Nobody tells you that when you go vegan you’re going to be the recipient of a myriad of questions. You are suddenly expected to be an overnight expert on everything from nutrition, to fitness requirements, to animal rights, human rights, ecology, zoology, conservation, farming, organic farming, statistics on world populations and food availability, you name it. This starts, but doesn’t stop with, the famous question all vegans are counting down to, because it always comes, “where do you get your protein?”. Today however, this is not the big vegan question I want us to discuss. In fact, we won’t be touching the subjects of nutrition, or any of the mentioned above. The big vegan question, to me, is one of far more importance. The one that I get asked the most, and the pivotal point that marks the difference between someone walking away and labeling you “one of those vegans”, or lending you a half open ear, and giving you the perfect opportunity for planting a little vegan seed. It was, in fact, the first question I ever got asked after becoming vegan, and one that made me shake in my boots, since I felt I had to give a perfect answer that might have the power of inspiring someone else:
“Why are you vegan?”
I have found, that even in circles like the one I come from, where vegetarianism is simply a word that exists in the dictionary, people have a general idea of two of the sides of this movement. People know that some vegetarians and vegans are doing it for ethical reasons, they don’t want to participate in the harming of animals, and some are doing it for health reasons. In fact, one of these two is probably the one that spiked your interest and made you take the plunge, even if in the end you’re seeing both as equally deserving of your choices. These two banks of the river don’t even cover all of the environmental advantages of adopting a plant based diet, but sadly this is a connection very few people know about, still looking at cars and factories as the main culprits. Since I want to talk to you about the everyday folk who is clueless about these issues, the one I was before this adventure started, I want to focus on the two banks of the river, and what starts to happen when you embark in answering this very complex question.
If you’ve read my post From Meat Eater to Vegan and Everything in Between, you know that my main motivation was not wanting to harm another animal, after I saw the truth of what happens to them in our current food industry. However, when I decided to dig into things and do a little research, the health benefits of eating this way, the ethical side of things and the benefits to our planet, all came rushing in with full force. I was officially swimming in a deep ocean of information, and plenty of different ways of answering the big question: Why?
As usually happens when you have a lot of options, things can get a little confusing. At the beginning, not only was I nervous about telling friends and family about my new way of eating, but I was the recipient of many jokes, was dealing with an absolute life changing decision (changing your lifestyle in such a way is no small task), and was having to deal with all the practical matters of re-teaching myself how to shop, cook and eat. I would get very nervous whenever someone asked me this question. First and foremost, I knew that quite possibly, I was the only vegan that person had every encountered, maybe the only one he or she would know for at least a few years. I needed, and I wanted to be a clear voice for the truth, but I also wanted to share it in a way that reflected the incredibly positive changes I was experiencing, and how normal it all felt and is. Answering with something like “because animals are being abused, castrated without anesthesia, left to die in pain while locked in tiny cages next to others who have to live with their dead corpses for weeks, are separated from their mothers or killed in front of them, are slaughtered while sometimes fully conscious…”, instinctively felt like the wrong way to go. Even though it was all true, and this small list doesn’t even cover it, I felt that all I would see would be a dusty cloud where the person used to be standing… roadrunner style. How about saying I was doing it for my health? This would have been totally acceptable, the person would still be standing there, I wouldn’t look like a crazy person to them, but it would have been a total cop out, not to mention, at least half of a lie (not because it isn’t healthy, but because this wasn’t my main reason for going vegan).
How do you open the minds of people who ask you this question, without invading their personal space or their beliefs, but by staying true to what is at the core of this issue for you? This is why I call it the big vegan question. In less than a minute you’re supposed to speak the truth, sound sane, inspire, plant a seed, get someone curious, and especially – and this is key – sound like the normal person that you are. No small task am I right? I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning when answering this question. I was prepared to answer questions about protein and iron and calcium, but not speak my truth. It should have come naturally… you always know why it is you’ve decided to do something, but believe me, it was always the most nerve wracking moment for me. Should I talk more about the health benefits if it’s someone who is very health conscious? Should I openly talk about animals if I’m with an animal lover who has yet to make the connection? Should I talk about the environment if the person drives a Prius? Should I talk about all three if the person has time? Should I simply say “for my health” or “for the animals” and leave it at that? Do people really care when they ask me?
After all this time, I have found the only way that works for me. The only way that is authentic for me, that makes veganism sound normal, wonderful and delicious. That makes it seem approachable and opens peoples eyes to what is happening behind walls (both the ones in the slaughterhouses and the ones in your arteries). I simply, and very briefly, tell my story, as honestly as I can. I say something that goes like this:
“The first thing that you need to know about me is that I was the world’s biggest meat eater. I loved the taste of it and never gave it a second thought. My friends used to joke around saying that they had to invite me to barbecues an hour later than everyone else just so I could leave some steak for the rest of them. But a while back I read a book and watched two documentaries, one about how eating animal products is directly linked to most of the chronic illnesses people are dying from, and the other, which absolutely made the decision for me, was about how animals are treated in the food industry. What I saw was so horrible, that I simply couldn’t continue my life as it was. I didn’t think I would be able to be vegan, but I tried it, and it completely changed my life.”
The book I read was Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet (although now I could insert dozens of books here). The two films I saw were Forks Over Knives and Vegucated (I could also insert over a dozen here). By telling my story, in a simple and short way (this is key!), without even having to get into any specifics that might make the other person reject your message or feel uncomfortable, I believe you are being as relatable as possible, and thus, as effective as possible in opening someone up to the truth. I tell them the story of how I loved meat, because it was completely true, and I tell them how I thought I’d never make it, because this was also true. The truest thing of all though, is the way I felt after making the change, and this almost always gets out in the next few minutes, because people normally follow up, not with the question “what happens to the animals that is so horrible?”, but with a “what do you mean it changed your life?”. Then I can tell them all about how I’ve felt as good physically, as I have ever felt. How I now run faster and more times a week than ever before because of all this energy I don’t know what to do with. How at the same time I felt happier, calmer, and more centered. How I love the food so much, my meal repertoire became 10 times more interesting and varied than before. How cooking became more fun and a lot faster. How I felt grateful every day for the wonderful little things that filled my life. How I just had a kick in my step and a smile on my face.
When saying your why, I believe that planting seeds is a wonderful possible side effect to a simple conversation, and as such, I want to be as effective as I can be. I don’t want to lie or soften things up, but I found the key of how to answer, when I put myself in the other person’s shoes. When I was a meat eater, and also called myself a hard core animal lover, I wouldn’t have wanted someone to flash bloody pictures in front of me, or make me feel guilty for the choices I was kind of programed to make. I would have liked to feel that I had common ground with that person, that although he was teaching me something new that could potentially cause changes in my life, that he and I were the same, and that the change, if I did decide to make it, wasn’t as impossible as it felt like. I would have wanted someone to be open hearted and tell me their story, and the biggest thing of all, I would have loved to feel how I could come back to this person for support (and actually feel supported) if this was something I ever decided to do. I never had anyone like this, I went through this journey on my own in the beginning, and then with my awesome sidekick in life (Mr. hubby), but this is what I would have liked to hear, and it is what I like to tell people.