You all may or may not have noticed that it’s been several years since I last updated this blog. First off, yes, I am still vegan. In fact, I celebrated my 10-year vegan anniversary in March! I’ve also had some big changes in my life, one of which, in particular, has been kind of an interesting test of my some of the advice I posted in an earlier post. First, I’ve gotten divorced. I’m really happy about it, and it is definitely the right thing for me, so… yay! Second, I’ve moved to Portland, Oregon. Third, I am dating (and living with) someone new… AND HE EATS MEAT!
So, am I taking my own advice?
For the most part, I think, yes. My new partner doesn’t eat a lot of meat (he does live in Portland.) He’s familiar with and likes lots of vegan food (the guy was buying nutritional yeast long before I came into the picture). He doesn’t eat much in the way of factory farmed meat (pepperoni on pizza and the occasional burrito are his only real exceptions). When we eat out together, he tends to get vegan stuff, even though he certainly doesn’t have to. His big thing is salmon. He doesn’t buy it often, but when he does, he cooks it up in a skillet, and it’s super gross. I tried to cook tofu in the skillet after he’d cooked salmon in there once, and I had to chuck the tofu because it smelled of salmon and made me gag. So then I went out and bought my own vegan skillet, and that’s been that.
I do think my partner is eating less meat and animal products with me around, which is a net positive for the animals. He also thinks critically about his meat and animal product consumption, which I think is important. We’ve been able to have discussions about the ethics of eating animal products, and I’m pleased to say that they’ve been honest and almost pleasant. I like to think that at least part of why I’ve had such a positive experience is the fact that I have been following my own advice. Sure, he gets credit as well for being a cool guy with an open mind, but I’m pretty sure our differing stances on consuming animal products would be a much bigger deal if I was really dramatic about it, or if I was constantly trying to actively convert him.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect. I would definitely prefer it if my partner went vegan, and it’s entirely possible he will one day. It does, of course, bum me out to see him eating meat. He can’t commiserate with me when I whine about how hard it is to find warm, non-wool winter socks. But now more than ever I’m convinced that being a reasonable, level-headed, sense-of-humor-having vegan is more effective activism than wearing lettuce bikinis or throwing fake blood. I understand why lots of vegans are angry. I’m angry too. I just can’t let it control my life, down to who I date and how I relate to them.
I guess this all sounds like I’m giving myself a huge, smug pat on the back, which isn’t really my intention. Mostly, I’ve just been surprised that despite me not having updated this blog in a really long time, it’s still getting hits and comments (some of which are super snarky – thanks, guys!), and I thought it might be interesting to share my experience, now that I’m in the situation I was giving advice about a couple of years ago.
Who knows, maybe I’ll write a few more real posts for old times sake…
And we’re back! For one post, at least. I’m now writing for Vegansaurus and working, so things be crazy here, but I’m sick today, and I’ve been feeling guilt about people linking to and looking at this blog without me writing in it. So, without further ado, let’s talk vegans and weddings!
Full disclosure: I’m not big on weddings. That said:
A discussion of vegan weddings really means a couple of different things: 1) Being vegan and getting married and having a vegan wedding, and 2) Being vegan and being invited to a wedding. I’ll start with the first, and we’ll see if I’ve had enough coffee to make it to the second.
First things first, if you’re a vegan getting married, you have to decide if you’re going to have a vegan wedding. This should be kind of a gimme, but if your future spouse isn’t vegan and feels strongly about having non-vegan food or drinks or other things, then you have some decisions to make.
My take on the whole thing is that if you’re vegan and committed to being vegan, you should have a vegan wedding. I hear a lot of vegans talk about how much pressure they feel to “accommodate” the non-vegans at the wedding by serving non-vegan food. Families can be tough, and the merging of two families together can be even tougher, but I’m a firm believer that the wedding is a great time to establish the way you want to relate to your new extended family and social circle as a married couple, so it’s time to do some (gentle and loving) whip cracking. After all, to my knowledge, no one has ever died from attending a vegan wedding, and it’s your day, so do what makes you happy! Hell, if I can run away to another country and get married to someone I only knew for a couple days and not tell anyone in my family until later and they can still love me (and him)*, then not having chicken on the menu needn’t be that big a deal.
