Extending the Circle

“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”
― Albert Schweitzer

People are often curious as to what “made me become a vegetarian.” They want to know what I read or learned or saw that was the turning point in my life. They want to know if I’m doing it for my health or for animal rights or environmental concerns. Sometimes they are simply baiting me so that they can extol the wonders of bacon and how they could never give it up.

Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between giving someone an honest answer and sounding like a condescending jerk. To the cynic, nothing I say is a convincing argument; and to the person genuinely interested, my reasons may sound judgmental of their own habits and lifestyle choices.

The truth is several situations coalesced at the right time in my life which gave me the opportunity, the knowledge and fortitude to make a life altering decision at a very young age. The most honest, simple answer is I have always felt a deep and profound empathy for all living creatures which has given me unique perspective on life. This doesn’t make me a saint, it just makes me aware of needs outside of my own.

A few moments stick out as the catalysts for my decision.

My family was celebrating Christmas, and I must have been around six or seven years old at the time. My grandfather had been roasting an entire pig over coals and banana leaves for two days in a hole he dug in the backyard as is the traditional method to cook lechón. There were probably 20-30 family members over at the house, dressed in festive attire sitting around the table anxiously awaiting to eat. The roast was carefully hoisted out of the ground by several men because of the size of the animal and placed on the table ceremoniously. They peeled away the banana leaves revealing the entire pig: head, eyeballs and all with an apple in its mouth; I was horrified and disgusted at the sight of it.

The juxtaposition of the dead body surrounded by people laughing and drinking and having fun, sharpening their knives to dig in was horrific. It was probably not the first or last time I saw a pig roast presented in this way, but it was the first time I remember making the connection that the roast we were about to eat was in fact a dead pig. I was overcome with the sadness and grief of death. I was crying, my family didn’t understand why I was inconsolable and didn’t want to eat; I didn’t want to open presents, I couldn’t bear to look at the table. The dead body lying there left a lasting impression on me.

“Thanksgiving dinner’s sad and thankless. Christmas dinner’s dark and blue. When you stop and try to see it From the turkey’s point of view.”
― Shel Silverstein

In junior high I joined an after-school animal rights club because I loved animals and wanted to get involved in doing something to help them. The club sponsor was a science teacher, and she had been vegetarian for over 20 years. It was the first time I heard the term vegetarian. I learned about the inherent abuse and cruelty involved in factory farming, and I was encouraged to write letters to companies that engaged in animal testing urging them to end their cruel practices. She emphasized that the greatest way to help animals was through compassion.

During one of our meetings a fellow student brought in a video tape graphically depicting a farm hand physically abusing a cow on its way to the slaughter house. I could see and feel the fear and sorrow in the animals eyes. That was the first and only time I’ve ever sat through a video of that kind, and I knew I never wanted to see one ever again. It made me feel angry. I understood the purpose was to expose the abuse, but I couldn’t fathom watching an animal suffer and not doing something to stop it.

The wheels in my brain were starting to turn, but I hadn’t made the connection between the abuse I saw in the video being perpetuated by the demand for what I ate for dinner. I remember feeling like I wanted to effect change, but I didn’t feel like my actions were a contributing factor to the cruelty I was learning about.

First year of high school, I was hanging out with a friend that I had an enormous crush on at Burger King. He had been following a vegetarian diet since his brother had converted to Hinduism a few years prior. As he ate his french fries, he spoke passionately about karmic energies and explained that by eating the flesh of an animal that died suffering that I was destined to also suffer. I was half listening to my friend as I ate my Italian chicken sandwich and half rolling my eyes because he had a tendency to get taken away by the subject. I must not have been listening to him as intently as he wished, because what he did next was fairly out of character for him.

He got up from the table and said that he was the ghost of the chicken, and I was responsible for his death. He bent his arms to look like wings and proceeded to flap and cluck like a chicken around the table, calling me a murderer. Something about the absurdity and truth of that moment was enough to strike a final chord with me. I put down what remained of my sandwich and was repulsed by the idea of continuing to eat it.

The lightbulb went off, the circuit was complete. I could no longer reconcile the love and empathy I felt for animals with the suffering I knew I was causing by eating them. From that day forward I never knowingly ate meat again. One could argue that a chicken dance made me a vegetarian.

I’m not a religious person. I’m not overly concerned with karma or souls or heaven or hell, but I know in my heart what I believe is right and what I believe is wrong. Because I believe that this life is all I have, I choose to be the best incarnation of myself that I can be. I choose to not eat animals. To some that may not be enough, to others that may be too much.

You can debate sentience all day long, but in my opinion a bee and a bison, a swan and a spider, a fish and a fox, a human baby and a butterfly are all equally alive; I’ve always believed that all life is special. One life is not more deserving than another. We’re all creatures sharing an experience on the same planet. Eliminating meat from my diet has saved lives. It’s a profound feeling. Maybe most people don’t care about the life of a chicken, or a cow, or a pig, but I do.

I care. I see myself in them. And we are the same.

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