I grew up vegetarian, long before it was cool or at all normal. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, most people didn’t quite know what to do with someone who didn’t eat meat or eggs. I’ll never forget the look of complete incomprehension on the face of the cashier in a Burger King in West Texas in 1982 when we asked for a burger without the meat on it – she’d certainly had never before seen the button for that option on her cash register. We knew about it because back then, that was about the only fast food option there was on a road trip. Many restaurants weren’t much better and we were happy if there was even a limited selection on a menu for us. And for those as strict as my family, there was always the sneaking suspicion that meat may have crept in or that the grill hadn’t been cleaned.
But even then, many people hastened to assure us that they didn’t eat much meat, or were almost vegetarian, like they were asking for a blessing on their virtue in going as far as they had. Back then, I couldn’t bless them. I hope that I was at least polite to their faces, but my internal reaction was nothing but scorn and laughter. How could these people think that almost doing something made them as virtuous as we were? They weren’t vegetarian, they weren’t saved. I preferred those who heartily endorsed their meat eating, viewing them as honest sinners, while those who looked to me for absolution of their efforts were people who knew the error of their ways but lacked the strength of will to follow through.
Judging people for their behaviour and how it differs from your own is very human, but a big part of my reaction came from the source of our vegetarianism. We followed the diet for religious reasons, which made it very black and white – you were either a believer or not, and believers didn’t eat meat. In fact, at age 14, after I had stopped believing and going to satsang, I tried eating meat, reasoning that there was nothing to stop me now. As it turned out, I didn’t like it that much, even though I was gleefully aided and abetted by the meat eaters surrounding me, who loved the idea of corrupting the sweet little vegetarian girl. Realizing that I also didn’t like the industry it came from or the idea of killing animals, I (mostly) stopped eating meat again when I was 19.
By this time, in the late 80s and early 90s, it was becoming more normal to be vegetarian. My university always had recently moved to always having a vegetarian option in the dining hall, and I certainly wasn’t the only one around. Back in my hometown of Vancouver, I saw vegetarian options flowering all around me, in the supermarket and in restaurants. But I moved in with a meat eater, and while I wouldn’t cook the stuff, I did occasionally try the bacon or sausage and I ate fish. When we travelled in Central America, I occasionally had the fried chicken – by the end of the trip I had stopped with the chicken and only the fish remained. Living in South Korea in the late 1990s made me keep this option and I remain a pescetarian to this day.
However, throughout all these changes, my black and white thinking remained. Either one was vegetarian/virtuous or one was not, and in my head I knew I was not. Unsurprisingly, I felt guilt about my own lack of virtue, even while I justified it on the basis of the lives farm animals lead as opposed to wild-caught fish. But I’ve slowly come to a sort of forgiveness of myself and a relaxing of the judgment I make of others. I’ve started replying positively, both inside and out, to people who tell me they only eat meat on weekends. I’ve finally realized that it doesn’t have to be black and white and that encouragement does more than condemnation.
I’ve seen the value of encouragement in my own relationships, where both my ex and my husband eventually became pescetarians. They did this despite the fact that I did not force them. I only said I that I would not cook meat. I never said anything about them cooking it themselves or ordering it at restaurants. I imagine that if I’d made it a condition of our relationship or pushed them in any way they would both have dug in their heels and refused to change, and probably have started eating meat even more. Instead I showed them how delicious pescetarianism can be and how well it works in daily practice.*
This is a lesson that carries over into all that we do to shift to sustainability. We should lead by showing how things are possible and by making them possible. At my first wedding, the dinner we served was entirely vegetarian. And it was so delicious that now, 14 years later and with my second husband, I still get comments about how it was the best food the person had ever had at a wedding. My cooking, while perhaps not on that level, also makes people realize that not eating meat can be yummy.
But most importantly, we don’t have to judge people for not holding to the sustainability ideal, for not becoming vegan cyclists wearing hemp clothing and eschewing all possessions. We should applaud those who start, those who become flexitarians or bike to work or make any of the billion other choices that represent taking a step towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Judging people doesn’t help, it either makes them resistant to change or leads to abandoning all efforts, much like a dieter binging after a slip. Praising and accepting them, on the other hand, leads them to internalizing their behaviour, making it part of their identity, and wanting to do it more. It also feels better. And, as I have found, it’s also better for our own mental health: while there is a certain satisfaction from feeling superior to those others who can’t do it right, it actually feels better to accept and praise.
* Echoing those I condemned in earlier times, I actually rarely cook fish or seafood at home, saving it as an option for eating out or with others. And I am very aware of the environmental effects of over-fishing, which makes me choose fish carefully and try to limit it even more.