The Courage of Our Convictions

“True courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to proceed in spite of it.”

♣ Think about those people you consider truly courageous.   Who would you pick?  The first responders who rushed to the inferno of the World Trade Center?  The airline pilot who made a successful water landing, his skill and presence of mind saving his plane full of passengers?  The combat soldier who put himself in harm’s way to protect his comrades?  The mother who fended off attackers to protect her child?  In times of danger, in the midst of life-or-death struggles, when extraordinary courage is called for and proceeding in spite of fear is of absolute necessity, there are those who will rise to the challenge.  We are in awe of these acts of bravery and self-sacrifice, these instances of courage, and we ask ourselves if we would be able to do the same.  If we were put to the test, would we pass?

For many people, just getting through the day requires an act of courage.  People struggling to pay the rent or make the mortgage payment. People living in poverty, living with hunger. People who daily face violence, hatred, prejudice, persecution; who encounter racism, sexism, homophobia, and yet somehow maintain a courageous attitude.  That sort of courage is born of an instinct to survive, and is stronger in some than in others;   courage and hope can stand only so much abuse before they are crushed under the juggernaut of economic and societal forces far beyond one’s personal control.

“Everyday courage has few witnesses.  But yours is no less noble because no drum beats for you and no crowds shout your name.”  –Robert Louis Stevenson                                                                                                   

And there are those who work to help others in need; there are those who work to change the system, to make it a more compassionate one, a system which puts people before profits.  The majority of these humanitarians and activists seek no personal glory, expect no hosannas, seek no reward beyond seeing the achievement of their altruistic goals;  in fact, these people who devote themselves to making the world a kinder, more just, more peaceful place, often struggle against indifference or even outright hostility from the general public, and yet they carry on, they take a stand, they take action, because they know what they are doing is right.  They have the courage of their convictions.

Now think of those whose sense of moral obligation, whose courage born of compassion lead them to help non-humans — the animals.  They take action for the purpose of opening eyes and/or opening cages, such as the Mercy for Animals undercover investigators who have exposed, for example, the cruel practices at the world’s largest egg -laying breed chicken hatchery – Hy-Line International in Spencer, Iowa; or the Compassion Over Killing investigators who, in addition to documenting the abuses, also conducted “open rescues” at two egg farms in Maryland. There are, as well, those who liberate animals (without the use of violence) from research facilities, puppy mills, mink “ranches,” etc. These brave people, committed to freeing animals from their suffering, have put themselves at risk; they have not only risked getting arrested, they have also exposed themselves to witnessing firsthand cruelties and horrific environments most of us would want to avoid for our emotional well-being.

But one does not have to go undercover, break into labs or commit any dramatic act to to be an advocate for animals.  Being an ethical vegan requires an everyday sort of courage that is no less noble for lack of drum beats.  By choosing to be vegan for ethical reasons — and to be so proudly, strongly, openly and as a model for others to follow –you take a stand, you put your compassion into action.  There are various ways that ethical vegans can and do demonstrate the courage of their convictions. Below are some I have thought about. I’m sure there are many more.

♣ The Courage to Look

Whenever I participate in vegan video outreach at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, during a showing of Meat Your Meat or Earthlings or other videos which depict the horrific truth about the plight of farmed animals, there will be, invariably, those people who rush past, shielding their eyes or the eyes of their children, refusing to look. The images shown are, indeed, truly disturbing stuff, the stuff of nightmares, hard to watch.

But not looking does not make the nightmare world  of factory farms and slaughterhouses not exist.  There are,  of course, people who stop and watch; in fact the aforementioned videos are the biggest draw and allow us the best opportunity for leafletting.  Are these people mesmerized by the violence on screen?  Captivated by seeing images that are usually hidden from them? Curious to know how their dinner is “produced”? It is hard to say but I do know that some are deeply moved by what they have seen.  Their eyes have been opened, their hearts have been touched and perhaps they have taken the first steps towards a more compassionate diet.

“When faced with a choice between confronting an unpleasant reality and defending a set of comforting and socially accepted beliefs, most people choose the latter course.”  — W. Lance Bennett

Vegans have the courage to look at that unpleasant reality and then to look at their own connection to it, to see that they can make a choice, that they can choose to say no to those socially accepted beliefs about animals as food and yes to a more compassionate choice.

The Courage to Say No

 It is comforting just to go with the flow, to blindly accept what Melanie Joy has dubbed the carnist ideology that tells us that eating animals is normal, natural and necessary. Once our eyes have been opened to the cruelties and suffering inherent in animal agriculture and other forms of animal exploitation and abuse, it is incumbent upon us to reject this worldview, to say “No!” to the brutalization, the needless slaughter of sentient beings, each one, as animal rights philosopher Tom Regan argues, a “subject-of-a-life.” We must say “No!” to battery cages, gestation crates, veal stalls, stockyards, slaughterhouses. “No!” to the continual rape of cows to turn them into milk machines. “No!” to turning chickens into egg-laying machines. “No!” to debeaking, teeth clipping, tail docking, branding, castration. “No!” to merely bigger cages and yes to empty cages.

