To meat or not to meat

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To meat or not to meat.

That, apparently, is a hot button issue.

I brought it up yesterday on Facebook and Twitter (rather apolitically, I might add).

That was it. What followed, particularly in the thread of comments on Facebook, could have, with less civil participants, been yet another battle in what what one friend termed, the “Paganinvore War”.

Thankfully, it was not.

People get really heated over the question of whether or not to eat meat. It’s charged. It brings up a whole host of topics that I hadn’t considered when I updated my status (i.e. privilege, cultural traditions, cruelty, sustainability, etc). My accidental slip into vegetarianism, a way of eating that I took on for nearly 6 years at one point in my life, happened just before falling to sleep…. on the eve of World Vegetarian Day, no less.

“I probably shouldn’t eat meat,” I said to my husband, a vegetarian for over 20 years.

That was it. I’d eaten a lamp gyro earlier in the day, and then I thought about lambs, and then it didn’t feel right to eat lamb gyros.

Simple as that.

I think it’s important to note that my husband has lived in many different financial situations during his life as a vegetarian. I wouldn’t normally think to include something like that here, but I read a number of arguments in support of meat eating that seemed to paint all vegetarians as rich, privileged Westerners. My husband lived off of lentils and brown rice for a good stretch of time. He could have spent that money on cheap meat, but he chose not to.

And ugh…. This is where it seems to get complicated. I’m doing what I read others do on my thread, and what I think might be a behavior that makes it so difficult to talk about food choices. I’m getting defensive. I’m justifying my husband’s choices. I’m making my case.

I’m a big believer in making the choices you can or want (depending on your situation) to make. I’ve been eating meat for a good while, in part because I’ve thought it made me feel better, physically, and also because I just enjoy the taste of meat. But I’ve also made the choice not to think about what I was eating from time to time, or where that food had originated. In a way, I think it’s been necessary for me to do so in order to feel ok with some of my choices.

I don’t think that willful denial is really a responsible way to live.

People should eat how they want to eat, and in certain cases we eat what we can eat. (I mean, I was a big consumer of potted meat on white bread sandwiches when I was a little kid. That stuff was cheap and delicious.) But we also need to be honest about where our food comes from. All of us. That means the vegetarians who live on nothing but beans and rice, as well as the vegetarians who eat nothing but high priced meat substitutes. Same goes for the meat eaters. Those who eat the meat from Wendy’s need to have a sense of where their food comes from, as does the guy paying a truckload of money for that cut of organic, grass-fed cow.

I have to assume that, having not developed a relationship with a farmer/rancher which enabled me to source where my food was coming from, I have been complicit in an industry that I would consider (if I had the opportunity to observe it from a close distance) inhumane. If I’m going to eat meat that comes from that industry, I think I need to own up to that fact.

What I don’t want to become, however, is someone who shames other people into taking on the same way of thinking. If I reach the conclusion that I’m going to refrain from eating meat I have to make that decision for myself. I can’t hold it over someone else. And if I decide to keep eating meat I need to own that decision as well. Shame can come from either direction, and I’d rather not become someone who cultivates a practice of shaming others for their choices.

Be the change, right?

(Gandhi was a vegetarian, by the way.)

I need to — paraphrasing the Pope — reach for what is good, as I conceive of what good is.

“That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

So for now I’m going to hold off the lamb gyros. I’m going to beef up (no pun intended) on my bean intake. There are a lot of ways to get your protein, after all.

And, no doubt, I’m going to sit back and watch as more of my readers and friends explain what motivates their dietary choices. The discussion on my Facebook post was insightful, and wonderfully civil.

Carry on.

P.S. I kind of love the Pope.







24 responses to “To meat or not to meat”

  1. Alicia Avatar

    I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of your introspection, and I love how you said “as I conceive of what good is”. I think that is an excellent place to approach this decision, as it also acknowledges that what you conceive is mutable and ever-evolving.

    I personally believe what one chooses to put in one’s body is an intensely personal decision based on a myriad of factors, both internal and external. I noticed in one of your responses you mention that in this instance our choice affects not only ourselves but others who take part in these shared resources, and in particular you cited the meat industry. I agree with this, though I feel it’s also important to look at -all- agriculture with the same eye for long-reaching environmental impact. Big business vegetable agriculture is often just as destructive as the meat industry, though the impacts receive less press and are often seen over a longer period of time.

    In the spirit of looking at things from many perspectives, a book you may be interested to read is: “The Vegetarian Myth” (I didn’t choose the title, no one kill me please!)

