When someone says to you, "Oh, being a vegan must be SO hard", how do you respond?
My automatic response is to say that no, on the contrary, it's the easiest thing in the world. But the truth is, it IS hard, just not in the ways they imagine.
True, replacing animal foods in my diet with healthier, more compassionate and environmentally-friendly options has been a joy, not a burden. True, I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything by giving up what was never really mine to take to begin with.
But the truth is, being vegan hurts, and sometimes that hurt cuts deep.
It hurts to see your best friend post jokes on Facebook about turkeys being killed for Thanksgiving dinner.
It hurts to watch your family members stuffing the corpses of tortured animals into their mouths, and then attempt to hold a dinner conversation with them as if everything were perfectly normal.
It hurts to walk past a KFC advertisement and see dismembered body parts being sold for pocket change.
In short, being vegan hurts because love hurts, and becoming vegan means opening up our hearts to love animals and recognize them as innocent, feeling beings that don't deserve to suffer for our pleasure. Once our eyes have been opened to just how much they do suffer, we cannot help but share in that suffering ourselves.
So we try to stop it. Boy, do we try. Of course we know that we ARE helping by no longer eating animals or their secretions ourselves, but, with the veil finally lifted from our eyes, we realize that there are so many more lives to save, and the enormity of the task can easily feel overwhelming.
Becoming vegan is like being blinded on the road to Damascus, then simultaneously taking the red pill and waking up to find that you're living in the Matrix and that EVERYTHING YOU'VE BEEN TOLD IS A LIE.
Except that this is no Hollywood movie. This is all too real.
And except that, unlike a religious conversion, your new-found conviction is based not on faith but on cold, hard facts.
You know what's wrong with the world, and you know how to fix it. It's such a simple answer, and it will solve so many of the world's problems, from halting climate change to ending world hunger to reversing the obesity epidemic. But, to your dismay, no one wants to hear it.
Feeling disheartened, misunderstood and perhaps even depressed, you may try to isolate yourself from the insanity of this world. In an attempt to avoid reminders of animal suffering, you may stop going out to eat with non-vegans, or decide you will only eat out in vegetarian or vegan restaurants, or limit your travels to places where you know such restaurants will be available.
This is a terrible idea.
Why? Because by doing this you will: (a) miss out on lots of wonderful experiences and relationships; and (b) still fail miserably at your attempt to avoid suffering, because suffering is everywhere.
So if there's no avoiding it, how can we cope with it? Start with these three basic principles:
1. Show Compassion.
As a vegan, you probably think of yourself as a pretty compassionate person. You have expanded your circle of compassion to include all non-human animals, and that is a wonderful thing. Just remember to include all humans in that circle as well – yes, even those who are contributing to animals' suffering.
Remember that you weren't always vegan either. As obvious as it is to you now, there was a time when you did not yet see the disconnect between your own values of peace, non-violence and compassion and the dead animal that was on your plate. Treat every non-vegan in your life as a VIP – a vegan in progress.
To paraphrase Rory Freedman, people are like kernels in a bag of microwave popcorn. Some pop right away, some will take a bit longer, and a few may never pop at all. Recognizing that each of us is on our own journey and will come to the truth in our own time makes it much easier to be accepting of others, no matter how far along they are on their own journey.
2. Take Action.
The most powerful way of coping with the tragedy of animal suffering is by doing something to stop it. No, you won't be able to stop all of it, but you can make a real difference in the lives of individual animals. In addition to eating only plant-based meals, here are a few steps you can take to do even more to help:
· Cook for others. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach, as they say, and a great way of opening people's minds to veganism is by showing them the delicious food they can enjoy as a vegan.
· Wear it on your sleeve. Or on your hat, your jacket, your running shorts, etc. Buy some t-shirts or other accessories with vegan slogans and spread the message everywhere you go, without even opening your mouth.
· Volunteer at an animal sanctuary. If you don't feel comfortable speaking to people face-to-face about veganism, how about spending time with animals instead? Find a sanctuary near you and ask how you can help.
· Donate money. If you don't have time to volunteer, then give a donation to help fund the work of animal rights organizations.
· Start a blog. The Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to share your story with the world. Whether it's a recipe, a thought piece or a personal story about your experiences with animals, what you share could be exactly what someone else needs to hear in order for the penny to drop.
· Lead by example. If you want to be effective in attracting people to veganism, don’t come across as an angry, militant extremist who throws blood on women wearing fur coats and calls everyone they meet a murderer. Instead, show them that as a vegan you lead a happy, joyful life full of love, peace, connection with nature, and delicious and healthy food.
3. Focus on the Good.
With all the undercover videos of factory farms floating around our social media networks, it can be easy to fall into despair and forget just how much progress we have made, and continue to make.
Seek out positive news, like stories about how Subway is expanding its vegan sandwich pilot project, or how 400 million fewer animals were killed for food in the U.S. in 2014 compared with 2007.
Sign up for email updates from farm animal sanctuaries, and receive stories in your inbox of animals being rescued and living out the rest of their lives in peace and freedom.
Watch this video, and then visualize the joy and beauty of what a vegan world could be like. And believe in your heart that it could really happen. The truth is, we ARE moving closer to a vegan world every day. And when that day comes, being vegan won't hurt at all anymore.