17 years, 1 month and 12 days… and counting! What is it with me? Must I be so obsessed by detail? Maintaining such trivia in this fragile, yet asinine brain of mine is no trifling matter. It is done at great expense. We of course, are a balance of physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual energy – right? So a hegemonic cognition leaves at least one of these other domains squeezed and floundering. For me, this is where writing comes in. Writing is rebalance that allows space for emotion. I think. I think a lot. I endlessly think. But feeling is sadly reserved only for new experiences, for passion, for crises. Writing allows me to expunge my brain of the minutia of everyday activity and enables me, as my senses kick in, to ‘feel’ as well as think. I do have senses; I sometimes find reminding myself of this is essential to effective functioning. And when I do? Mindfulness results. I let myself out of my tiny brain and into my wonderful world, truly feeling my existence. Ok, a little ethereal possibly, but for lack of a more eloquent summary, writing gives me phenomenal head space to appreciate what is great and enables me to identify what is less so, as well as to understand a little more of both.
So here I am, 17 years, 1 month and 12 days on; I’m still a vegetarian. I’ve spent over 16 of those years bullishly sure about what I think based on what I felt then. How do I feel now? Do I still hold the same beliefs as I did then? Do I have any new wisdom to offer? What have I gleaned from others on my journey? Is my body really ok with this? SHOULD I REMAIN A VEGETARIAN!?! It is these questions that prompt the writing of this blog. I have read many articles recently on this issue and have found just two good ones, both I’ll no doubt be using a lot. Of course it is a selfish journey on which I now embark, but should you wish you join, you are most welcome. I doubt very much whether I will come to any conclusions or whether I’ll change my eating habits as a result of this exploration, but I will be very much more honest and robust in my beliefs, whatever they turn out to be.
So, having done my share of academic writing in the past, I know that starting by defining terms is good practice. Not that this’ll be anything like academic writing you understand, but in this blog, definitions will be essential. Vegetarianism is a contentious issue which evocates strong opinion. It is also not the singular issue that the previous sentence suggests, and therein lies the source of much confusion and misinformation. The plurality of this issue would be instantly obvious upon conversation with any group of dedicated veggies for more than 5 minutes. Be their motivation about animal cruelty, healthy, environmental sustainability, a spiritual principle or any other belief system, you’d be left in no doubt that it was very much a belief system in charge. Everybody makes choices about their diet. Vegetarianism is one of those choices. But choosing a vegetarian diet and being Vegetarian somehow feel very different indeed. As liberal omnivores delight in declaring, many people choose to eat a predominantly vegetarian diet. There are also however people who chose an entirely vegetarian diet without actually being Vegetarian with a capital V; because they prefer it, because it is cheaper, or because it is more convenient. Regardless of how sensical such reasoning may or may not be, the point is that these individuals are rare. Being Vegetarian is somehow about making a declaration to the world. It means that a stand has been made, a conscious effort made in the belief that you are doing what is right. But what does this mean? Vegetarianism is a political stand, but against what? Indeed FOR what?
Everyone draws their own line. My Vegetarianism means that I do not eat anything that had a brain and eyes. Thus I eat egg and diary and don’t eat fish or other seafood. My motivation for such choices has changed over time yet without being comprehensively challenged at any point. Of course by beliefs about food are challenged almost daily, when someone screws their nose up at my lunch, when I try to buy lunch and find there is nothing tasty or nutritious that I can eat, when I meet someone for the first time and again have to recount ‘my story’, when I read articles in the news about food security or ethics or, most powerful perhaps, when I’m with friends who provide role models. As I hope you can imagine, all this challenge is really quite exhausting. There’s enough reasoning, justifying and ‘standing up for’ that needs to happen in the world, doing so about what I choose to fuel my body with is really the last thing I’d hope for; but then why not? Food is important, indeed vital. It is not only a political issue, but possibly the most pertinent one of the current century. Maybe this is exactly what I should be investing my cognitive quota on? Having to field off the relentless enquiry into my dietary habits is really what I blame for not more comprehensively re-examining my beliefs on this issue any sooner. A realisation that this is exactly the issue that might most warrant my attention is what I credit for kicking me into writing this blog now.
