After my divorce, the first girl I dated at all seriously was a vegetarian (lapsed vegan really; she was a great cook and liked dairy products too much to give them up). Interestingly, even though her father had become a rabbi at a relatively late age, she herself was an atheist. Her father, when he became more religious, decided that he would observe Hebrew dietary laws (avoiding shellfish, no milk with meat, etc.), and they bonded over their self-imposed dietary restrictions. In fact, it was her vegetarianism that had inspired him to keep Kosher. He told her that he admired her taking something (eating) she had to do by necessity and transforming it into a daily manifestation of her beliefs and her values. Her choice encouraged him as well to enact his religion every time he set fork to plate. Though they acted out different rules, father and daughter were each able to live out the best part of themselves a little bit each day by imposing what would seem to be burdens on themselves.
I’m not a vegetarian; I like meat too much and animals too little. I could go ahead and accept responsibility for my own callousness towards the wonderful creatures of God’s beautiful creation, or I could shirk accountability for my carnivory onto my upbringing. Since I prefer the latter, I blame my childhood pets: my first dog, a vicious poodle named Brandy, tried to bite my eye out when I was two*. My second, Coty, was fun as a puppy when she’d playfully teethe onto me and my little brother. Nevertheless, she soon became man’s boringest friend. Coty’s only moments of activity involved chasing geese, and as soon as a mother goose stood her ground and bit her, she gave up on that hobby. Her sole pleasure became laying on the AC vents around the house (or really just two of them, since she was too lazy to seek out a third). Neither Coty and Brandy taught me to love animals, so now I eat them.**
Wherever I lay the blame, like many meat-eaters, I’m somewhat conflicted about my dietary choices, since I recognize that some meat is raised amidst horrible conditions. Most of the time, I don’t worry myself as I chew happily away, but sometimes, perhaps when I’m eating meat that is bland and boring, I question my choices. I think it might be these very pangs of guilt that drive many omnivores to find vegetarians off-putting and to perceive them as being pushy and judgmental. I’m sure many are, but I think part of this common characterization is driven by a sensation of implicit moral rebuke that so many omnivores feel — the sense that vegetarians have faced the same choices as those of us who eat meat, have made better ones, and are now looking down on us for our failings.
People come in all sorts, and surely many vegetarians use each bite of broccoli to feel one morsel more superior to we who munch on bacon. But Cassandra*** wasn’t like that; she was just a nice person who didn’t want to eat animals. I never met her dad, but I’m sure he wasn’t trying to be a rabbi to get off on being better than people either. In fact, eating ethically meant different rules to each of them: If each felt like following these rules was a linear contest between better and worse, they wouldn’t be able to help looking down on the other, and it’d be a source of division. Instead, each of their varying paths brought them closer together rather than further apart. The rules they ate by weren’t a source of judgment they used against others, but just a fount of strength they kept for themselves, a way to each express their best selves which allowed them to become more close and not less.
I write this (very) long meditation on vegetarianism as an analogy to my own decision to donate a kidney. Sometimes I think that decision comes across to people as explainable only as some sort of vain way of asserting moral superiority over the rest of the world. It’s not that at all. Instead, I like to think of it as being like Cassandra’s vegetarianism or her father’s keeping Kosher. It’s something I’m done for myself, a choice that fits with my values and from which I can draw strength. It’s the right choice for me, but one that I hope draws me closer to the people I care about in my life instead of pushing them further away.
* My family kept him (yes, Brandy was a boy) till I was six.
** There was another pet in the midst of this, a goldfish my parents bought me after a moving episode of Under the Umbrella Tree. In it, one of the main characters (the gecko, Iggy, I believe) acquired a goldfish and loved her dearly. The happiness was not to last, however, as the fish passed on (as goldfish are wont to do), which allowed the characters the privilege of hosting a stirring funeral as Iggy’s fish swirled bravely down the toilet. This made me ask for a goldfish of my own. My parents acceded, but to their horror, soon discovered that what I wanted (uncaring to animals even at the age of five) was not a beautiful goldfish but instead a beautiful goldfish funeral. The fish (who I don’t know if we ever even named) soon obliged by dying due to what I can only assume was either lack of love by me or gentle poisoning by my parents.
*** Name changed for privacy
(For those not following me on Twitter and surprised that I’m posting this post-surgery, sadly my surgery got bumped a week to next Tuesday because the recipient came down with a (I think minor) illness. Surgery delayed is not surgery denied, however, and this is just a temporary hiccup before donating.)
(Previous posts in this series can be found (in order) here and here)