I am a vegetarian. I have been one for over four years now. In all that time, I have never been able to finish a blog post about vegetarianism. I have started several, and most of them have been attempts at coming up with a theoretical statement of my beliefs about vegetarianism and meat-eating. I did, and do, have interesting things to say about that subject, but I have realized that none of those things really capture why I became a vegetarian and the role that my vegetarianism plays in my life. To do that, I shall have to open up and tell a story.
I became a vegetarian at the end of March 2007. It was near the end of Lent, and Easter was approaching. I hadn’t given up anything that year– I don’t normally give up anything in particular for Lent– but I had had vegetarianism as a dietary practice much on my mind throughout the season and well before. I was still teaching philosophy at that time, and for several years I had taught a unit in my applied ethics courses on the ethics of humans’ treatment of animals. Through that teaching, I had come to the conclusion that there was little to no rational case to be made for killing animals and using their bodies as food, especially in the way the factory farming system does it. But yet I still ate meat regularly. I can’t recall exactly how I justified it to myself, other than that I had tried to quit before and I just couldn’t do it. I missed eating meat so much; every meal without it felt like a supreme sacrifice, and my thought was not on the food in front of me but on the meat it was not. It was maddening, and I consoled myself with the notion that the relatively small amount of meat I ate didn’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.
I was standing in my kitchen one afternoon, though, at the end of that March, when it finally dawned on me that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t eat meat. That was what I remember thinking: I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep doing something I know is this pointless and grotesque. It was early afternoon; the sun was shining outside. I must have been getting ready to cook dinner (I did the majority of the cooking even then). I stared out of the kitchen window, which faced our back yard, letting the realization echo in my head. I had become exhausted at the act of self-trickery it took to sit down to chicken or steak and try to forget everything I knew about how they got to my plate. And so I stopped. It wasn’t a willful thing, a forced act of foregoing something that I deeply, deeply desired. It came instead as that sort of profound relief that comes when one finally lets oneself acknowledge a great truth about oneself and realizes that the world hasn’t caved in on itself.
I won’t lie: It was still hard to stop eating meat, just not in the way most omnivores think it is. My then-wife and I cooked a lot of vegetarian meals already, so it wasn’t that I was at a loss for what to cook. The hard part was that it entailed an entirely new, focused, mindful attitude towards food that I hadn’t completely anticipated. Vegetarianism isn’t quite as simple as eating what you already eat and just leaving off the meat. A lot of dishes contain some sort of animal product, like broth, that raise the same sorts of ethical roadblocks as a steak. But it’s more than that. Being vegetarian means that one has to think about what one eats before one eats it in a way that is not necessary for omnivores. An omnivore can eat a vegetarian or vegan dish and not think much about what it is she is eating. It is simply one of a wide array of choices available, and the only constraint she need feel on what she eats is her personal taste and her available budget for food. The world is set up for omnivores, not for vegetarians. Vegetarians have to read food labels for more than just calorie counts. Vegetarians have to read menus carefully in restaurants and scrutinize the ingredients and likely preparation of even the meat-free dishes on the menu. Vegetarians also have to contend with the fact that most restaurants offer, at most, one genuinely vegetarian dish, and that even most of the salads have some sort of meat in them or on them.
Nowhere was this mindful approach to food more jarring than in my first few trips to the grocery as a vegetarian. For a vegetarian, I learned, the grocery store is full of foreclosed options and outright monstrosities. I had the distinct sensation in the grocery early in April of that first year that I was in a vast hall of death, a great cold morgue, the refrigerated and freezer sections teeming with finely dressed corpses, boxed, bagged and wrapped. This was of course not the whole truth about the grocery, and I soon learned that there is plenty of nourishment for the vegetarian in any grocery. But the point is this: The vegetarian has to think about that fact and look for what she can eat, and sometimes she must search hard.