The Courage to Say Yes

 It can be hard to make a change in your life, even a very positive change. This involves leaving the known and comfortable for strange new territory. It involves opening oneself up to new possibilities, new choices, new ideas, new perceptions, new friends. We are tempted to think, “What have I gotten myself into?”  When we say yes to veganism and by extension animal advocacy (more on this below), we are often agreeing to a paradigm shift of sorts, a change in our basic assumptions about our relationship to animals; or we are affirming what has been there all along but we were perhaps too timid to fully embrace it.

The Courage to Care

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the “I -Thou” (or “I-You”) relationship which expresses the mutual existence of two beings.  There is no objectification in such a relationship, there is no thought of using the other, as one would in an “I-It” relationship. Ethical vegans care deeply about animals because they recognize an “I-Thou”  relationship with them.

But with caring comes the possibility of being hurt; caring about animals coexists with knowing how much they suffer, and many people would rather shut off their caring selves rather than experience the sort of psychological pain such knowledge can inflict.

There is also the problem of  not being able to make a personal connection with animals when they are viewed in a general, abstract way, especially if  we are talking about the billions of farmed animals killed each year. Most people do care deeply about their “own” pets and may even care about dogs and cats in general and many care about animals in the wild, but they have not widened that circle of caring and compassion to include the animals they call food, or at least not enough to cause them to change their diets and lifestyles.

Ethical vegans have the courage to care about all animals, especially those who languish in the misery of factory farms or even those raised in comparatively “humane” ways, only to have their lives cut short so that humans can use their bodies to satisfy their craving for animal flesh.

The Courage to Hope

In my previous post I wrote about the necessity of hope. Sometimes, though, things just seem hopeless, we are beaten down by the unrelenting suffering in the world. Sometimes it takes an act of courage to hope  in spite of it all –but then that hope must be turned into action.  And taking action keeps hope alive.  Vegans have the courage to hope for a better future for animals and humans. And they have the courage to take action to make that future a reality.

“Action is the antidote to despair.” –Joan Baez

The Courage to Not Have All The Answers

I have been a vegan and animal rights advocate long enough that I have had the opportunity to encounter just about every question that anyone might throw at me — first and foremost, of course: “Where do you get your protein?” and also, “Don’t plants also feel pain?” and “Do you care more about animals than you do about humans?” and “Weren’t animals put on Earth for us to eat?”  and “What in the world is wrong with drinking milk?”  But there are times when someone might have a question, perhaps something dealing with statistics which I, a dyscalculiac (someone who has an innate difficulty with numbers), am unable to answer.  At which point I will confess that I don’t know but that I will try to find out. We cannot know everything, be able to answer every question, meet every challenge.  But we do know the basics: animals are sentient beings, they are subjects-of-a-life, they suffer; it is unnecessary to eat them and in fact we would be a lot healthier if  we adopted a  plant-based diet.  We must have the courage to admit we don’t know everything   — but also have the courage to clearly express that which we know very well.

The Courage to Bear Witness

As people who became vegan for ethical reasons, for reasons of empathy and compassion, we must have the courage to bear witness to the suffering of animals.  We did not choose veganism simply because it makes us feel good or contributes to our well-being. One way to bear witness is to be proudly and openly vegan and then to explain to others why we are.  We can do this through conversations with friends and family or through volunteering with organizations such as Compassion Over Killing or Mercy for Animals to name just two of many; you can leaflet, do street theater, join in protests; you can write letters, make phone calls, start a blog. You can work with others to change laws. You can help out at a farm sanctuary. In short, you can be an activist, an Animal Advocate.

“Bearing witness means choosing to suffer. Indeed, empathy is literally ‘feeling with.’ Choosing to suffer is particularly difficult in a culture that is addicted to comfort–a culture that teaches that pain should be avoided whenever possible and that ignorance is bliss. We can reduce our resistance to witnessing by valuing authenticity over personal pleasure, and integration over ignorance.”
— Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

 ♣If you are new to veganism or perhaps on the cusp of becoming vegan, and you are feeling a bit timid, I urge you to consider what you have just read. Find the courage within yourself to fully embrace this compassionate, life-affirming, ethical way of being, despite whatever challenges may be present.  And know that there is great joy, great strength in being vegan. Know that there are many others out there who have made the ethical choice to go vegan, to break free of the carnist ideology. There is a community of like-minded people who are just waiting to welcome you into the circle of compassion.

“Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.”  –Henry David Thoreau

And if you are a Vegan for Life, as I am, I hope that these words have helped  to remind you of how much we need to carry on courageously and to help others, new to veganism, be strong in their decision — to act with the courage of their convictions.♥

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Love. Hope. Joy.

