Friday, 3 June 2011

Veganism and disbelief

I've had a vegan diet since September of 1984. That is almost twenty-seven years since I last had any meat, fish, or dairy products. I became vegetarian very soon after leaving home to go to college when I was 18, and within months, was vegan. At the time I didn't understand the difference between the two, nor did I become vegetarian or vegan on purpose. What happened is that when no one was putting meat dishes in front of me, and I was free to select whatever looked appealing at the store, it didn't occur to me to buy meat products. Maybe it was because I didn't want to cook, but don't think that was it. In the first few months after leaving home, my stepmother brought me some raw ham. I ate it raw, "Henry the eighth style" as my disgusted roommate liked to say. But then it was gone and I didn't replace it. By the time my stepmother came by with another non-vegetarian dish--pizza--I realized I didn't like that kind of food, and never had. I'd tolerated it for the sake of the people around me, that is all.

As a newly independent adult, I decided to eat what I wanted to, so I turned down the pizza. Over the course of the next few months I made some more discoveries. Milk always made me want to spit. It finally occurred to me that if I didn't drink milk, I wouldn't have to worry about this uncomfortable problem. Then, perhaps because I no longer had milk coating my throat, I noticed that cheese left a burning, raw sensation in my throat, so I stopped eating that also. I'd never eaten eggs except under extreme duress (because I have always hated them). Trying to get me to have a bite was like trying to get a cat into a bath full of water. So, with the milk and cheese gone, and the meat given up months before, the only remaining dairy in my diet was yogurt. I gave that up shortly after starting school at Art Center, about a year after leaving home, and just before I turned 19.

Since then, I have had to defend that decision many times. These days I just about say, politely, "leave me alone" when asked, but in the old days I had some long discussions about the subject. My position was much weaker when I was young because I had not done any reading on the subject and knew of only a few real living vegetarians I could point to as people who hadn't dropped dead of the suspicious diet. One man I knew was a registered nutritionist. He gave me three years to live. I wasn't particularly worried, but when the three years were up and I was still alive, I did notice. Relatives and friends insisted that I had to go back to eating meat, or at least fish, or just an egg or some milk. They said I wouldn't get enough B-vitamins without these things and would eventually waste away and keel over.

I didn't want to eat anything else because I didn't like anything else. However, these persistent attempts to assist me out of my intransigence inspired me to do a little reading on the subject and to notice a few relevant facts. I read about the Hunza indians, vegetarians or vegans all, and that they they had the longest life span of any known human population in the world. Or an athletic tribe of Brazilian jungle-dwellers, or the many vegetarians of India who seemed to avoid death at an early age despite a vegetarian or vegan diet. Ironically, the malnourished of India are less likely to be vegetarian than those who are free of concern about starvation because vegetarianism is a fixture of the Brahmin caste--the highest, most affluent caste--of India. The lower castes, including the poverty-stricken "untouchables" are allowed to eat meat, and do. But never mind that, years passed, and I became more athletic, and healthier, than I had been before I was vegan. I even gained weight. I am less skinny today than when I wasn't a vegetarian, though I am still slender by most measures.

So after almost 27 years of being vegan, and a little over 27 years of vegetarianism, the issue still comes up. What fascinates me is the level of denial that goes into the explanations I hear for my continuing ability to remain alive. The most common trigger for a conversation is if I have a headache, hay fever, or an occasional cold. "Ah, well if you ate meat, it would go away. Clearly your immune system is weakened." I used to get this from an old friend who was sick far more often than I was. One friend said that being vegan would sap my energy, yet I put in much longer hours than he ever did, and got less sleep, and could walk on my hands for recreation (but he couldn't.) My in-laws thought I wouldn't be able to have children. If headaches were caused by veganism, aspirin companies would go out of business.

I'm 45, almost 46, and am still quite active, have all my hair, and don't need glasses. I work longer hours than my colleagues and may still get less sleep. Nevertheless, I need to start eating meat "to be healthier" they say. This reminds me of something I was told by C.C. Wang, my wife's grandfather. He was visited in New York by a famous monk. This man was almost 80 years old, but could do a handstand balanced on just two fingers of each hand. He performed this feat in C.C.'s living room. This man was a lifelong vegetarian. C.C. told me that he died a few years later at the age of 88. "Think how much longer he might have lived, a man like that, if only he hadn't been vegetarian!" I've been told that the only reason I'm still alive is that I ate meat when I was younger. Never mind that there probably isn't even a single cell of that remaining after 27 years, what of the people who were lifelong vegetarians, like the Chinese monk, or the Brahmins of India. You can't even say that they inherited meat-nutrition from their vegetarian mothers.

Never mind the fact that the world's largest land animals (giraffes, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses) are all vegetarian from birth, and vegan after being weaned. Clearly, health, size, and athleticism do not depend on the consumption of flesh. And yet, there is this popular notion in western countries that it is necessary. This view is so prevalent, that serious effort must be made to explain the living vegetarians in this world, but the results are hardly credible. And yet! For lack of anything else that makes sense, many accept those explanations regardless.

Is this any different to disbelief in psi, the supernatural, or God? I don't think so. The same ridiculous explanations are trotted out, but they all come down to this: "either it didn't happen or it's a hoax." That is about the same as "You have three years to live" because you are vegetarian. These kinds of things can only be said in complete ignorance. One might even say, innocence.



  1. I've been a vegetarian, but never a vegan. In my case it was just a matter of eating what I liked best, and meat is kind of icky. But I'm married to a dedicated carnivore who thinks that the very least I can do is eat a "veggie burger" when he bar-b-ques something I find yucky for dinner. I find many of the store bought veggie burgers just as bad as the meat, so sometimes I just eat what hubby does for the sake of simplicity. Even though I would dearly love a toasted tomato sandwich instead.

  2. This is the beauty of having a slightly abrasive personality. I tell people straight out "There's no way you could make a vegan dinner properly, nor any non-vegan restaurant that can do it, so I won't eat and that's that." That attitude has killed many of the "why are you vegan?" questions, which I appreciate a great deal.