The weekend that Mariann and I got hitched – February 1, 2013 – we also got tattoos across our feet that say “change the world for animals.” As Mariann sat on the tattoo artist’s table with the words that are so near and dear to our hearts (and toes, apparently) being etched forevermore onto her skin (this was her second tattoo and my nine-millionth), she noted – with that deadpan delivery for which she’s so well-known amongst our podcast listeners – that this was indeed the “weekend of commitments.”
That it was. The day prior, the officiator at our City Hall wedding went through the regular rigmarole. Yes, we took each other to have and to hold… Yes, that meant in sickness and in health (though, we’re vegan, so one would hope the sicknesses would be fewer and further between than our carnist neighbors)… Yes, yes yes – we do we do we do! It was, I admit, surprisingly moving. I was going for a hint of irony, but romance slapped me in the face.
People asked us if we felt different afterwards, and the truth is, we did. We both felt that something had shifted, settled a bit. We had been together for 6 years prior to that fateful day when we walked around NYC’s Chinatown in search of the perfect, plain wedding band. And yet, our nuptials – promises we made to one another in front of two friends (we told most of our friends and family only after the fact) – brought with them a renewed commitment to one another.
Maybe it was that pivotal day that sparked my thinking, or the subsequent tattoo, but, lately, I’ve been obsessing about the idea of commitment. A marriage is perhaps the most obvious example of a commitment to another person (though, as the daughter of two people who were each in their third marriage by the time I was 11, I know very well that this kind of commitment is frequently nothing more than fleeting). A tattoo is also emblematic of a lifelong promise (“I just could never commit to something like that!” is the most common argument I hear from people who dream of “ink” but would never take the plunge).
But what about commitments that don’t require rings or needles? What about the kinds of commitments we make to ourselves? Most of all, in a world where people jump from fad to fad, from diet to diet, and from commitment to commitment, what does it mean to make the promise that is veganism? Unlike promises we make to ourselves to take off 5 pounds after the New Year, promising ourselves and the animals to live a life of compassion is no momentary impulse. It requires a personal vow that goes much deeper than “oh sure, I’ll try it – why not?”
Of course, lots of personal commitments begin with “oh sure, I’ll try it …” Case in point: Last year, I ran a half-marathon. 13.1 miles of pain and determination. Similarly to how I feel when I first agree to write an article or chapter, I somewhat impulsively made the decision, having no idea what I was in for down the road – but ultimately thrilled to have accomplished it.
Here’s how it happened. Just when I was starting to vaguely think about whether I wanted to take on the emotionally and physically taxing commitment to train for a long run, I was approached by the producers of The Dr. Oz Show. They were planning an episode centering around the whole foods diet approach as touted by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D., author of Eat to Live, a book that changed my life – and my figure. To the (in my imagination) chagrin of my childhood tormentors, I lost 100 pounds. I did it through intermittent juice fasting – combined with a diet comprised mostly of whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, small amounts of high-quality fats such as nuts and seeds, and, occasionally, whole grains such as quinoa and amaranth. And so, when The Dr. Oz Show asked me to appear alongside Fuhrman to discuss my radical transformation, I plotzed!
Being asked to appear on one of the most popular shows on television is not something that happens every day. So, in my defense, I wasn’t thinking entirely clearly. Perhaps that is why, during my appearance, I announced my plan, unbeknownst even to myself, to run a half marathon. What was I thinking? By this point, I had only been running for less than a year. During the segment, Dr. Oz showed a photo of me taking part in a four-mile race – my first one, which had occurred just a few days before the show taped. He exclaimed that completing a race like that sure took commitment. He was right – it had. Always needing to one up myself, though, I nonchalantly mentioned that I was currently training for a half-marathon.
Dr. Oz played the part of a talk show host who was impressed; I played the part of a humble “success story.” As soon as I walked off stage, I realized that I had to follow through. It had, after all, been announced on national TV. I went home and registered for the first half marathon I could find. Ironically, my brief moment of insanity made it only as far as The Dr. Oz Show’s cutting room floor (though, happily, my mention of veganism remained in the segment). This was my out, I thought. Nobody would ever know! But I was already registered for the race, and I had already forked over the entry fee. Plus, as Dr. Oz himself had said, feats like these took commitment. My mind was made up, my proverbial sneakers laced. Just as I had discovered when I first went vegan, when you commit to something that’s meaningful to you – whether it’s personal or political – sticking with it becomes a no-brainer.
Or does it? Many of us have heard by now that a prominent health coach and author of a well-known book on going vegan recently proclaimed, quite loudly and embarrassingly proudly, that she is no longer vegan. She blamed her cravings, and poised herself as a martyr because she was finally letting go of her shame about it. (Mariann and I discussed the themes of cravings and shame on Episode 165 of our podcast, and also touched on the danger of misappropriating liberationist language when referring to re-joining the status quo.)
I get that commitments sometimes go seriously awry. As noted, my parents were each married three times by my eleventh birthday. My mother and father’s divorce was ugly and complicated. I was too young to remember the actual divorce, but the effects of it permeated my childhood. Thirty-three years later, I still feel those repercussions. By the time my first step-father sat me down at age five and explained to me that he and my mom were splitting up, I hung my head with sadness, but not confusion: I distinctly remember feeling that that’s just what happens. Marriages come and go. Though I obviously didn’t have the words to describe it as such, it was beginning to be clear to little me that commitments come and go, too.
So how does it make sense that many years later, I was able to commit to run my goddamn half marathon (it still makes me wince when I think of the many klutzy and painful falls I took while training)? And, for that matter, how did I manage to lose 100 pounds? It’s not like I’m Superwoman. Just ask Mariann – I’m incredibly, ridiculously flawed. As I type this, it’s nearly 4:00 in the afternoon and I have yet to raise the blinds or get out of my pajamas (this is part of the double-edged sword of working from home). And even though it’s incredibly important to me to finish my book proposal, it has been sitting in a folder on my desktop, untouched, for 6 months now. (And those examples are more like accolades next to the real issues I have, which, sorry, I won’t get into here.)
So when and how do I choose between following through and dropping the ball, between keeping a promise and divorcing an idea, between a firm commitment and a refusal to persevere? When do any of us? My parents said “I do,” and, at the time, they did. Then at some point they didn’t. The ex-vegan I mentioned wrote a book advocating for a strictly vegan diet, and now she’s gaining popularity amongst the omnis for “being honest enough with herself to go back.” When it comes to whether we stick with our commitments, what gives?
When I ran my half-marathon, the commitment I made was to myself, and only to myself. And for me, at that moment in time, for a whole lot of reasons, it really mattered to me. I wanted to prove that I could accomplish it, and, truth be told, I wanted to get some vindication for the awkward kid in the back of gym class, feigning cramps to get out of playing dreaded Dodge Ball (how that was legal I’ll never understand). I wanted to let her become what she never imagined she could be – an athletic and (apparently) confident adult with the self-discipline to run long miles every day, culminating in the triumph of crossing the finish line in one piece, Rocky style.
I’m happy I ran my half marathon, yet I know full well that in another place and time, that kind of commitment, based in self-accomplishment, might work for me – but it might not. Sometimes, people are just human, so they fail, or they call “backsies” on their commitments. Maybe that’s what happened with my parents. All of us reading this have had a relationship go sour. Hopefully, there weren’t kids or other unintended victims in the mix at the time, but for a lot of us, there were. Such is life.
But veganism is different. Veganism is a moral imperative. When we commit to something that is ultimately altruistic (not that it isn’t beneficial to us – of course it is, but I’m talking about our driving force), then our commitment needs to be looked at through a different lens.
Commitments that are just for yourself, like running my half marathon was for me, can be difficult. Running 13.1 miles hurt – a lot. But veganism – waking up each day with an understanding that my abundant and bountiful breakfast is an extension of my worldview, and knowing that the advocacy work I will do following my breakfast is an extension of my life’s mission (and foot tattoo) to change the world for animals – is simple, obvious. The commitments that are strictly and solely meant to benefit us are the ones where we’re more likely to falter. Maybe it’s when we place too much ego in the mix that we run the risk of slipping. Maybe that’s why some people stop being vegan – they lose perspective and forget about the animals.
For those of us who are vegan, we have indeed made a promise to live a life in accordance with our ethical beliefs – to do our best to embody non-violence – a promise we made not only to ourselves, but an unspoken pact we have made with our fellow earthlings. By committing to veganism, we are most certainly taking the road less traveled (at least for now, though I anticipate some serious traffic jams in coming years). That is not always the most popular way to be, as many of us have experienced first-hand. But how can any of us unknow the horrific truths about what goes on for animals behind closed doors? We can’t. Luckily for us, being vegan is accessible, affordable, and insanely delicious – even though those facts also remain behind closed doors (or closed minds) more often than we’d like. But we’ve committed to being this way, and many of us would proudly proclaim that it’s the best decision we’ve ever made.
In fact, when it’s for the animals, everything changes. It’s not for personal security, romance, the approval of our families, the children and picket fence we hope to have, the career goal, the starring role, the accomplishment of crossing the finish line, or the self-satisfaction of having lost weight. Being vegan is about something besides us. And though there are plenty of perks, it’s not about them either. It’s not about the new Ethiopian restaurant that we never would have tried when we ate animals, the cupcakes we’re dying to make from that new cookbook, the Meet-Up we’re eager to attend because it would be so great to have a new like-minded BFF, the juice cleanse we’ve decided to go on with our co-worker. All of those perks are super, and I myself have enjoyed many of them, and a whole lot more, but they are not the foundation of our veganism and if they all disappeared, it would make no difference.
That does not mean that we should set aside our own animal needs, or that we should ignore the enormous personal benefits, and potential challenges, of going vegan. So yeah, there might be times when we have to take inventory of ourselves, making sure we’re getting the right nutrients and proper fulfillment from life. We might even need to remind one another of such necessities in self-care. But we don’t need to break our commitment, the most important commitment we have ever made in our lives. (Because, as Sayward Rebhal recently wrote about so eloquently and as Jack Norris discussed on our podcast last week, even the infinitesimal percentage of vegans who do not thrive at first can indeed find vegan solutions if they try.)
Veganism is about something much bigger than ourselves. It’s about equality, it’s about justice. It’s about boycotting the meat industrial complex and everything it entails – the misery, the despair, the commodification of life, the exploitation of innocence. It’s about the future of our planet – if our planet is to have a future. It’s about living a life that we know in our hearts is right – even though everyone around us, and in the media – refuses to accept that (so far). It’s about lovingly looking into the eyes of our dog and knowing that we are not hypocrites when we sit down for lunch. It’s about being a positive, patient, compassionate, and kind role model for others who view our lifestyle as “radical,” but somewhere inside of them are intrigued. It’s about honesty, and not letting ourselves succumb to denial. Our veganism is about the animals – both human and non – who are incomprehensibly oppressed by a society that is utterly blind to their suffering and its own privilege. It’s about them, not us. It’s about commitment. And it’s about time we got that.