Home Columns Hold up a candle to light the way of compassion

I have been listening to a variety of perspectives recently about animal advocacy, veganism, and compassionate lifestyles in general.  The positions various authors have taken have been passionate and well-enunciated, including those of my friend Fernando Cuenca as well as in an article in a recent issue of VegNews written by Melanie Wilson.  While I agree with much of what both of these authors have said, I feel there is still a missing piece, a bridge that can connect those who favor a “complete” vegan lifestyle with those who may be just starting out or starting out again.

The interesting statistic we have all been mulling over is that there are three times more former vegans than there are current vegans.  This means that many people went vegan, then began eating meat again.  To current vegans, this seems incomprehensible.  How can someone have “seen the light”, then decided to turn it off?  Both Cuenca and Wilson take the stance that steps toward a vegan lifestyle are good, but they are only steps.  The journey is not complete until a fully vegan lifestyle is achieved and maintained.  I, however, proffer the following viewpoint:  ‘vegan’ can be equated with ‘compassion’, and a vegan lifestyle is a compassionate lifestyle.  However, I see compassion, and therefore veganism, as the continual work of one’s life.  In that sense, the meaning is in the journey, not the destination.

Wilson perhaps highlights the problem best when she states that “at the core of veganism is absolutism.  Its very definition embodies an all-or-nothing mindset.  So it isn’t surprising that many who slip up berate themselves.”  I feel that to define veganism this way is a missed opportunity.  If we instead define veganism as a path rather than the all-or-nothing outcome, then we are open to a great many more options in how we move through the world.  We must strive to be compassionate to all beings –  to not do so is not a personal failure, but the continual struggle that all humans face in squaring their actions with their ideals.  The vegan helps the spider out of the house rather than killing it, but if he kills a fruit fly, he is still a vegan?  He is if he realizes the act of killing and incorporates that feeling of loss, humility, and sadness into his soul.  If a vegan accidently hits and kills a squirrel on the road, is she still a vegan?  Yes, if she feels the loss of the squirrel and makes this loss a point of positive action in the future.  The act of moving toward the most compassionate state of being possible is the goal that vegans hold.  It’s not just the diet, it’s an entire ethos.  I choose to be compassionate in all I do.  If I fall short of that goal, then my personal struggle is not complete.  I pick myself up, dust myself off, and try again.  In that sense, being vegan is the act of continually trying.

What, then, of the “failed” vegans?  They are, like the rest of us, human.  We are a species that is evolving along with every other species on the planet, and our relatively large brains continually change.  I say to those of us who may be farther along on our path:  reach back and hold up a candle to light the way if possible for others in their struggles to move through the world in the most compassionate way possible.  If this were easy, everyone would be successfully doing it.  However, I believe that humankind has begun an inexorable swing toward compassion.  We see it in social changes, we see it in economic policy, and we see it in political systems.  We must foster, nurture, and assist this compassionate focus for everyone.  Educate, don’t berate.  Struggle and failure are different because one is ongoing while the other is final.  You haven’t failed unless you stop trying.  Be vegan in all your affairs – move through the world as compassionately as possible.  The benefits for you and all other life are worth the struggle.

About Eric Lagally

Eric Lagally has a background in physics and bioengineering and teaches science online at Western Governors University. He is also a vegan, a runner, and a woodworker, sometimes all at once.

1 reply to this post
  1. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for reaffirming that being vegan is a journey with many diversions in the path. When I was much younger, I used to think in “all or nothing” terms, but now I choose to place an intention of compassion on how I live and strive for that every day. And the compassion extends to all beings, including myself when I don’t meet my intention(s).

    If I sometimes kill fleas that I find on my dog or cats, instead of taking the fleas outside, I accept that I’ve made that choice and vow to try to be more compassionate in the future. The same is true if I am offered ice cream as dessert at someone’s home and choose to eat it, even though I choose not to buy or eat ice cream in my own home. I used to try to justify this behavior by saying I was being polite or respectful to my host, but that wasn’t what I was doing. I was choosing to eat something I knew was bathed in cruelty simply because I wanted to. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean I can’t and won’t act in more compassionate ways in the future. That’s what setting an intention is all about.

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