So, now that you’ve decided to have a vegan wedding, now you just have to deal with informing your family and friends, finding good vegan food and a vegan cake, and, well, doing all those other things that normal people who aren’t me do when they get married. I can’t advise you on the other stuff, but I can give some tips on how to deal with telling and managing family and friends.
1. Hold fast. Once you’ve made your decision, stick to your guns. Your family or friends may try to tell you that you’re being selfish, or that your Aunt Gertrude needs to eat meat at every meal because she suffers from chronic meat deficiency syndrome, or that it’s unfair that you push your puritanical, no-fun morals onto everyone, and when they say those things, you need to take a breath, and calmly tell them that you’re not being selfish; you’re just planning the wedding you want to have, that Aunt Gertrude certainly will not die if she does not eat meat at every single meal and neither will anyone else, and that you’re not pushing your morals on anyone; you’re just, again, trying to have a wedding that will make you happy, and isn’t that what matters, mom/dad/brother/aunt/cousin/friend? That is to say, it’s your wedding. You’re allowed to choose to have it vegan if you want.
2. Don’t freak out if people give you shit about it. Chances are, there will be at least one person who you invite to your vegan wedding who will be kind of an asshole and give you some shit about the fact that you, as a vegan, are – god forbid – having a vegan wedding. If/when this happens, try to maintain some perspective. Remember, this is your wedding, not the asshole’s, and in the end, even if the asshole hates being there and thoroughly resents you having a wedding that fits with your ideals rather than theirs, it’s still only a matter of a couple hours out of their life, and those couple of hours are certainly more significant and important to you than they are to the asshole. If/when someone confronts you about your decision to have a vegan wedding, don’t get upset. Smile graciously, tell them that you hear what they’re saying, but that you’ve made up your mind to do things in a way that makes you happy. Let them know that if it really pains them to attend a vegan wedding, you won’t be offended if they choose not to come. After all, if someone is really going to be that much of a jerk about your wedding, you don’t want them there anyway!
3. Talk with your financiers. Weddings are fucking CRAZY expensive, which means that many couples have some financial help with their wedding, often from parents or family members. This is where the vegan issue can get a bit tricky. It’s one thing if you’re funding your own wedding and doing things the way you want, but it’s another if your meat-loving dad tells you he’s not going to pay for the guests to eat hippie vegan food! If this is your situation, the first thing you should do is talk to your backer about what their goal is for the wedding and why they are giving you the money. You don’t have to be confrontational or rude; just say “dad/mom/grandma/whatever, I’m curious about why you’re giving me the money for my wedding.” Hopefully, the answer will be something like, “I want you to have a beautiful wedding that you’ll remember the rest of your life,” or “I just want to make you happy.” If you get any variation on either of those, you’re golden, since if your happiness is really what they want, it shouldn’t be hard to explain why veganism is important to you and why it would make you unhappy to have a non-vegan wedding. Just make sure to emphasize that you’re not trying to proselytize; you’re just trying to do what will make you (and your partner) happy.
If the answer is more along the lines of “our family/culture/community expects a big fancy traditional wedding” or “It’s important that you have a certain type of wedding,” then you might be in for a harder sell. A lot of people feel like once you go vegan, all tradition goes out the window, and everything necessarily becomes weird and hippie-ish. If your backer is objecting to a vegan wedding, it could be that they’re simply picturing 150 guests picking at a wheat berry and spirulina salad and that that image is freaking them out. If this is the case, the best thing you can do is show them that “vegan” doesn’t mean “hippie” or “healthy” or “non-traditional.” Ask them to come along with you as you sample meals from the caterer, or sit down with some vegan cookbooks and talk about what kinds of recipes look appealing and might work for the wedding. Also, as much as I have SERIOUS reservations about any publication that runs a “wedding issue,” VegNews magazine does have a yearly vegan wedding feature. Your financier might feel better about paying for your vegan wedding if you can show them that it can still definitely be a fancy, traditional, fun affair, rather than a joyless slog officiated by Ingrid Newkirk.
