My 20 year journey as a vegetarian

I became a vegetarian at the age of 11 because of Paul McCartney.

It was May 21, 1993 in Winnipeg. Former Beatles’ member, Paul McCartney was in town on The New World Tour with this band Wings.  I was invited to join my mom and uncle at the concert. The star of this tour happened to be a living legend and the greatest songwriter of his time. Possibly all time. What music-loving kid would turn down that invitation?

It oddly wasn’t Paul’s music that left the greatest impression on my young mind. It was the eye-opening images of animals being slaughtered on screen during his concert. Paul and his late wife Linda, who were out-spoken animal rights activists and vegetarians, used their concert stage as a means to expose the reality of how a cow becomes a hamburger.

It wasn’t rocket science but I will be honest, it really wasn’t something I had given much thought to. I didn’t grow up on a farm. I didn’t live off the land and I didn’t think about what I was eating. Soon thereafter, a whole flood of questions surfaced, a lot of research took place and then a big decision: I would become a vegetarian.

This year, marks 20 years of life as a vegetarian. Paul McCartney may have been the force behind my becoming a vegetarian but a whole lot of other people far more important are the reason that I still am.

There is one person, in particular, to whom I owe such gratitude for the privilege and ability to be who I am today: my dad. This is a story that I have never told anyone.

It was December 11, 2000. I was a 2nd year student at the University of Toronto.  I had just finished a series of late-nights working on papers and prepping for exams. When I finally returned home that day after my final Environmental Ethics class, I found a party in my living room. It was a small get-together and I was ready to celebrate.

I was chatting it up with perfect strangers when I ended up in a discussion with a young woman. We got to talking about the class I had just wrapped up and the profound revelation that had come as a result of a really candid conversation with Professor Sumner about what his ethic was in relation to the spectrum of environmental ethics. It was through this casual discussion with Sumner and a few other students that I realized that this perfect notion of a vegetarian or vegan was total garbage. There was no objective standard. People so often forget that perfection is the enemy of good. So afraid to be judged as hypocritical, it paralyzes us from doing anything. This professor helped me see the grey. But it was the girl I was speaking to that night who helped me see the light.

By 2000, I had been a vegan for 4 years and vegetarian for 8. I did it my own way, at my own pace and despite being ridiculed.  This naive young woman that I managed to get stuck talking to explained with painful conviction that she couldn’t attempt to be a vegan because she knew she would “fail” and so “what was the point?”.  I wanted to be helpful. I thought if she wanted to do it, she shouldn’t let the fear of judgement stop her.

I remember telling her that I could never live up to a standard of perfect veganism. Oh sure I could avoid eating any kind of animal product or by-product but unless I made every bit of food I ate, I could never be certain. I explained that I could choose not to don wool sweaters or buy leather belts but that didn’t change the fact that I would continue to wear the shoes my dad had made for me in the shoe factory at which he had worked since my life began.  (You see by then I already knew that wearing my 7 year old hand-made-by-my-dad leather imitation “doc martens” was more sustainable than going out and buying brand new toxic, plastic shoes.)

I smiled encouragingly as if to show that I was human too but it had never stopped me from trying to do the things that I felt were right. For me.  I said, “I’m sure you understand that it would be ridiculous to think that in order to be a perfect vegan, I should have to disown my dad because he earned his living making leather shoes.”  To which she retorted, “But that doesn’t mean you had to accept his money.”  To her, it was such a clear choice: reject my dad’s livelihood and financial support or dare to be a hypocrite.

A feeling of rage came over me. Who was she to judge me? Nobody. Her only act of conviction was to tell me that I wasn’t a good enough vegan. People who hide behind their ideals but are too afraid to take a risk to achieve them have never interested me.  I resisted the urge to overreact.  Instead, I just stood up calmly and said to her, “I would rather be a hypocrite than in anyway belittle a self-made man who has worked since he was 15 years old to feed, shelter and provide for his family. Rejecting my dad’s money wouldn’t make me a better person or a better vegan, it would just make me ungrateful.”

Not unlike the Paul McCartney concert, that night in December 2000 was a defining moment in my life. It changed how I saw myself. I realized then that I wasn’t afraid to be my own person, to be true to my beliefs and to act on them. Perfect or not.

I often credit my mom as having contributed to my success as a sustainable vegetarian. She helped me learn about nutrition and taught me how to cook so that I would always enjoy food. But my dad’s role, though much quieter, in my journey as a vegetarian was more profound. He never judged me or belittled my unconventional choices – as strange or extreme as they may be. To meet the challenge of being ridiculed during my youth or judged in my adulthood for my vegetarianism, my dad gave me the humility to know where to draw the line and the veracity to be myself. And for that, I am absolutely grateful.

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