slaughter of animals was deliberately hidden from me – by my parents, by the media, and most certainly by the industries that make billions of dollars off the backs off young animals. Ignorance good. Exposure bad.
I also woke up to my own values. Having been conditioned to compartmentalize my compassion and suppress my mercy for animals, my lifestyle – as a non-vegan – was not truly reflecting my principles of nonviolence, simplicity, and kindness. I couldn’t imagine hurting another living being, and yet I was paying someone else to do it for me. Once I knew, once I was a witness, I couldn’t but act, and the natural response was to stop participating in a system that commodifies and kills animals for human pleasure. Living fully awake can be painful; after all, ignorance is indeed bliss – but only for those who aren’t the victims. However, I wouldn’t trade the heartbreak for all the world. After all, only an open heart can break.
A myth that prevails in our society is that being vegan is restrictive and limiting, which could not be farther from the truth. Being vegan is being about the willingness to know, the willingness to explore, the willingness to experience what is painful but true. It’s about evolving, participating, and taking responsibility, and I can’t think of anything more expansive than living in such a way. On the contrary, when confronted with the truth about our perception and treatment of animals raised for human consumption, many of us say “I don’t want to know” or “I don’t want to look,” implying a willingness to limit knowledge, restrict compassion, and cut ourselves off from the truth. To my mind, that’s limiting. That’s restrictive.
Despite assumptions and misperceptions, being vegan is not about deprivation or sacrifice. It’s not about asceticism or martyrdom, and it’s not about being perfect or pure. Though vegans try to avoid all animal products, it can be difficult to try and shun every hidden animal-derived ingredient, as they show up in so many items, from car tires to glue. But that’s not the goal. The goal is not become a 100% certified vegan. There is no such thing. The world is too imperfect for that. Being vegan is not an end in itself; it is a means by which to prevent cruelty, suffering, and violence, and it is a powerful and gratifying way to live.
When I was a child, I acted compassionately without any thought – as if I didn’t know any better than to respond to those who needed my help. It just came naturally. Now that I’m an adult, I act compassionately with thought, and I regret only that the innocent kindness of a child is valued more than the informed kindness of an adult. Though the process of desensitization was full and complete by the time I was a young adult, I’m grateful it was not irreversible. Despite every message I received that encouraged me to abandon my empathy for animals on the threshold of adulthood, I willfully and willingly rebelled. I continue to defy anyone who insists that there is something wrong with Equal Opportunity Compassion. If that’s the worst thing I can be accused of, then I wear that criticism with pride, and I fully embrace what I hope will be my legacy: unabashed, unfettered, unconditional compassion.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau founded Compassionate Cooks to empower people to make informed food choices and to debunk myths about eating vegan. Through cooking classes, podcasts, articles, recipes, and her first-of-its-kind cooking DVD, she shares the joys and benefits of a plant-based diet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau