When I was a baby, my dad looked after me during the day while my mum worked. He carried me everywhere, refusing to use a sling or buggy. The stories I heard about him from my aunty, grandma, mum were all about how he ‘idolised’ me. The reason I needed stories to tell me about this relationship is because he left before I had learnt to speak.
He left before I had the words to ask or understand why.
It’s no coincidence that I grew up feeling more of an affinity with babies than with my peers and seeking out animals as friends… I think I was trying to recreate the powerful connection that emerges when you have to ‘read’ someone who can’t speak… when you have to ‘listen’ with your whole body… when you have to change your own energy to pick up on someone else’s. It relies completely on visible vulnerability… a willingness to show who you are with your eyes and trust that the other won’t look away.
A few years ago I looked after a baby who was in hospital because he needed round the clock care. I’d arrive at 7am and stay several hours every day for almost 5 months.
I learnt a lot about communication from him… the difference between a frown that meant discomfort and one that meant boredom… whether a particular expression on his face meant tiredness or illness. I learnt the smiles of joy and the cries of pain.
Oh… did I mention that because of his condition, no noise came out when he cried?
Babies and animals rely completely on our ability to not only see their vulnerability but to feel it and respond compassionately to it. Their lives literally depend on this bond. The instant that we, the ones with the power over their wellbeing, allow ourselves to be disconnected from that primal connection, our humanity starts slipping away from us.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”Mahatma Gandhi
And so when I found out what happens to cows in order to produce milk, I felt sick. When I found out that they carry their babies for 9 months, just like humans, but that their babies are taken away as soon as they’re born (the sons to be shot in the head because they’re worthless to the dairy industry, the daughters to live the same brutalised, enslaved lives of their mothers), it was like a blow to the chest.
The mothers are taken immediately (sometimes still bleeding from the birth) to be hooked up to a machine that steals their milk while they literally cry out for their babies. They are terrified and confused. Their maternal instinct is exactly the same as any mother whose child has been taken from them. And the baby’s trauma is exactly the same as any baby forcibly removed from the protection of its mother.
I cried enraged and impotent tears at the fate that befalls these billions of powerless, innocent mother and baby animals every year just because we like milk in our tea and cheese on our pizza. I felt incredible guilt not just because I hadn’t known this before but because I hadn’t wanted to know before.
Knowing things that make you realise the you have to change is very inconvenient.
I cried a lot, got angry a lot and thought very carefully about writing this post. People (myself included) are highly sensitive about the choices they make and especially about the things we consume. Although it’s something we often do without much thought, eating is an intimate part of every day. Food is cultural, ritualistic, social. The word ‘companion’ has its roots in the Latin meaning ‘with bread’. A friend is someone with whom we eat.
Would I lose friends, even alienate family, by not wanting to eat the way I used to?
In spite of these fears, continuing the way I had been wasn’t an option. I went vegan the second I saw the cruelty I’ve been participating in (here’s the documentary that I watched but there are many others). I wanted to tell everyone to watch it. I was full of moral outrage.
I became evangelistic. I burnt with righteous indignation and judged everyone who continued to support this horrific practice… forgetting that just a month earlier I’d happily been spreading butter on my toast and ordering caramel lattes.
In these months of reflection on the suffering my way of life has caused, I told one friend that I’ve cried every day. She tried to make me ‘feel better’. “No, no… you don’t understand…” I said. “Crying means I’m feeling… I’m not shutting it out and pretending it’s not happening.”
Feeling pain without immediately blaming and shaming anyone is the first step towards changing.
Others who have made the transition in the way they eat have described an experience that I hadn’t been able to put words to… a strange emotional awakening as their body adjusts to no longer consuming animal products. They feel more emotionally awake, connected to the living world, compassionate towards all living creatures… not just the ones in their immediate circle and a deep desire not to participate in their suffering.
I used to think that the compulsion to look away from someone else’s pain was a weakness. But I realise now that it’s a reminder of the choice life keeps giving me to feel another being’s experience no matter how much more convenient it would be to deny it and no matter how much guilt, helplessness and anger it stirs up in me. It’s ok to have my feelings but it’s not ok to privilege them above those of the one who is showing me her vulnerability.
Isn’t that what we also call ‘love’?
The communication that happens when someone else (human or non human, mother or baby) shows you, “I am at your mercy. My life depends on your compassion” is the essence of vulnerability. And the communication that happens when you reply with your heart, “I see you… I hear you… I won’t hurt you” is the essence of empathy and the call to courage and justice.
I used to think I was oversensitive for believing that the non verbal bond created then severed in the first few months of life with my dad had taught me to feel a deep connection to others who don’t have the words to speak of their grief when they are separated from their families and their despair when they are treated as disposable.
Now I realise I’m no more sensitive than any other living creature… I just talk about it more! Experiencing separation from my dad didn’t make me sensitive. It was just my first lesson in the value of vulnerability, the imperfection of love and the struggle of being human.
And now I know something about how to align my values of non violence and justice with the way I live that I didn’t know before: I didn’t like being separated from my parent so I no longer participate in other living creatures being separated from and denied the right to be nurtured and loved by theirs.
Mine is a very personal perspective and I don’t have all the facts. But here are some of the resources that I know have helped a lot of people learn more about where their food comes from and has made veganism one of the world’s fastest growing movements:
Full disclosure: I watched a different documentary… I can’t watch Dominion because I know how painful it will be. Like the person who wrote the comment below about it, this blog post is my apology for not being able to look again at the horrific nature of this industry:
I used to think vegans were crazy. that they were overreacting and that it wasn’t that bad. I’m not even 10 minutes in and I can’t believe what I’ve seen. I can’t believe I’ve taken part in this awful system and I want to help stop this. Im going vegan and I’m so sorryDominion
“Animals cannot speak for themselves. That’s the difference between their oppression and human oppression. Humans can form coalitions to defend themselves”Joey Carbstrong