    I feel so blessed and privileged to be able to make these choices at all! Enjoy your journey 🙂

  2. Cat C-B Avatar
    Cat C-B

    There’s a story Quakers like to tell, about the young William Penn, as an early convert to the Religious Society of Friends–and their first member who was a gentleman by birth, something that mattered hugely in that era.

    The story has it that Penn was troubled by the tension between the peace testimony and the plain dress characteristic of Friends and his social obligation, as a gentleman, to wear a sword and a wig when in public. So he approached George Fox, the founder of the movement, and asked him for advice.

    “Wear it while thou canst,” Fox famously replied.

    The story goes on to say that one day, while riding down the road with friends of his, Penn found himself suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of repulsion toward the sword and the wig, and what they both said about violence and social status, and he tore them both off, threw them in the road, and left them both behind forever. By waiting until his heart was clear about what was right for him, he took on not the outward form of Right Action, but we might call the inward essence of it.

    I love the story, and what it says about the ways spirit can work in each individual heart and soul. We don’t need to preach to one another, just live faithfully according to the wisdom we have taken in ourselves.

    In my own life, this comes out in my witness against generating plastic trash. While it is true that I have fairly radically altered my way of life to avoid buying things that are packaged in plastic (a form of waste that creates immense and lasting harm when it is produced, abandoned, and even to a lesser extent, when it is recycled) I have not made it my mission to coerce anyone around me to follow my example precisely. I do hope to make others think, and to be open for the movement of spirit in their hearts on the question of what their environmental impacts are, but I do not shame others who don’t feel the same urgency I do around pictures of dead sea birds, reports of microscopic particles of plastic displacing plankton, and so forth. For all I know, they have taken far greater steps than I have in minimizing other forms of harm to the earth… or, like Penn, perhaps their own spiritual conviction on this same matter is growing inside them, and getting ready to burst free. In which case, it’s surely better to allow their own unique convictions to grow, rather than impose mine in their place.

    There’s a place for being open and clear with one another about our convictions and our actions… but also, I am convinced, a place for humility, and understanding that those who see things differently than we do may not be “wrong” in how they see things: they may be right in different ways than we are, and perhaps have a lot to teach us, if we aren’t too busy preaching to be able to learn.

  3. Heartache Into Beauty Avatar

    I have dealt with a number of self-righteous vegetarians in my life…so thank you for discussing this topic in a calm, non-judgmental manner!

    I consider myself a compassionate omnivore. I have no problem eating animal-based protein, but I eat all food (plant or animal-based) with compassion and gratitude. I eat both because personally, I have a really hard time placing greater value on, say, a lamb or a chicken than on, say, a carrot or bean or grain of wheat. Because who am I to judge which is more worthy of saving, or feels more pain, or is harmed more by CAFOs/crop monocultures, etc.? I also am deeply aware of the massive problems with modern agriculture and livestock production, so from a sustainability standpoint I eat less meat.

    1. eelsalad Avatar

      Very well said! I’m in the same boat — I’ve dealt with uber-judgemental vegans/vegetarians of various stripes over the years, and greatly appreciate the calmness of the conversation here. 🙂

      Like Heartache Into Beauty, I just can’t bring myself to place greater value on one form of life compared to another. I do my best to eat sustainably- and compassionately-raised plants, fruits, and animals. I aim for local and organic, and do what I can within my means/location/health needs.

      I do often find myself feeling defensive when I meet vegetarians/vegans, just because of the judgements I think they are making about me — but that’s baggage from previous encounters, and I’m working on meeting each person as a new person, not thinking “they believe X, therefore they think Y because the last person I met who believed X thought Y!”

  4. Angharad Avatar

    I enjoyed reading that – an honest approach to an ethical minefield. I have examined my conscience again and again on this point, and concluded that, even if I never ate meat again, I would still be carnivorous deep down – it is simply part of who I am (my boyfriend, by contrast, has only eaten meat once in his life (and that was by accident!; he is a born vegetarian). Having said that, I am finding it harder and harder to stomach the industry from which so much meat is produced, and am moving steadily towards only buying meat directly from farmers I know and respect – and only on special occasions, considering the cost. Being very prone to anaemia has, if I’m honest, skewed my perception of my choices slightly; I find it hard enough to absorb enough iron from my diet as it is, without depriving myself of one of the richest dietary sources. That awareness makes the ethical transaction even starker: other beings have to die in order for my health to be maintained. I’m kind of a vampire, albeit one who mostly eats vegetarian meals!