4. Don’t take shit. Once you’ve figured out the details and sent out the invitations, if you’re like many people I know, you may start getting phone calls, emails, letters, and RSVPs from people who are gravely concerned about the veganness of your wedding. They may want to know if they can bring beef jerky, or if there’s any way the caterer could add beef to their food. They may just tell you that it’s unfair for you to push your agenda on them. Whatever they say, come back with a smile and a pleasant but firm reiteration of the fact that your wedding is going to be vegan. If people are that concerned that they will die from one meal without meat and animal products, they can 1) eat beforehand, and/or 2) not come. Let people know that your wedding day is important to you and that you want to remember it fondly as a joyous day, and that part of that is keeping it vegan. Assure your guests that the food will be delicious and not made up of 90% wheat germ and 10% raw tofu (oh, and make sure the food isn’t made up of 90% wheat germ and 10% raw tofu), and tell them that you hope they can come and celebrate this important occasion with you. If you keep the focus on how happy your vegan wedding will make you, then hopefully the detractors will soon begin to feel like selfish jerks and leave off.
Whew! Glad to be back!
*Absolutely true story. We’re coming up on our third anniversary!
I guess not everyone can have a perfect vegan partner like I do. I hear pretty often about people whose omnivorous partners are driving them insane, and I suspect that maybe, just perhaps, the omnivorous partners are also being driven insane, which isn’t good for the relationship or the animals. Therefore, this post is about being vegan in a relationship, tailored towards being vegan in a relationship with someone who isn’t vegan.
1. Figure out where you stand. For some people, meat eating or even consuming eggs or dairy is a dealbreaker. For some people, it’s not. Many people who say they want to only date vegans do end up meeting someone awesome who just happens to be an omnivore, while many people who don’t seem to care about only dating veg*ns end up in herbivorous relationships. Go figure. So, you can’t really choose who you’re going to fall for, which means that even if you decide you only want to be with other vegans, the universe may have other plans. The thing you do need to figure out, though, is where you stand on the tough issues like eating out (not that, perverts – I mean restaurants!): would you be willing to go to an omni restaurant with your partner? You’ll also have to think about your kitchen. Would you let your partner cook meat or dairy or eggs in your kitchen? What about if you move in together? What about wool rugs if you move in? Leather sofas? Yeah, some of these things sound anal, and they kind of are, but if you have a good idea about where you stand on these issues, they’re less likely to become fraught, stress-inducing big deals later on, so give it a bit of thought and come up with some well-thought-out reasons for your preferences. You’ll be glad you did.
2. Don’t be a harpy. Seriously. If you decide that you’re cool with being in a relationship with someone who eats meat or dairy or eggs or whatever, then be cool with being in a relationship with someone who eats meat or dairy or eggs or whatever. If you really can’t keep your mouth shut or keep yourself from crying every time your significant other bites into a chicken wing, then you need to go back to step one and be honest with yourself about whether you can/want to handle having a relationship with someone who eats meat/dairy/eggs/whatever. As I’ve said in previous posts, the very best kind of activism is positive activism, so if you do end up with a meat eater (or whatever), remember that harping on their eating habits isn’t going to help the animals; it will only piss off the person you’re sleeping with and eventually ruin your relationship. Instead, step up and cook for your sweetie and show them how awesome vegan food really is. If you present veganism as an awesome new thing for your partner to learn about and explore, they’re a lot more likely to, if not convert, at least be open to eating vegan and accommodating your vegan lifestyle.
3. Remember what’s important. It’s easy to sometimes let all the differences in diet and/or ethics take up too much of your relationship headspace, but it’s important to remember what a relationship is really about. Being with someone isn’t about making them the exact same as you. It’s about sharing your lives and experiences and having fun along the way. Yeah, it sucks that not everyone in the world is vegan (yet!), but until that glorious day comes, and heaven on earth is here at last, lots of vegans are going to be in relationships with non-vegans, and it’s important to remember that you can love people even if they do things you don’t agree with. Again, once you’ve decided that you can be with someone who eats meat or dairy or whatever, let that go, and focus on having great sex and lots of fun together. Relationships are supposed to be fun after all, so don’t let your difference in ethics and/or diets ruin the fun of your relationship. After all, while it may feel a bit weird accepting someone who does something you are so strongly against, you’re certainly not going to win them over by letting the veganism issue get in the way of all the good stuff in the relationship. In the end, you want to help the animals, but you also want to have a life worth living, so take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride!
