Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Vegetarianism and Legalism

I became a vegetarian during the Thanksgiving holidays and that has worked well so far, except that I realize that now I have a new "rule" to follow. Here is what happened.

While I was briefly home during Chistmas, Sophie, Roger and I went to eat at a favorite small, family-owned Thai-Japanese restaurant. Thai and Japanese foods are not readily available in Barnesville--though a Japanese restaurant is coming to St. Clairsville--so this outing was a treat.

I was on the brink of ordering Tum Ka (?), a soup I always eat there, when I realized: it contains shrimp! Oh no! I can't have shrimp. There were certainly vegetarian options on the menu. But I ordered the soup because it's what I always do. I decided that --for the evening--I was a vegaquarian, as a seafood-eating friend labels herself. Then I felt guilty. What am I doing? I can't bend the rules! What's the use of taking a stand if you abandon it as soon as it's inconvenient?

In my defense, I am in the stage of getting used to a new way of eating--and thus far, hadn't fallen off the wagon. My biggest problem are the meals I automatically order. Auto-pilot habits can be the hardest to change, because they allow you not to pay attention For instance, I was in the IKEA in Pittsburgh before Christmas, and I went to eat lunch, which means--absolute auto-pilot ... Swedish meatballs. I caught myself in time, and bought a cold and soggy vegetarian wrap ... but I could have as easily found myself eating ... meatballs. I wondered: could I become a vegaquarianSwedishmeatballian?

I now have a new insight into how a rule can create a monstrous tangle of legalisms. I started wondering if becoming a vegetarian was a good idea or if it was merely adding a new layer of guilt to my life.

But I decided it was worthwhile to take a stand (such as it is) and that it's important to stay focused on the spirit of the rule. In other words, why am I doing this? Mostly, because I'm concerned about animal abuse. That's worthy ... even if I'm working my way up to getting rid of commercial milk and eggs ... which I can do, living near the Amish, but, again, it's not always ... convenient. I'm working on it. But without the "rule," there's no focus and no goal to work towards.

On the other hand, having been in the situation myself, I don't ever want people who are in circumstances in which vegetarianism is a luxury they can't afford to feel pressured about what they eat.

Bill Samuel posted on Facebook a copy of a pro-vegetarian statement that included a comment by Tolstoy positing a connection between eating animals --slaughterhouses--and war. Tolstoy argued that if we got rid of the one, we'd get rid of the other. Tolstoy could be completely over-the-top in so many ways, but as I started thinking about this, I saw a definite connection between how we today, in U.S. culture, are largely removed from both our wars and our meat production, leasing both out to a small class of people and then more or less "shutting out" both. So maybe there is more of a connection than we think. Do you think so? Or is this more "over the top" thinking?

What about legalisms? Does becoming a vegetarian, vegaquarian, a vegaquarianSwedishmeatballian or a vegan, create too many rules? How do we navigate this?


Hystery said...

As it turns out, when I first became a vegetarian about twenty years ago, I found myself eating fried scallops before it hit me, "Oh my gosh! What am I doing?" Since then, I've accidentally consumed foods on the forbidden list on several occasions. It happens.

For me vegetarianism/veganism is a moral and ethical decision based on my desire to cause as little pain and harm as is possible. I put it in the same category as non-violence. It is also one of the easiest things I can do to minimize my carbon footprint. I've been a vegetarian since I was a kid and a vegan most of my adult life. I hope like me you'll find that it gets so much easier as you live in it and the legalistic feel to it will just melt away as you discover just how many great options you have. Being vegan isn't hard for me because over time my personal habits and taste buds have formed around it.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Vegetarianism can certainly be done from the heart, rather than from the law. That is when you refuse the shrimp dish, not because you made a rule, but because you feel the wrongness.

I’ve been vegetarian for almost 38 years, since the age of 22.

Martin Kelley said...

As someone prone to self-denying witnesses, one of the things I've found essential is that we keep a sense a sense of humor about ourselves. We're never going to be fully consistent and there's always going to be someone doing more than we are. What's important is the small acts adding up.

The doubts can keep people from starting a witness, they can push us to ever-extremer positions that aren't sustainable, and they can turn what should be a positive, social witness into a self-focused righteousness that turns off others. Asking questions is good, but as I think you sense and as Marshall puts well, it's that positive, from-the-heart motivation that's the best for keeping things going for the long haul.

Martin @

Jeanne said...

Breaking your "law" and then feeling guilty without having compassion for your humanity only ends with guilt, and will add that new layer to your life.