  5. Adrian Moran Avatar
    Adrian Moran

    Bravo for confronting willful denial. That’s an essential part of becoming a whole and honest person. I am a vegan myself and I wrote about that a couple months ago.

    I’m a little to close to my own issues with my Catholic upbringing to really trust or love the Pope at this point. At least he’s re-focusing the PR message of the Church to emphasize justice and peace and de-emphasize the anti-feminist, anti-LGBT themes. Even the Mormons seem to have figured out that hate isn’t a great selling point and shouldn’t be advertised too loudly.

  6. Chef Ette Avatar
    Chef Ette

    I was a vegetarian for 20 years then I had to give it up because the cost was just too much after the local grocery store stopped having their quick sale counter on produce, and I lost my job. I had to eat what was available, as you said. I still limit my meat intake, it’s just a natural thing to me because I was never a big meat eater even as a child. When people asked me why I was a vegetarian I would say it was right for me! I never preached it, in fact I had a son and a boyfriend at the time that were big meat eaters and I cooked for them…so I didn’t have a problem with it…it wasn’t a humane thing or a religious thing it was just right for me at the time. I felt better, I looked better, had more energy. I didn’t have a complaint about it at all. Others did lol but as I said I didn’t preach, what’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for someone else. Leading by example is much more profound than standing on a soap box…you site Gandhi…and didn’t he do the lead by example thing?? 😉 if you ever want good recipes I would be willing to share, especially if you happen to like eggplant. Best of luck on your new dietary quest.

  7. PhaedraHPS Avatar

    Having lived up-close and personal with them, I can tell you that lambs are really, really cute and adorable, but before you know it, they turn into sheep. Sheep are a combination of stupid and sly, which is not a good combination.

    That said, I do think that each person should give thought to his or her relationship with food. With the population we have now, almost nothing we do doesn’t have an impact. You can be reasonably sure that anything you do isn’t “It’s just me, this one person buying bananas from the other side of the world,” it’s a whole huge bunch (no pun intended) of people doing the same thing. Sometimes I read the agribusiness numbers (both industrial and small scale) and I am just staggered. It’s almost impossible to wrap your brain around how many bananas are being hauled around on how many ships and trucks with their cousins sitting on how many grocers’ shelves and so on and and so on just for one large-ish city, much less the whole world. Multiply that by Cheerios.

    *That* said, I really like bananas, much more than I like the fruit that’s locally grown where I live. So I struggle with my choices.

    I think a lot of resistance to more conscious eating is because there are so many repercussions now to whatever you choose to eat. Shopping thoughtfully requires a list of what not to buy that is ten times longer than your what-I-need-to-buy list. It can be literally nerve-wracking to go to the grocery store. And the more limited your budget, yeah, the more limited your choices. Sure, you can live on lentils and brown rice. But it’s pretty depressing if you’re doing it not because you’re a starving student who can believe (or delude one’s self) that this is just a phase to be gotten through, but because it looks like this is as good as it’s ever likely to get. We humans–perhaps we mammals–seem to be pre-programmed to seek out hedonistic pleasure from food. Maybe that’s why the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, especially if you’re a stupid sheep who will do something really stupid and possible fatal (sheep are experts at killing themselves in unexpected ways) to get some of that just possibly a little bit greener grass. But that’s sheep for you.

    And I don’t get fake meat at all. It’s got to be one of the most processed of processed foods ever. Discounting the meat, there’s probably fewer and healthier ingredients in the average hot dog. I just don’t get it. But you know, no one is making me eat fake meat. Or not eat it either. I take responsibility for my own tastes and my own choices.

    At any rate, I just hope you don’t start getting pizza slices topped with nutritional yeast. I saw that in Portland and it really grossed me out. But then, I’m from Chicago, and we get crazy about pizza choices. And around and around it goes!

  8. Jim Avatar

    “I’d eaten a lamp gyro earlier in the day”, I trust you gave those up too! Be well brother. -Jim

  9. Karen Waxler Avatar
    Karen Waxler

    And we kinda love you, Teo.

  10. Kauko Avatar

    I’ve actually gone the opposite way this year. I was a vegetarian for over 16 years and just started eating meat again. It felt like the right choice. Within a week, some of the breathing problems I’ve been having for years cleared up almost completely. I try to stick to organic, (insert the whole list here) meats. While I started out as a vegetarian feeling that killing animals for food was wrong period, over the years I came to feel that there’s nothing wrong with eating meat, but the system that produces the meat is horribly inhumane.

