The Irony of Being a Vegetarian
To me, "community" represents a connection among people, in particular a connection that is deeper than a common task or interest that they might be engaged in. It is deeper, even, than emotional ties, although emotions are usually associated with the connection. The bond within families, for example, is often deeper than words can express. Indeed, community is often described as "feeling like family." There is an openness and a vulnerability in members of a community, a trust not only in each other but in the relationship. Whatever the ups and downs of community life, there remains a respect for each other and a recognition of interdependence among the members.
This deep sense of community, extended infinitely, becomes for me a recognition that all of lifeóeven all of creationóis "family." I can find no stopping place, no delimiting characteristic, beyond which I cannot find a relationship to a being or a thing. A stone is made out of elements some of which are in my body as well, and it behaves according to an order in the universe that governs my own. The sun is not simply a ball of fire that appears in the sky every day and provides me with light to see; it is an active part of Life itself, indispensable to the process through which I came to exist. The DNA in a leaf of lettuce bears a remarkable resemblance to that which describes my body. My vital organs are to a great degree literally interchangeable with those of another person.
So where do I end and you begin? In a sense, I am but an event, part of an ongoing process, blooming like a flower in one moment and fading away to compost in the next. The minerals from my body are eventually taken up into the body of another creature. A single cell from my body has joined with a single cell from another body to create a third body, a living person whose DNA is almost indistinguishable from mine. The biological distance between me and a Pashtun child is a nitpicking matter of space and time.
Even my dog, with whom I have lived for eight years, shares with me an enormous amount of psychological as well as physical experience. We communicateónot as easily as either of us wants sometimes, but well enough that we each know frequently what the other is feeling. And both of us acknowledge a bond that links us together. No charge of anthropomorphism can deny the love that we share.
So, separateness becomes for me an arbitrary and fuzzy distinction. I can read about a horrible act that some stranger has done, and feel immediately that he or she is "other"óthat is, somehow "not me." I have known fear and hatred and pity for other people, thus denying my relationship with them, my identity with them. I am denying in me what I condemn in them, for I am not different from them except in experience, and in minor ways in biology.
My problem is that "I" am also a product of social and psychological forces, many of which prompt me to draw that distinction between me and other, at places that are detrimental to me. I avoid people who are different in appearance from those who have formed my sense of safety and pleasure throughout my life, and thereby reduce my opportunity for the long-sought experience of community. I turn away from a dear friend because I perceive in his behavior a slight, as evidence that he does not value me as much as I valued himóand our affection becomes simply a trade of compliments. My awareness of "family" is buried in hurt and resentment.
Some of my own behavior, even though it may be prompted by the sincerest of motives, pushes people away from me. To be specific, I stopped eating meat about eight years ago after a rather sudden insight into my deeper relationship with other creatures. I thought for a long time about where I could draw the line between me and other.
When I was a small child, my family got a chicken from a neighbor. My sisters and I were delighted, and promptly gave the bird a name, Penny. It became a family pet, and we children happily took on the chore of feeding it and making sure its pen was secure against its wandering away or getting killed by a passing car. My parents had other plans for the bird. One day, as we were eating dinner, my older sister put together the elements of the story, and pointing at her plate asked outright, "Is this Penny?" There was no denying it; our pet was missing, and our dinner was chicken. No one in the family finished their dinner.
My awareness, eight years ago, was like that. How could I cut into the flesh of any creature and casually thrust it into my mouth? I pictured one of my children, chopped into pieces and roasted in the oven, carefully basted. That picture was mercifully brief. However, when I tried to imagine other creaturesóour pet dog, a strange dog, a horseócreatures that in our culture are not served up for dinner, I had the same reaction of horror. I could not find the line beyond which it felt comfortable to look at my dinner plate and begin to eat flesh. I havenít knowingly eaten meat since.
One result that I didnít expect was that my new diet made others uncomfortable. For some it was inconvenientóif they wanted to invite my wife and me over for dinner, they had to adjust the menu. Iíve never argued the ethics of meat eating with others. I know that for most people, meat is at the center of their diet. They canít conceive of more than an occasional pasta meal without at least a meat accompaniment. The friends who have accommodated to my "difference" either go out of their way to prepare a separate entrťe for me, or they invite me to bring my own. Iím comfortable with either arrangement, but sometimes others are not.
I donít want to be "different." Like most people, I want not only to be loved and respected, but one whose company is valued. Yet my vegetarianism is not simply an expedient, a means to an end. I read Joseph Campbellís book, The Power of Myth, long before I made this decision. He said that it is one of the very basic dilemmas of humanity, that we must kill in order to live. That observation has a lot more meaning for me now.
Sometimes I do feel different, as though Iím from another country. I suppose that was true even before my decision. In my personal journey toward being nearer to what I believe in, I estrange myself from others. The irony for me is that itís all part of the same thing. My quest for community is intimately related to my not eating meat.
Perhaps itís as it should be. Life isnít simple. Itís full of paradoxes and ironies. To the extent that I can learn to live with that fact, maybe I can prepare myself for the really big questions.
Donald Skiff, December 7, 2001