4. Don’t put up with shit. All that lovey-dovey stuff aside, don’t let your partner bully you or make you feel bad about your veganism. I know a lot of people who have slowly backslid into eating dairy/egg/meat/whatever because they just were worn down by an unsupportive (or even anti-supportive) partner. You need to demand respect for your ethics and your lifestyle from your partner (just like from everyone else). If you’re going to make the effort to live with their dairy/meat/egg/whatever eating, then they owe you the same courtesy. If your partner really has that much of a problem with you being vegan that they won’t shut up about it, then it’s perhaps time to move on.
5. Navigate partnered-up social situations with grace. I know, it’s a lot to ask, but a lot of people stress about things like family dinners with their partner (particularly when it’s the partner’s family) and social situations with their partner’s friends. These things don’t have to be a nightmare, and with a bit of planning and communication, it can be fun (and even educational!). If you’re going to hang out with your partner’s family or friends, either call ahead (if you feel comfortable doing that), or ask your partner to talk to his/her people about vegan food options. You can offer to bring something yourself if that’s appropriate, or you can suggest new and exciting places to eat if you’re going out. Frame your suggestions as fun and exciting rather than acting apologetic. While you’re at it, frame yourself as fun and exciting rather than a downer. People really pick up on the cues you give them (especially when you’re meeting new people), so if you let people know that you’re awesome and that veganism is awesome, chances are, they’ll go along with it. If people do give you a hard time, just know in your mind that it’s them and not you that’s the problem, and do your best to change the subject whenever they start acting dickish.
We all run into them sometimes: the coworker or family member or friend or just the random person on the street who finds out you’re vegan and talks your ear off about how they only eat organic beef, or how they are vegan too… except for cheesecake and lobster, or how they are lacto-vegan or pesca-vegan or whatever.
In the end, you’re bound to come across people who try to co-opt your decision to be vegan. I’ve noticed a new trend among the “green” and “slow food” and “conscious” crowds to use the word “vegan” to mean just about anything. I’ve seen Virtually Vegan, which apparently includes fish, Lacto Vegan, Ovo Vegan… hell, even The Vegan Cook’s Bible by Pat Crocker (who not only isn’t vegan herself but apparently kind of hates vegan food and possibly vegans) is full of “helpful” information about how healthy fish is. Deirdre Imus, author of the Imus Ranch: Cooking For Kids and Cowboys, sings the praises of a vegan diet and how great it is for kids with cancer, but a good 2/3 of the recipes contain eggs and plenty of ’em. In short, veganism is apparently hot right now, and that means people are jumping (half-assedly though it may be) on the bandwagon. Good for the animals (sort of), but often a pain in the ass to those of us who go all the way and stick with it. Personally, I find these kinds of interactions awkward and often very frustrating, and really, I can really only very barely manage to refrain (most of the time) from finding and beating up some of the worst-case offenders I’ve come across (or at least calling them nasty, nasty names), but there are a couple things you can do to navigate these ethically murky waters more easily and with much less nasty violence or name calling.
1. Don’t take the bait. The easiest way to deal with a “vegan empathizer” (my new term for someone who is “down” with veganism and thinks it’s super keen but isn’t down with giving up cheese themselves but still magically can empathize with you – see? Much more concise) is to simply not take the bait. It can be hard, sure, to let those remarks pass you by without comment (“Oh, I’m vegan too! Well, except chicken. I can’t totally deprive myself!” “I just can’t give up cheese, but I’m pretty much vegan except the milk and cheese and yogurt and whipped cream and, oh, beef.”), but it can be done. Count to 5, take a step back, and evaluate your situation. Is saying something to the person in front of you actually going to help anything? Is it going to make them go vegan or convince them to stop using the term to describe their chicken-eating? If so, proceed with caution, but if the answer is no, then just zip it. Zip it! This goes double if your encounter is on the internet.