  11. Jason Avatar

    I don’t think explaining your reasons regarding consumption or non-consumption of animal products is necessarily shaming anyone. What I have noticed is that, when people ask me why I’m vegan (I never bring it up unless specifically asked), their immediate defensiveness probably stems from a their own misunderstanding and/or shame. I was in the same boat as you as a vegetarian a couple years ago, when I realized that regardless of the source of my food, or whether the animals are treated humanely or not up until the point of exploitation and elimination, the fundamental moral question is whether one should use another sentient being for your own ends. I decided I couldn’t do that and progress spiritually, so I went vegan and haven’t looked back. There are so many other aspects that our diet choices touch (world hunger, corporatism, environmental degradation) that I think reducing and eliminating our consumption of animal products will be a necessary step in the near future (as in now!).

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I appreciate the way you worded your comment, Jason –>

      “What I have noticed is that, when people ask me why I’m vegan (I never bring it up unless specifically asked), their immediate defensiveness probably stems from a their own misunderstanding and/or shame.”

      I was saying something similar to my husband this morning. This is a real phenomenon.

    2. Hína Kemenduro Avatar
      Hína Kemenduro

      The question of harm is very complex. I am vegetarian and moving to veganism in order to do less harm, but there is still a lot of harm inherent in eating. I grow much of my food, and I find that it is a war with insects and other animals that would like to eat my what I have planted. Quite often, I must kill cornear worms or moles or fence out rabbits and elk. If one does not grow one’s own food, this war is a little less evident, but it is still happening even if somebody else is doing the killing for you.

      Also, I found out recently that I have a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease. It was found while I was being examined as a potential liver donor for a neighbor (they take only one of your liver lobes if you are a living donor). I do not need dialysis, for now, but the day is coming. I have read that one consequence of dialysis is a need for a grossly increased protein intake. Most diets for people on dialysis seem to depend on eating large amounts of meat. When the time comes, I hope to be able to manage it using egg whites… not very vegan. Sill, I want to live, so there will be some hard choices ahead for me, especially if I cannot manage it on egg whites (legumes will not be an option because they are high in something I will not be allowed… perhaps potassium, I forget that detail right now).

      Even now, I am uncertain concerning the B12 requirement. I am currently taking a vegan supplement, but I do not know the details of how it is produced, so do not know anything about its impact on life. Many vegan or vegetarian choices, if made unthinkingly might actually do more harm to life. For example, given that plastic shoes are products of a world-destroying petro-chemical industry, are they more damaging of living things than a leather shoe made from the remains of a neighbor’s cow or pig? I really do not know. Also, even if they were, but if I could not afford anything but plastic shoes for me or my dependents, what do I do? Going shoeless is dangerous in many environments, and so not really an option for many of us.

      I want to live, but that puts me in conflict with others (both people and animals) who also want to live. At some point, I imagine that I would choose to die if the cost if living was too great. So, my life at the cost of a human life is too much, for me, I hope (I have not been tested that way, and it is easy to be brave in words), but what about my life at the cost of a dozen or more chickens every month? I think I will choose my life over that of the chickens. I am not happy about that, but I do want to live.

  12. Aine Avatar

    I’ve always known that meat=animal (usually a very cute animal – pig, cow, chicken, etc), but that’s because I was raised by a vegetarian, conservationist mother who did her best to show me that, hey, you’re eating a living thing when you put that steak in your mouth. Which I’m grateful for. It unfortunately had the opposite effect she wanted – she hoped that I wouldn’t like knowing I was eating what once was alive, but instead I loved it. And I’ve been (in the past) privileged enough to know the animals I ate. For me that’s…totally amazing and exactly how I want it to be. I want to know my food.

    That said, we’re poor-poor-poor right now, which means cheap cheap cheap everything. So…not good meat, not even great produce. I wish I could say we were somehow ‘making up for it’ because my household all does environmental and conservation work, but we’re really not ‘making up’ for anything. We’re just doing our best to get by, which means…eating food that isn’t quite up to what we want it to be ethically. Ideally, we as a society would shift so that our agribusinesses were instead regular farms and food wasn’t ridiculously and strangely priced (I mean, in what sensible world does it cost less to get a hamburger with everything on it than bananas? it makes /no sense/ yet somehow that is the world we’re in), which would mean that people would be able to afford more ethical and cruelty-free food…but as it is, we’re constantly weighing difficult choices.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Aine. You make some great points. It makes /no/ sense that meat costs more than produce (although bananas have a long way to travel to arrive at the average American grocery store… not sure what the footprint of that fruit is).

