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Why I Am Vegan

By Jeffrey M. Freedman

Being vegan is about more than what I do or do not eat. For me, it is a prayer, a petition asking why animals and people suffer greatly in a Universe created by a benevolent and loving God. The question and the answer both led me to a lifestyle that is focused primarily on abstaining from the consumption or use of anything that comes from or contains animals or animal products. Veganism is a corollary of ahimsa, the universal principle of compassionate, non- violent living, the a priori maxim of Judeo-Christian ethics and Eastern spiritual philosophies.

Veganism, for me, is not so much about dietary abstinence as it is about spiritual sustenance; spiritual sustenance that fills the dark and empty spaces I feel lost in when I witness animal and human suffering; anything that is an affront to what is Holy or good in the world. It is, for me, a lifestyle imperative that flows from my love of animals and a reverence for life I seemed to have been born with. It wasn't until I got to university, on my own for the first time, that I realized there was a disconnect between what I felt in my heart (love for animals) and what I was putting in my body (corpses of animals), and that my spiritual life would have to mediate between and reconcile the two. It did. I stopped eating meat and chicken and after I realized fish are not plants with gills, seafood went too.

Becoming vegetarian made me feel I was doing something to lessen the suffering of animals; or that at least I wasn't contributing to it. But it also felt like an inadequate-human- response to a spiritual dilemma.

I read something in the news this morning about the ongoing abduction and breaking of baby elephants in Thailand. They are taken from their mothers, tied by their feet so they can't move, beaten with sharp instruments on their head till they bleed and kept awake by loud noise, sometimes for days. This torture goes on until they either go mad or become docile enough to perform in circuses and tourist attractions.

Two blocks from where I live and work an injured pigeon has been cowering under a store ledge trying to avoid the prowling cats, blinding snow and wind and other urban predators. Hundreds of people have passed by and ignored him the way they ignored the mangled pigeon I found during one of last summer's most unbearably hot and humid days. He was attacked by a cat, couldn't fly, hobbled on one leg, looked unbearably sad and worn out. When I take these animals to the local wildlife rehabilitation center I am as much pained by the indifference of the people who saw their suffering and did nothing as I am by the suffering itself.

For anyone sensitive to the suffering of animals and people who cannot defend or fend for themselves, these are the things that rend the heart and are a call to action and a call to prayer; a call to action because to do nothing is to court helplessness and depression and defeat; prayer because, in an imperfect world suffering, which is a symptom of separation from the Divine, must exist. Prayer then becomes the last refuge of those who suffer greatly as a result of bearing witness to great suffering.

Being vegetarian felt like praying with half of a heart and half a hope. When I stopped eating meat and chicken and sometimes eggs and dairy, I felt empowered and in some way empowering. I was making a statement about what my conscience cannot live with and what my body can live without. Ironically, when I eradicated all animal products from my diet, my clothes, and every aspect of my life, when I adopted a vegan lifestyle, I was making a statement about my powerlessness. I was and I am admitting that what I don't eat isn't going to have a major impact on the suffering of the innocents or the violence in the world; that it would take more than my abstinence from eating animals to bring about a state of ahimsa to the world.

And so, like a fast at Yom Kippur or Christian Lent, I am trying to make myself ready to petition G-d to rid the world of suffering and violence I can't eradicate or change in any lasting or globally significant way. I am asking Him to do something about the baby elephants and the wounded pigeons and the broken hearts in the world.

I can't bring myself to ask these things if what I eat, what I wear, what I do knowingly contributes to suffering in this world. This means that all of the products and bi-products that can't be produced without causing suffering to animals, including meat, eggs, milk, fur, leather, wool, down and cosmetics or chemical products tested on animals, had to go. (I include circuses, zoos and all other institutions that confine or exploit animals in this list). To the extent they don't cause suffering, in any way, I consider consuming, wearing or watching them acceptable.

This ethical standard I try to live by is based on two things: my desire to decrease or at least not contribute to the suffering of any sentient being, and the interrelatedness and common origin of all life on Earth. If she, he or it suffers, I suffer. What constitutes suffering, as far as I understand it and the way most Buddhist's define it, is that everything/everyone wants to live and nothing/no one wants to feel pain. Anything that causes pain or death causes suffering.

Veganism, for me, is asking G-d to do what I am incapable of doing. Why G-d's creation suffers and how and when this suffering will cease is a question that has always tormented me; a mystery only G-d has the answer to. I had to become vegetarian before I felt worthy of asking the question; vegan before I felt worthy of receiving the answer. The longer I live vegan, the more it seems this is the answer.

Copyright © Jeff Freedman 2003

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