When I feel the Light in my spirit, it isn't always peace and goodness and happiness--it's best at pointing out the errors of my ways, at intensifying shadows in my life. But I experience God's love and compassion in that Light too. Without that compassion, it's just another critical person telling me all the things I do wrong.

And I can do that just fine all by myself.

Christopher Parker said...

I think of legalism as following rules for their own sake and ignoring ethical and practical realities. Was that really the case here or did you just make a tangle inside yourself because you are afraid of that possibility? Sticking with a decision you've made often involves changing habits with willpower, but I don't think that's legalism.

Rapunzel said...

For me the challenge has been less about legalism and more about how to be a vegetarian without also becoming a self-righteous pain in the ass.
Can I eat vegetables and forgo meat without feeling compelled to announce my virtue to everyone around me? Yeah, sometimes I can...but I have to watch my step. My desire to be a vegetarian is very tied up to my desire to be a Really Good Person.
Am I really morally better than those who believe they need animal food to survive? They are acting on their beliefs as sincerely as I act on my own.
Does not eating meat make me more virtuous than those who are not wealthy enough to turn down any available food? I think not. I have been that poor myself, and poverty did not make me unthinking or uncaring.
After going back and forth with myself on this issue over 40 years now I have finally settled on this "rule" for myself:
When I cook, it is a non-meat dish. When someone else serves me a meal I eat what is put in front of me and am grateful to receive it.

Diane said...

I don't want to become self-righteous, especially as I too have been on the other side! It's a privilege to be able to choose what you do and don't eat.

When we were staying with Roger's parents during the holidays, I never mentioned being a vegetarian--I simply didn't eat meat. I was also trying to laugh at myself in this post!

At my Md. Quaker meeting, simple lunch became quite a tangle because we had vegans, vegetarians, and people allergic to nuts, soy and gluten. Some people simply can't eat certain foods, but to the extent we're making choices, I think we can't expect people to cater to us. I did read an article in Vanity Fair, I think, in which a woman with a summer home finally got tired of house guests telling her "I only eat white food, organic food, food grown within a 70 mile radius, I don't eat this, I don't eat that." She put her foot down, saying she was no longer doing more than providing food--take it or leave it. I applauded her, because too much food pickiness can be a species of one-upmanship.

Hystery said...

On the other side is how people respond to those who have difficult diets. I'm a vegan and for several months could not eat wheat gluten or most soy products (which contain wheat gluten). The former restriction is at the core of my spiritual belief system and the second was related to a health issue.

When I go places, I typically cannot eat the food prepared. If that is the case, I don't make a fuss. I'm not going to starve to death even after a whole day of not eating. I don't need to eat to enjoy the company.

There are two reactions to me. Most people are loving. Maybe they apologize and then I make a point of making sure they don't feel guilt. I know better than to preach to people or to go into long explanations for my decisions. I poke fun at myself and refocus attention on other aspects of their generosity whether its the delicious salad, a beautiful home, or their conversation. They are not responsible for feeding me. I enjoy the food I can eat and enjoy their company. I'm especially thankful that they care about me.

The other reaction I get is people telling me that my diet is wrong. They assume I am trying to be superior and they try to convince me that my belies are foolish. I hear things like, "What if you could only eat meat? Then what would you do?" or "What if you were stranded and had to eat human flesh?" (Yes, really, someone challenged me with that one.) Or, "Plants have feelings too. If you don't eat animals, you shouldn't eat plants!" Or "You can eat this. Chicken isn't an animal!" They are angry with me for my veganism which is a big part of my spiritual life. I've also seen people show disdain for dietary rules with my Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish friends. To me, that anger and resentment toward someone's heartfelt, albeit challenging spiritual and cultural choices, is the absolute opposite of hospitality.

Diane said...

Hi Hystery,

Yes, I agree it needs to go both ways--people shouldn't impose their food choices on others and others shouldn't criticize their food choices. With my in-laws, I didn't say anything because I didn't want to, but in their case, while they wouldn't have criticized me, they would have felt, from the bottom of their hearts, that I was risking malnutrition. They are of the Depression--they see meat as a necessary protein, and I didn't want to either preach to them or distress them.

Diane said...

My in-laws also knew want, if not dire want, growing up, so that roast on the table and chicken in the pot represents security and plenty. I would be loathe to mess with that.

Hystery said...

You know them and can make the best decision about that but I have found that elderly people are often amazingly supportive of my dietary decisions. My grandmother who is 93 eats vegetarian meals almost daily with us younger folks and my (very conservative)paternal grandparents who are both in their eighties (and who have made it clear how hard life was during the Depression and during the war) happily eat tofurkey and soy burger every time they visit- even on Thanksgiving and Christmas. People amaze me with just how tolerant and gracious they can be when you give them a chance.

