“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have a marginally unhealthy obsession with documentaries. My obsession goes back many years, but Netflix has completely enabled my addiction. More recently, camping out on the sofa to watch documentaries has become one of my favorite ways to avoid making progress on my doctoral work. Educational, thought-provoking procrastination at its best.
On the off chance that you don’t already know me, I’m trying to get my PhD in expressive therapies. It’s a low-residency program, which means I’ve had to travel to Boston from Philadelphia to be on campus for three weeks in the summer for three consecutive years. Those three weeks are spent in class and slogging through my research. I spend the other 49 weeks of the year working independently from home, relying heavily on the university website to access library resources, connect with professors and peers, and share papers and projects.
Last summer was my last summer residency, and I spent a lot of time holed up in my dorm room, researching and writing. The seclusion and absence of the usual distractions – laundry, dishes, yard work, dog, etc. – meant I could get a lot accomplished, but too many hours of reading and writing meant my fried brain needed a break. I opened Netflix to find a documentary, and after perusing my options, decided to watch Vegucated. Vegucated, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is a documentary about a vegan woman who turns to Craigslist to recruit three New Yorkers to try veganism for six weeks.
Over the last several years, I’ve seen a bunch of documentaries about the wretched American diet, many of which dedicated screen time to modern animal agriculture’s factory farming practices. So before seeing Vegucated, I knew what was happening to farm animals. I knew farm animals were kept in despicable conditions. I deliberately use the word, “kept.” I can’t even say “they lived in despicable conditions” because they aren’t living. Existing in a cage, having your reproductive capabilities commoditized, never being granted compassion, never experiencing the rightful joys of your existence, only knowing dark warehouses, abuse, pain, and cruelty is not living.
It’s with a heavy heart that I admit that despite this knowledge, I carried on. Business as usual was eating the occasional burger or pork sausage, pounds of chicken, tons of cheese, and dozens of eggs – scrambled, extra dry. I made a kickass chili with chorizo and steak. As I was trying to cut back on beef, pork and chicken, I was eating more yogurt, tuna salad, and egg salad. I was in conflict about it though. I frequently had the thought that I should eat something other than meat, but brushed the lingering doubts aside because changing meant acknowledging that what I had been doing my entire life was ethically wrong. How would I come to terms with that? Vegan author and host of one of my new favorite podcats, Vegetarian Food for Thought, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, describes the mental state before one awakes to the horror of their complicity, and decides to take action – I was asleep.
I had been making changes prior to the evening I watched Vegucated. With the exception of fish, I was intentionally eating less meat. For many years, I had been eating veggie burgers and dogs at home, but I had been making a point of ordering veggie burgers when we went out too. I had also experimented with soy-based ground “meat” when cooking at home. I insisted on buying Certified Humane cage-free eggs. Instead of cow’s milk, I had started buying almond milk. In retrospect, it doesn’t sound like much, but these were important first steps, changes that reflected my growing desire to know where my food came from, changes that were easy to make. These first steps gave me a glimpse of my capacity to change, and made me feel like my actions mattered. I was still eating regular yogurt, but pouring almond milk on my cereal meant I was doing less damage to dairy cows. I knew I could do more though. I just didn’t know what next step to take, or what it would mean to other areas of my life since food is an important aspect of family and friendships.
Sitting in the stark dorm room, temporarily away from my day-to-day omnivorous life, watching the vegan experiments unfold in the documentary, changed me. It became clear that taking the next step was less frightening than the prospect of remaining complicit. As I watched the documentary, I saw people I could relate to, people with meat stored in their freezers, and dairy and eggs in their refrigerators. I saw families and friends that had no intention of getting on board with eliminating meat, half-jokingly teasing or challenging the vegan experiment participants’ plant-based diets. I saw the self-doubt and conflicting emotions of trying to stick to a lifestyle that others belittled. I felt their sense of marginalization. I saw aspirations to do it perfectly, and recognition of the obstacles to achieving that. I saw how the emotions were overwhelming at times. I saw them approach veganism as a short-term endeavor, but as the six weeks dwindled down, I saw their hearts open to new possibilities. I saw them waking up.
I saw that I could overcome fear and doubt, and I could change. I saw that I could eliminate meat, and begin to eat more vegan meals. I saw that I could extend compassion and understanding. I saw that learning more about my food naturally led to more considerate, ethical decisions about what I would eat. I saw that I needed to finally wake up.