“Find A Place Inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”

                                                                                           – Joseph Campbell

I’d like to start with a personal story, one which is adapted from one of my monologues, Keeping Hope Alive:

In September of 2006 my wife, Kendra, underwent a partial hysterectomy due to degenerating fibroid tumors. One afternoon, after she had recovered from the operation, I came home and she said, “Honey, sit down.” A pathology report  had come back and it revealed an endometrial sarcoma — a form of uterine cancer.  Kendra  handled the news much better than I.  A complete hysterectomy followed in November and then the endless rounds of chemo and surgical procedures.  But we always kept hope alive. At one point we thought we had it licked, with a PT Scan showing no detectable cancer cells.  But the cancer came back and moved up to her lungs.

On July 11, 2008, I took her to the oncologist to discuss putting her on a phase 1 clinical trial drug. However, after hearing how labored Kendra’s breathing was, he said she needed to go straight to the ER.

We were in ER most of the day and then she was put in one hospital room and then another where she was monitored and had to wear a breathing mask. Several x-rays and a CT scan had already been taken and after studying these, the resident oncologist told us that the cancer had progressed to such a point that all we could do was make her as comfortable as possible, put her on a morphine drip and wait. I can’t tell you how much that hurt, to hear there was no more hope. It felt like a sledgehammer blow to my gut.

By Friday morning it was obvious the end was near as she was unresponsive and even with oxygen her breathing became quite poor. Her mother, stepfather and I were with her when she finally stopped breathing and was at peace. She died at twelve noon on Friday the thirteenth.

A week later we had a beautiful memorial for her under a favorite bowing oak tree where we lived.

 At the hospital when the resident oncologist had broken the news to Kendra and then asked if she understood, my dear wife had raised a finger, looked at me and rasped through her oxygen mask, “One day at a time.” At the time I thought she still believed there was hope that she would get better.  I now believe it was a message for me:  all we can do is live life one day at a time.   And keep hope alive. 

 I grieved deeply over the loss of my wife, my best friend, my life partner and still do.  But I’ve also moved on.  I joined a grief support group and that helped immensely. My family has bolstered me more than I can say. 

 But it is a spirit of hope that has kept me moving forward. Maintaining hope is not dependent upon the fulfillment of expectations. It is not merely wishful thinking.  It is, indeed, essential to living every day of my life in an often uncertain world.

In conversation last night with a new friend– a bright, giddy, impassioned young woman, a fairly new vegan whose activism and commitment to the animals is in full flower and whose embrace of life  is an inspiration —  I attempted to delineate my philosophy of hope, using the above story as an example.  I then made an attempt at connecting that idea of the essential quality of hope, and the need to maintain joy, to our activism.  In our work as animal advocates we are continually faced with grim realities: ten billion animals slaughtered each year by U.S. agribusiness;  sentient beings devoid of any creature comforts, confined and tortured; a general public in the grip of an entrenched ideology which author Melanie Joy has coined carnism which causes many people to view the work we do on behalf of the animals as extremist and the eating of animals and animal products as normal, natural and necessary.

Where’s the joy in all that?

Let me share with you another quote from Joseph Campbell:

“The way to find out about happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.”

I became vegetarian, and eventually vegan, because of the logical arguments laid out by philosopher Peter Singer.  But my continuing work on behalf of the animals and veganism is an expression of love, kindness and compassion. Knowing that I am doing my small part to help end the suffering of animals fills me with happiness.  Not naïve self satisfaction or the blithe delusion that by merely “loving” animals I am making their lot any better, but the happiness that comes from being involved in real work that matters,  in a cause with a long moral arc which, I truly believe, is bending toward justice.

My advocacy work also allows me to tap into my creativity with projects such as The Veg Monologues or Vegan Street Theater. Working in collaboration with other creative and compassionate people has been a source of bliss for me, even in times when loneliness and depression seem to have temporarily derailed me.

I tend to share intimacies, to reveal myself far too readily. My attempts at playing it cool, of adopting an aloof persona are continually thwarted by an overriding need to open up, to connect, to love. But I can’t imagine a detached life.  I can’t imagine not falling in love – not just with other people, but with ideas, art, music, life itself.   I also realize, however, that the thrill of falling in love  is temporal and often something of a distraction; working wholeheartedly to bring about animal and human liberation, to alleviate suffering,  to ensure a sustainable environment, to create real change that has positive, global implications for all beings, requires a different kind of love.  It requires an expression of love that does not often see immediate results; it requires real work that is not often thrilling or romantic; it requires hope and courage that are often met with derision or apathy; it requires relinquishing personal drama in favor of tactics that are more effective in the long run.

But it does not have to be devoid of joy. I feel a profound sense of joy in being part of a cause that is so much larger than my own personal concerns. I feel joyful to have real meaning in my life.  I feel joy in being able to feel compassionate, empathetic, even grief stricken.  Those feelings tell me that I’m alive, not just existing but fully sentient and aware, connected to Life and all its vicissitudes.  And the work continues.

–for Kara, thanks for the inspiration!