Diane said...


Interesting. Maybe I will give it a try.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Well of course all animal cruelty is bad, but much slaughter of animals for food can be humane, I think. Certainly many many animals were slain in ancient Israel for all the sacrifices.

Deb my wife is vegan, and sticks to it rather regular, and is also concerned about animal abuse, though I'm not sure she's linked those two. It's a health issue for her, and she's allergic to dairy as well. But once in a while she breaks it. Paul could be flexible. I think when we take a stand we can make it a rule of life, but allow some exceptions if for good reasons, and sometimes such can be very good, and pleasing to the Lord of course.

ef said...

Wow, HERE is something I could go on about for ages, probably without ever getting to a "point" or thesis, let alone a well reasoned conclusion!

I've been a vegetarian (mostly) for over 20 years now. It's motivated by compassion, and when I first became veg as a teenager at a quaker school, I have to say I was shocked and hurt that all quakers (or most) weren't vegetarian too.

For me it was a very quaker development in my life, it was about seeing god in everything, you know?

It probably took me over ten years to really "get" the idea that people who aren't veg don't eat meat because they like to cause suffering, even longer to realize that becoming a vegetarian didn't give me a free pass on every other ethical issue in the world (or even that one - it's certainly possible to maintain a vegetarian lifestyle that inflicts pain on other living beings quite regularly)

I haven't fully come to terms with either of those things, but I feel like I turned some corner, something about not having perfection (or purity) as a goal, but compassion, for myself and all living things (including butchers and hunters and people who eat at McDonalds)

I have "slipped" a few times this year. Sometimes I have been craving something (like Salami) for 20 years, and I suddenly have the opportunity to eat some among the leftovers at a large event. Sometimes a friend is going to throw something away if no one eats it, or really really really wants me to try something she made. Once I even bought chicken and prepared it myself because I was wondering if my lightheadedness was a result of being meat deprived (it wasn't) - this is all after 20 years of being "really good" and following the rules to the letter.

Except I eat at Thai restaurants and just dont' worry about the fish sauce, and stuff like that.

For me it is about living compassionately and with attention (I read your post about mindfulness being overused, or I would have used that) and being legalistic about it can make it too annoying. Really every choice matters. So if you make one vegan meal for your family when you could have made meat, that has an impact. If 7 families do that once a week, it's as good as one family going vegan entirely and the other six doing nothing. I personally am beginning to think if there was a way for all 7 families to eat "happy meat" (what a phrase) for all of their meals it would be better than one going entirely vegan.

It's all a balancing act, and we all do different things to try to live well in the world.

I don't want to give anyone an "excuse" to blow of going veg if they feeled called to do so, and I hate it when people identify as vegetarian but then eat meat pretty much whenever they feel like it (unless of course they literally never feel like it) but over the years I have become a big fan of not being to hard on ourselves, and of being aware and following spirit rather than our own whims.

Diane said...


Beautiful comment. Thanks.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

“Well of course all animal cruelty is bad, but much slaughter of animals for food can be humane, I think. Certainly many many animals were slain in ancient Israel for all the sacrifices.”

Well, of course, cruelty to human beings is bad, but the killing of them can be humane. Certainly many people were slain in ancient times in sacrifices.

Does the analogy hold, do you think?

Mackenzie said...

It can be easier to eliminate things little by little. I was never a big fan of meat, but I kind of liked crabcakes, so I was pescatarian (the dictionary word for "vegaquarian" as you called it) for 2 years before becoming ovo-lacto-vegetarian. I now consider myself simply vegetarian.

However, I don't want to force others to cook especially for me. At a restaurant, ok, yes, they're being paid. But my mum? Either I cook, or (say if it's Thanksgiving) I take what she cooked and go with it. She uses non-dairy ingredients most of the time, but she doesn't like substituting soymilk for milk. Instead she uses Lactaid milk, which is still dairy, and still not so nice to the cows, but she would not accept any "for the animals" sort of excuses from me anyway (she and her husband run a pork company), but her main concern is my lactose intolerance. She knows I don't consume any dairy or eggs when given the choice and that were I to cook Thanksgiving dinner, it'd be 100% vegan.

When asked if I am vegan, I say something silly like "no, I've eaten eggs _ whole times this year!" (usually a one-digit number) or "only 97% of the time" or something.

Diane said...


Thanks for the comment!