awakening | posted by Shaun O'Reilly
I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 2 ½ years. I think you should be one too.
In July of 2004, I was attending a conference on Henry David Thoreau up near Boston, MA. It cost me a lot to get on up there, find a place to stay, and get around to the conference. And, unfortunately, I was feeling like it was somewhat of a waste.
The speakers weren’t as interesting as they had been in previous years, the mingling had grown boring, and I was wondering how I justify paying for the expensive trip to New England.
So, I ditched one of the breakout sessions and went for a walk around lovely Concord. It was a spectacular day and the walk was just a good choice in general. I sat down on a bench and pulled out Thoreau's Walden.
I’ll admit, I uttered something related to a prayer at that point: “God, I’ve come all this way, paid the money … help me get something out of it. At least help me open up the book that brought me here, and let me be inspired…”
I opened up to my favorite chapter of Walden, "Higher Laws." It’s a unique chapter in which Thoreau seems to speak overtly about the spiritual, holy life. For Christians out there, this is the chapter most like our Sunday sermons! – be chaste, be pure. But this time, I read about the purity in a new way.
I had noticed that the chapter mentioned things about “animal food” before, but in those previous readings I had always just skipped those. It was kind of like those ideas were just so far from me, I couldn’t even understand why he was going there. So, I would breeze right by it, looking for other language, something familiar I guess.
Well, this time was different. Thoreau’s words about “animal food” (related to “higher life”) stuck out to me. This was the piece that was new, fresh, and really somewhat inspiring. I felt like the prayer was answered there. And, really, it was only a matter of time until I did something with it.
I got up from the bench and went back to the last main session of the conference. The speaker was great. Philip Cafaro spoke on Thoreau’s Living Ethics. Things came together.
The trip, redeemed. Me, inspired.
I came home and took some time with it. I tossed around the idea of “vegetarianism” to my wife, and she was amicable – she had never liked cooking with meat anyway.
Then I met with a vegetarian friend and we discussed the why’s and how’s, and he just suggested I try it and see what happens. ...
And, so, now I’m a vegetarian; and a happy one at that.
(end life-changing flashback)
Now, the only catch is that when we’re at dinner with people and they ask about it, my road to recovery (you might call it) is kinda hard to explain. I mean, I need to quote some Thoreau at you. You need to be in the right mood for that … and it helps to not be eating meat, I think! That way, you’re not put on the spot.
While it’s tough to do then and there … I’d like to do it now.
So, get in the right mood, put down your steak, and pick up a banana instead. Let me briefly share with you what Henry David espouses in the Higher Laws chapter of Walden. (And, I’ll quote Philip Cafaro, of Colorado State University, whose book Thoreau’s Living Ethics has helped me further understand where Thoreau was coming from.)
To begin, we go to living nonhuman nature. Part of where I'm coming from does have to do with awareness ... and on the idea of people recognizing nature’s value, and living rightly by it, Thoreau writes,
“No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child. I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual phil-anthropic distinctions.”
Cafaro mentions that these “usual distinctions” are between human suffering and the suffering of other beings, which we discount, and between the ending of a human and nonhuman life. To me, Thoreau’s words paint a picture that helps me understand my relation to things. And, I’ve admired his connectedness to nature – perhaps a “proper relation” to things.
Cafaro also explains that while contemporary briefs against meat eating can grow quite complicated, Thoreau’s appeal is one expressly to experience. As Thoreau writes,
“It may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to flesh and fat. I am satisfied that it is not. Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way, - as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn.”
It was the “imagination” Thoreau describes that I latched on to. This inspired me, and was understood within me. And Cafaro clarifies,
“here we see Thoreau’s ethical method: simplify your life and pay careful attention to the effects of your actions. If we do this, he believes, we will be much more likely to see right and wrong. At the very least, we will better understand the trade-offs our actions necessitate, for ourselves and others, and whether our actions conform to our principles.”
As far as holiness goes, I had just never considered how I ate. When I did, and when these passages stood out to me that day, I agreed with Thoreau - “this is a miserable way.” And I’ve found that my new conviction is one of the “imagination” – an appeal to some higher faculty – spiritually encouraging, but something I cannot fully explain. Really, though, I’m okay with that.
Yet, while encouraged, I’m continually trying to take the next step. When I chose to be a vegetarian, I actually chose the easier of TWO commitments Thoreau puts forth. Another challenging passage in Higher Laws reads,
“I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind … The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.”
With this, Thoreau speaks directly to the obesity problem in the U.S., and to the one with me. Thus comes the act of holiness, obedience, of self-control, and of purity. No longer eating meat was an easy decision, but the most important one really is: what am I putting in my body? How much am I putting in? What is it made of? And how long will I allow my soul to be betrayed?
“when that which is eaten is not a viand to sustain our animal, or inspire our spiritual life, but food for the worms that possess us … The wonder is how … you and I, can live this slimy beastly life, eating and drinking.”
I still wonder about it. I wonder it about us. And, I wonder it about me. May we continually wake up, take action, live & eat well.