2. Be tactful. Yes, the VE is obviously not as evolved and compassionate and awesome as you, but that doesn’t give you carte blanche to get all up in their grill and yell and scream and act like a preachy, self-righteous ass. Remember, this person has done more than most people ever do simply by showing ANY kind of interest in reducing (or “improving”) their animal product consumption. Remember that every meatless or dairyless or eggless or nearly vegan or all vegan meal is a victory for the animals, and it’s them you’re doing this for (RIGHT?). If someone starts spouting off about how great their “happy” chicken or milk is, please don’t take the opportunity to go veginsane (har). Yes, it might be satisfying to grab them by the nipples and scream “Is this how the cows like it? How happy is your milk now, bitch?!” but it would be a really super big turnoff for someone who has displayed some willingness to evaluate and change their diet and who is therefore more likely to consider going vegan, so be nice. Offer vegan recipes and substitutions, or offer to go out for dinner with them at a vegan restaurant. It might bring you a little less instant gratification, but it will bring much more long-term gratification to the animals.
3. Remember what you’re in this for in the first place. Yes, those “nearly vegans” can be annoying and difficult to deal with, but if you want to do right by the animals, you’ve got to try and look at each VE as an opportunity for vegan outreach. Many people who have cut down on their animal product consumption but not gone all the way and gone vegan simply don’t know how awesome being vegan is, so take the opportunity to show them! I was vegetarian for 8 years before I went vegan, and I’m sure I pissed off a couple vegans here and there while I was still eating dairy and eggs. I remember feeling like being vegan was just “too extreme” and that a person like me wouldn’t be able to do it. Then I started dating a vegan, and I realized through his good example that going vegan was something I could do, and I did it. Next time you find yourself frustrated by a VE, take a second to breathe and calm down, and then invite them for vegan ice cream or to the bookstore to look at vegan cookbooks.
4. Know when to disengage. Sometimes even when you don’t bring it up and when you are nice and try to not really talk about it, sometimes people just don’t take the hint. Or sometimes you’ll start off trying to be tactful and polite, and you can see things going downhill. Or sometimes you’ll get into an internet debate with someone only to have things rapidly deteriorate to the point of someone calling you a fundamentalist crazy person who opposes gay marriage (what?)… Whatever the reason, there will be times when you’ll have to end the conversation, whether for your own sanity or to preserve a relationship or just to keep you from committing a violent crime. Some people are just content to be ethically inconsistent and will continue to pat themselves as loudly on the back as possible for eating “happy” meat or eggs or “ethical” dairy. Sure, we know there’s no such thing, and that’s frustrating, but if people want to keep their heads up their asses, they’re going to keep their heads up their asses, so there’s no point getting your undies in a bunch about it. The best thing you can do sometimes is leave them with an “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree” and hope that they come around. At least you’re leaving the door open if they are ready to learn more about going vegan later for them to come to you about it.
5. Refer them, if you feel comfortable doing it, to post number 5.
Okay, I didn’t forget to finish my post title. This one is actually about how to be vegan. I know all the people who read this are awesome, totally down vegans, but, well, maybe you know someone who doesn’t have all their facts straight or calls themselves vegan despite their nasty chicken wing habit… I’m not out to be the vegan police here, but I’m often surprised by the wide-ranging ideas people have about what vegan actually is and what it actually means, so I’m going to take it all right back to square one here and talk about how to be vegan. Okay? Good.
Veganism, generally, is defined as a lifestyle where one abstains from animal products. People go vegan for a bunch of reasons. Some people go vegan for the health benefits (though if they continue to purchase leather or other animal goods in the form of clothing or household items they’re not really vegan; they’re strict vegetarians – in my book, anyway); some people go vegan for the environment; and many people go vegan for the animals. There’s no right reason to go vegan (though there is a wrong one – if you’re thinking about going vegan to severely restrict your caloric intake or to hide your eating disorder, please, please don’t. See a doctor and get well!), and while there are many annoying theoretical debates about why it’s better to go vegan out of a deep commitment to the principles of abolitionism than to go vegan because you’re a non-hypocritical environmentalist, every person who goes vegan is doing a huge service to the animals and the planet (and themselves).