  13. Laura M. LaVoie Avatar
    Laura M. LaVoie

    I love the way you are approaching this decision, Teo. As you might remember from my presentation on Deliberate Living and my Tiny House at Sacred Harvest Festival, I advocate changing your relationship with food. This can mean a lot of things – for some it might be vegetarian or vegan diets, for others it might be gluten free. I do still eat meat but I purchase more than 75% of my food from local farmers and the local butcher. I know where those animals are from and how they are raised. This works for me.

    It is important that whatever you decide to do that you allow it to change you. Our culture as a whole tends to be ignorant about food choices but it doesn’t have to be that way. You *will* feel better if you don’t eat McDonald’s and you *will* feel better if you support your local farmers. And supporting your local farmers also connects you to the community which brings me back to my concept of Deliberate Living. Whatever you do, do it with purpose.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Laura. I do remember you mentioning changing your relationship with food, and I appreciate you bringing it up here again. In a lot of ways, I’ve been making small shifts in my relationship to food for years. I stopped eating at fast food joints a good while back, and it’s true – I feel better in a lot of ways because of that choice. Taking the leap into purchasing meat from a local butcher isn’t something I’ve ever done, but I think if I were to continue eating meat it might be something I need to consider.

    2. Hína Kemenduro Avatar
      Hína Kemenduro

      Hello Laura,

      I am not sure where one can read your presentations (links would be most welcome), so, you may already cover my point, but I would like say that, for me (because I am allergic to wheat and its cousins) it is mindful and necessary not to eat wheat etc. However, if one does not have that allergy, wheat can be used to create good and wholesome foods.

      I am disturbed to hear people speak ill of wheat. It has the power to save a human life, it being food. So, I think it should be seen as something deserving of respect and gratitude. I think that is true of food in general… not just wheat, which, for me, is poisonous. Perhaps you say all that already, so apologies if I have tediously repeated what you already covered.

      Also, relating this to vegetarianism (I am also vegetarian), it is often very uncomfortable socially. I love to cook and invite people to dinner. The hard part comes when people want to return the favor. When people invite one to dinner, it feels really mean-spirited to have to say “yes, but I cannot eat …”. I have met people who tyrannize others with their vegetarianism and allergies. I do not want to be that for others, or even to remind others of their painful experiences with such people. Still, there is not much that I can do about that, although I strive to make them comfortable. Still, it is awkward.

  14. Rory Avatar

    Many discussions of food and food choices quickly become irrational because they touch on issues of childhood, safety and identity without any awareness of that connection. “How do you know someone is vegan?” begins the joke, before continuing: “Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.”

    And then there is promiscuous carnivory in US culture, as a marker of masculinity. The entire subject is too often psychological minefield, populated mostly by wounded children wearing blindfolds.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      There have been times when, from both sides of the discussion, I felt as though there was some deeper issue not being spoken about. I’m likely at fault for this, too.

  15. Bramblefae Avatar

    “What I don’t want to become, however, is someone who shames other people into taking on the same way of thinking. ”

    As someone who is refining (and making peace with) food and my relationship with it-your statement here is really super important both for you and anyone who eats differently than you. Sometimes, I think, society (popular culture specifically) makes us forget that it’s really none of our business what or how anyone else eats. I get your defensiveness, because I think we naturally want to defend our choices when we know they’re possibly going against what society might tell us is supposed to be “normal.”

    Also, I kind of dig the Pope too. What an interesting fella he seems.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      He is.

      Here’s the thing, Bramblefae: when I read the statement “it’s really none of our business what or how anyone else eats,” I immediately remember that the way in which food is grown, cultivated, processed and distributed has an impact on everyone — regardless of whether or not that food is consumed by you or I. The meat industry has an impact on the land, on the use of clean, potable water, and on the air. Those things are *shared resources*. So, because the land, air and water are shared, other people’s food decisions have an impact on me. (And visa versa.)

      So this isn’t so much for me a question of societal norms, but more a question of ecology and resources. At least, that’s one of the questions I’m considering.

      1. Bramblefae Avatar

        You make very good points, Teo, and this, I think, is one of those things that I need to think more on, personally, because I feel like I was letting my own hangups cloud my response. I made it seem like a much less complex issue than it is.

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