Ok, we need some background. I was 19. I’d left home that September and was living independently for the first time. I’ve always said when asked ‘what pushed you to become veggie in the first place?’ that this opportunity was my reason; cooking and shopping for myself for the first time made it very easy. But I’m no longer convinced this is the whole story. For instance, did I even imagine being veggie whilst at home? I don’t remember doing so. If I had, I know my parents would have made every effort to embrace this, indeed when I have visited ever since, they’ve gone out of their way to support and encompass my rather alien diet. Although shopping for myself for the first time inevitably made the switch easier, I think it was only part of the story on the morning of January 16th 1995. Maybe it was my Korean flatmate at the time, who insisted on searing whole squid directly on to the hob and then leaving it on the side for days to go chewy. Not a pleasant sight or smell, but surely not enough in isolation to push me towards a lifetime devoid of meat? At that time in my life I was meeting wonderful, worldly, informed and passionate people. University, for me, was a major awakening. I don’t recall any of these friends at the time being veggie actually, but they were bursting with a complex menagerie of political beliefs and ideas and I suggest that what leaked out in my direction was daunting, but Vegetarianism offered the most easily embraceable concept. I know that, broadly, I felt that I’d found my posse at last and that I knew I would be part of it in some way, clearly Vegetarianism isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to a politicised life, but I now think that it was the start of my forging an identity which opened the doors to greater social and political awareness. In addition to this however, I’m an extremely strong-willed person! I imagine that once the idea was planted, there was no way that I might not be Vegetarian. It is these two things; the fact that Vegetarianism is an integral part of my identity and the fact that I’m on the edge of being stubborn, which suggest to me that regardless of what path this blog takes, I feel it is unlikely that I’ll greatly change my dietary habits as a result. Having said this, my aim is to challenge the status quo, so I’m working on keeping an open mind. Having woken up on that morning and determinedly declared my new allegiance to all things veggie, the realisation hit me that even in 1995, it was still proper difficult in England to be a Vegetarian – this was not to be a walk in the park. I disliked Tofu, I was scared of soya, I believe Quorn was just getting going and there weren’t so many other veggies around to get tips from, oh, and I still hadn’t discovered Marmite! Oh, the barren world from which I came! As for going out to eat; the ubiquitous vegetable lasagne, if you were very lucky. This is where my strong-will became a positive trait. I would do this thing! And not be defeated, not even by the humiliating humour of my Grandad who decided, when first I visited after telling them of my veggiedom, that for lunch he’d serve up a plate of grass from the garden! Not funny then, still not funny now. Though not universal, this unsupportive lack of understanding was common place for quite some time to come. The point being, that although I was putting a brave face on and using my determination to get me through, the reason for bothering was still most definitely a belief, which was at that time yet to be defined, in the injustice of our definition of humans as superior beings to other animals.
This is a belief that I still hold to – the notion that we are ‘civilised’ and users of ‘higher thought’ and therefore are somehow more worthy than other creatures is beyond me. The fact that we are capable of these things is unquestionable, but I’d argue that the fact that we are failing in both is equally undeniable. We have turned our ability to produce ‘higher thought’ in to a handicap rather than an evolutionary boon. Our ‘superiority’ to the rest of the animal kingdom is a social construction used to justify our pillage. I remember being in my early 20’s and someone telling me (was it my Dad?) that as I get older I’ll become less principled and moralistic about everything, not just diet. My predictable response of course was ‘No, I won’t, I believe too strongly to not take action’. I think I was partly right. I have not become any less principled or moralistic. Sadly however, I have become more tired and pre-disposed such that I take a great deal less action. Ouch! This is an uncomfortable truth.
Although, not abandoned, this original drive towards Vegetarianism now rests nestled amongst a basket of other motivations. As my moral landscape has matured I can see much more clearly that issues do not stem from a single root, but rather the complex interplay of number of factors. It is this complexity that necessitates my reviewing of exactly why I continue to be Vegetarian. It’s unquestionably an animal welfare issue, but it’s also a social justice issue, an issue of sustainability, one of health and finance, one of identity, one of taste and preference, and most likely, though I’m yet to be clear about this, one of spirituality. Next time someone asks me why I’m Vegetarian I won’t be able to answer them; the answer is too big. However, by then I will have completed this series of blogs and so hopefully will have at least answered the question for myself.