The thing is, apparently, it’s harder than I thought to go vegan. Okay, well, not really, but sort of. I notice a lot of people calling themselves vegan while they eat chicken or drink milk sometimes or eat eggs or whatever. I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone for whatever they eat (though if you eat meat or drink milk or eat eggs you are a bad person, just sayin’), but as someone who believes that veganism has more impact when it’s something that’s consistent and coherent, I am here to tell you how to be vegan, period.
1. Don’t eat meat. Seriously, just don’t do it!
2. Don’t eat dairy. There are a lot of people who have a hard time kicking the ol’ cheese habit. It makes sense, since cheese contains a chemical that acts a lot like opium and can be actually, physically addictive, but if you eat cheese, even once in a while, you’re not being vegan. My suggestion for those of you who struggle with dairy is to make a deal with yourself to not eat it AT ALL for three weeks and then allow yourself to re-evaluate. I know that for me, it was easier to start out as a vegan by telling myself that I’d give it a good, honest try, but that if it really sucked, I could stop after I’d honestly tried it. If after three weeks of absolutely no dairy, period, you’re still really craving it, then you can take a different route, and I’ll eat my hat.
3. Don’t eat eggs. I’ve heard people call themselves vegan who have had their own chickens whose eggs they have eaten. I don’t know if that’s really all that unethical, but it sure as shit ain’t vegan. For me, I figure that 1) a chicken can’t consent to giving me its eggs, and 2) I really don’t need them, so I don’t want and don’t need those gross little mucous pods.
4. Don’t eat any other animal products. I know it can be a pain in the ass to avoid all the animal byproducts out there. I know I’ve been nearly reduced to tears a couple of times when I’ve been stranded in a small town and unable to find anything but a jar of peanut butter and a banana to eat, and that sucks, but you know what? It also builds character (or I like to think so, anyway). Eating products that contain byproducts of animal agriculture supports the meat, dairy, and egg industries just the same as buying meat, dairy, and eggs does. Don’t do it!
5. Don’t buy leather, wool, silk, or any of that other crap. I’ve heard people say that the best way to “honor” animals is to just not eat them, which apparently means that it’s okay to buy leather, since the cow has been properly honored by just being skinned, but not eaten and can go on to cow nirvana with its cow dignity intact… or something. The jury is out on whether it’s a good idea to buy second-hand animal products, and while I’m often sorely tempted by biker jackets or boots (no, really), I just can’t bring myself to do it. I don’t think it’s really a bad thing to buy second-hand leather, but I also don’t think it’s vegan, so you can make up your own mind about that one.
6. Give it your best shot. Really, this post could be reduced to two sentences: “Stop consuming animals and animal products”; and “Give it your honest best shot.” Really, it’s impossible to be 100% vegan. There are animal products in damn near everything, from computers to bike tires to roads, to plant fertilizers. The animal agriculture industry has done a great job of thoroughly embedding itself in almost every area of manufacturing and consumption, and that can be a mighty depressing thing to contemplate, because even the most dedicated of us will never be able to become completely free of animal products. But don’t despair! Every person who goes vegan and stays vegan and acts as a positive vegan advocate gets us a tiny, tiny step closer to a world where there aren’t animal products in every damn thing. It’s a big job, yes, but it’s one that needs doing, and it’s one we can all do.
7. Don’t beat yourself up. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is the victim of mistakes or carelessness sometimes. You’re bound to have the odd bit of meat or dairy or egg slip into your food every once in a while, and while it sucks, it’s not the end of the world or your veganism. These unpleasant experiences offer an opportunity to get grossed out, suck it up, and renew our resolve to let it never happen again. Sometimes we can even slip some positive vegan outreach in when we accidentally get served the real chicken instead of the fake chicken. Take the time to talk to managers or staff about veganism and why it’s important to you, and turn a gross situation into a (still gross) positive one!