For omnivores, this mental regimen must sound rather exhausting, and honestly it can be. But what I learned is that the mindfulness of vegetarian eating opened up a relationship to food, my body, and my ability to enjoy eating that I had never before experienced and that made up for the labor more than tenfold. When I was an omnivore, I never had to think much about my food: What was in it, where it came from, how I got it. Beef jerky and hot dogs are as close as any gas station convenience store, after all. When I had to devote more than a passing thought to my food, however, I found it impossible not to be intensely aware also of the entire experience of acquiring, preparing and eating it. I recall that for those first few weeks, and for a long time afterwards, I greeted every meal with a profound sense of awareness and an overwhelming sense of gratitude. The world of food was not set up with me in mind, I would think (or rather half-think, half-feel), and yet look at this rich abundance with which I have been blessed! This sense of mindful gratitude has, over the years, become a little less acute, but it is still there in however subtle a way every time I eat. No food I ate as a thoughtless, drifting omnivore tasted quite as good as anything I have eaten since becoming vegetarian, if only because I became present in and with what I eat. I am receptive to its flavor in an entirely new way. And, to speak more spiritually, I am able to eat in a way that does not involve me holding at unacknowledged arms’ length the vast machinery of death that makes most meat-eating possible. It was like the lifting of a great weight, and I could finally embrace eating for nothing more than the sheer, unabashed, virtually erotic pleasure of it.
Why am I sharing all this? I am not trying to browbeat you into becoming a vegetarian like me, although I can say without hesitation that if you do, I think it will improve your life. I also don’t pretend that my current dietary habits are somehow a model of vegetarian perfection. I am sharing this because I think that it raises a larger issue about embodiment and localization. To be a vegetarian is to be, among other things, localized. Omnivores in this country inhabit a largely undifferentiated, invisible world of food choices. Once one has stepped outside this world of omnipresent, easily available meat, one’s suddenly has a very specific location in the food economy. There are parts of the grocery that have lots of options and parts that have none. There are restaurants and markets that are especially friendly to vegetarians, and there are others that are either indifferent or hostile. One also has to own oneself and one’s desires as a vegetarian. My experience, at least, was that on most social occasions I was (and am) the only vegetarian, and depending on the occasion this is a fact that can’t help but stand out. I also have to contend with the occasional fleeting desire for meat, especially bratwurst and other sausages. Being vegetarian in an omnivore’s world means being contingent, specific, localized, embodied, three-dimensional.
The experience that gave rise to my vegetarianism occurred during Lent, the season leading up to Easter, the time in which Christians remember Jesus’s execution at the hands of the Roman state and his victory over death. I write about it in December, during the season of Advent, the season in which Christians wait for the birth of Jesus celebrated at Christmas. This is, I think, no accident. The savior Christians proclaim was born a human birth, died a human death, and presumably lived a human life in between, with all of its contingency and locality. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is not also here and now and potentially everywhere: It is that Jesus is not so much everywhere as he is somewhere. Jesus is in my bean burrito for me in more than just that bland sense in which God is said to be omnipresent. Jesus was born into the world in a reeking stable, presumably covered in a bloody mess, shitting, pissing, hungry and vulnerable. He was then and there first, nowhere and nowhen else, and like the rest of us his life was fully embodied, however embarrassing this can seem sometimes.
In Jesus God doesn’t just smile indulgently upon human birth and death, but inhabits it, becomes it, transforms and redeems it, all the way down. In so doing, he shows us that God is in our desires and pleasures, our satisfaction of our needs. It shows us that it is a problem when we submerge our bodies and their contingency and locality in the solvent of invisible, omnipresent, putatively universal norms and systems. What comes to pass in Advent and Christmas is an invitation to become mindful and grateful, and in so doing to become open to a joy and peace that does not stem from a denial of the body, but instead a full and loving acknowledgement and transformation of it. This is the Jesus who comes to meet us in the stable, as well as the Jesus that meets me still in my bean burrito and in all else I am able to receive with gratitude.