8. Be proud! I guess you don’t actually have to be proud to be vegan, but it sure helps. I’ve heard a lot of people attack the vegan “label” in my time as a vegan, and while I understand where they’re coming from, I wholeheartedly disagree. To me, being and calling myself a vegan gives me something to strive for every day. Every day that I don’t eat animal products and live up to my vegan label is a good day for me, the animals, and the environment. It’s not that I think anyone is a bad person because they eat some home-harvested eggs or have some fish or whatever; it’s that I think we can all do better. I guess it’s kind of like voting or like showing up at a protest. Yes, you can do many positive things without ever aligning yourself with a cause or speaking up for a specific ideology, but for me, aligning myself with veganism as a movement gives me inspiration and makes my voice louder and more impactful than if I were to refuse the label. Being vegan means joining a movement to make the world a better place for the animals and for ourselves, and that’s a label I can live with.
Apologies, folks, for the hiatus. You wouldn’t know it to read it, but I’ve been (inactively) working on this post for months! Today’s topic: vegan burnout.
So what is burnout? Burnout is essentially the hangover that results from too much work. It happens to a lot of doctors and lawyers and other over-achieving types, so it’s not surprising that it happens to activists and do-gooder vegan types too. It’s pretty common for people who have one “a-ha!” moment to have more, and before you know it, you’re no longer a vegetarian who gave up meat because they made the connection between farm animals and companion animals; now you’re a hard-core vegan environmentalist human rights anti-speciesist anti-poverty labour movement activist… and that’s okay. The problem isn’t having convictions and morals and sticking to them; the problem is when doing good becomes a draining compulsion instead of a life-sustaining passion.
It can be easy to work too hard and take on too much when we feel passionate about things such as veganism and animal rights issues (and human rights and environmental causes and community activism and political activism and on and on and on). Part of the problem is that now that veganism and animal rights (and other causes too – activism is hot!) have started to make their way a bit more into the mainstream, there are suddenly a lot more vegans and activists, which means there are a lot more ways to get involved, which means there are more things competing for your time, which means it’s easier than ever to get overloaded.It’s great to take an active part in fighting for animal rights, or agitating for environmentalism, or ending poverty, or pushing to stamp out sweatshops, or any of the many, many other very worthy causes out there, but it’s absolutely crucial to strike a balance someplace. If you don’t, you may wind up burnt out and eating a McDonald’s burger while driving your Hummer and sporting a fancy new fur coat. Okay, maybe not quite, but burnout does tend to drive people from activism generally and veganism in particular, so I’m going to tell you how to keep it together and fight for the cause sustainably.
So what’s a conscientious vegan to do? Well, if burnout is the result of too much work, it’s obvious that we need to cut down on the work we’re doing; but how do we do this in good conscience?
1. Be reasonable. Activism is way more effective when it’s sustained over a longer period of time rather than being concentrated in a short time, so figure out not just what activist activities you can take up but what activities you can sustain. Flaking out or performing a complete 180 on a cause you appeared passionate about just a couple weeks ago makes activists look flaky and activism look hard. It turns people off, discourages people from taking you seriously, and frustrates your comrades, so don’t be afraid to say no to commitments that you don’t think you can keep long term. Believe me, it feels worse to guiltily flake on an obligation later in the game than to turn down a request for help early on. Even if no one’s explicitly asking for your help, be sure to limit your own altruistic impulses. You can’t be a part of every group; you can’t go to every rally; you can’t do it all, and that’s okay. Accept your limitations as a human being, and work with what you’ve got!
2. In all things, moderation. You’ve heard it before about diet, exercise, booze, shopping, sex, etc. etc. Now, you need to apply the moderation principle to activism. I know it seems counterintuitive to limit your activist activities to be a better activist, but it’s important to think long term. Letting your life get taken over 100% by activism isn’t a sustainable way to live, so it’s better to devote a manageable and reasonable portion of your time and energy to some causes at a rate that allows you to maintain your commitments over the course of your life than to devote an unmanageable and unreasonable portion of your life and then burn out after a year or two (or less!). You’ll accomplish far more good if you devote 2 hours per week for 50 years than if you devote 20 hours for a year or two. You’ll also build stronger relationships with your fellow activists and get to see more progress if you settle in for the long haul rather than getting strung out for the short term.
3. Make activism fun. One of the things I hear a lot when I talk about veganism to non vegans is that it sounds like a real chore or like a joyless life of deprivation. That drives me a bit nuts because veganism isn’t just easy and awesome; it’s super fun! I go to way more potlucks and group dinners as a vegan than I did pregan. I’ve traveled all over the place, partly enabled by my network of vegan friends (who I wouldn’t have met if we didn’t share the vegan thing… oh, and an internet connection, I guess). I’ve baked cakes for movie stars (Casey Affleck – true story!). I love to bake and cook and love the “reveal” when I tell someone the cupcake they just shoved in their maw was vegan. In short, I love being vegan. I think it’s a joy, and I can’t imagine my life without that important element.
Before I get too annoying gushing about my faaabulous life (apologies), I’ll bring it back home for you: veganism is super fun, but it’s also super important. Being vegan is a huge deal and does a lot of good for the animals, the environment, and my health. Being vegan is good work.
The challenge, then, as activists (and vegans, and vegan activists) is to make all of our activism into joyful, fun activities that we love to do. It’s a lot harder to get burnt out on fun and happiness than it is on work and drudgery, so get involved in activist activities and groups that you find fun. Maybe your friends would like to start up your own group – then you can have activist meetings with pizza and beer, getting stuff accomplished while having a good time and building friendships. Have letter-writing parties! Organize benefit shows! Start an activist supper club! There are tons (sorry, Canada, I’m spelling it the American way now) of ways to do good that are also fun, so be sure to include a hefty dose of those in your activist diet.
4. Know when to hold ’em. What I mean by this is “know when to say no.” The activist community tends to be pretty incestuous, with the same people showing up at meeting after meeting of various groups. You’ll often see the same people at Food Not Bombs that you saw at the local dog rescue fundraiser that you saw at the protest rally that you saw at the city hall hearing on animal protection. While it’s certainly not a bad thing to be involved in a bunch of different activist groups and activities, it’s important to be able to say no. Activist organizers tend to recruit from groups that already exist, so the people who are the subjects of the recruitment efforts tend to be people who are already involved in one or more causes. It can be hard to say no when someone looks you in the eye and asks you to help out a worthy cause. It can make you feel like you’re letting people or the animals down, and that sucks. It’s far easier to smile and nod and agree to help out… that is, until it comes time to actually put in your hours with your new group. It’s never easy, but if you can pause and think for a few moments before taking on an activist responsibility you can’t handle, you’ll save yourself and everyone else involved a lot of grief… and extend your activist lifespan.
5. Lie on the couch. If you’re going to lead a long, healthy activist life, you’re going to have to learn to counter that unrealistic internal voice with one that’s friendlier and more realistic. All of the stuff I’ve said above won’t mean shit if you aren’t able to let yourself have a life, and this is where I have to get serious(er) for a second: if you aren’t able to say no, or if you feel compelled to take on every activist activity and cause you come across, or if you are running yourself ragged with 80,000 of activist work every week, you may have a problem. There are, unfortunately, a lot of people who come to both the vegan and activist communities for less than healthy reasons. Veganism tends to attract people who struggle with eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders, both of which also seem to pop up a lot in the activist community at large. For whatever reason, a lot of people who struggle for control and who have serious self esteem issues or serious problems controlling their impulses seem to find something they’re looking for in activist work, and what would otherwise be a rewarding and healthy experience becomes an exercise in feeding and enabling a mental illness. This isn’t to say that everyone who’s interested in veganism is an anorexic or that all activists are OCD, but if you find yourself really unable to say no or stop taking on new comittments or giving yourself a break, you need to find some help. Activism is about helping the world around you, not about making yourself sick or depriving yourself of what you need to be healthy. Being an effective activist will be a lot easier if you’re healthy and happy – and that’s good for both you and the animals.
Whew! Happy agitating!