Why I’m Quitting Vegetarianism

[Editor’s note1: the following post has nothing to do with the web.]

Nearly four years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, I stopped eating meat.

In June of 2011 I was sitting on my grandparents’ balcony, under an oak tree, looking out to Cedar Creek. My grandparents have several bird feeders throughout their backyard so there’s always plenty of squirrels, chipmunks, and (of course) birds milling about. My attention turned to a particular bird on a branch not far from me. Which species I’m not certain, but I watched it hop along the branch for a while, darting its head back and forth, eyes bulging from time to time.

At that moment, I told myself I would just stop eating meat. I reasoned there was no right for me to kill that bird; as far as I could tell it had no desire to die. Why else would it so frantically jump out of the way and fly off if any predator came by? Did it not have a right to live, as any sentient creature does? For some time before this I had been contemplating these ideas but it never really clicked until that afternoon, watching the bird.

For years before that day, I had been mulling over the morality of eating meat and whether stopping was something I should or even could realistically do. (I know the clichéd nature of what I’m about to write, but:) In high school I started losing my religion—if one could say I ever had it in the first place—and became fascinated with Buddhism. I studied up. I absorbed some of the teachings into my life and benefited from it. However, there was always one aspect I couldn’t come to terms with: ceasing meat consumption. For years I thought about how difficult it would be, not only personally but also how it would affect those around me. By the time I stopped eating meat, I ate meat for nearly every meal—often without anything else except maybe a bun and some mustard.

But I like challenges. Watching the birds, I challenged myself to just stop. To see if I could. I wondered if it would even be possible, would I miss meat too much? Would I crave it and cave and be back to eating meat three times a day within a month, or even a week?

Kyle the Vegetarian

Not eating meat was easier than I thought it would be. Socially, it was very difficult at first. Yet the cravings and temptations I thought I would encounter never came. Not once did I really want a hamburger or brat. People would eat chicken wings and chorizo in front of me and it didn’t really affect me one way or another. However, I had to stress to anyone that ate with me that no, I wasn’t one of those vegetarians. You know: vegetarians that would tell you why eating meat is wrong on so many levels, why you’re a terrible person for even thinking of eating meat, why they’re so much better than you for not eating meat, et cetera, et cetera. I’m sure even if you haven’t met someone like that, you’ve seen them portrayed in a TV show or movie. People like that do exist. I know some. But one of the key lessons I learned in my research into Buddhism was to accept others as they are, to not judge, and to not proselytize to others. Live and let live, so to speak. I never wanted to be that vegetarian. I didn’t even want to talk about it, unless someone asked me a question first. I held to this so well that some coworkers and friends did not know I was a vegetarians for years.

After the initial few months of explaining my situation to friends and family that did ask, everything started to become normal. At family gatherings special—and I believe, unnecessary yet appreciated—consideration was taken for me when preparing meals. Friends just stopped caring and asking questions. Which is exactly what I wanted. I tried new foods I might have otherwise overlooked on a menu. Tried Indian food for the second time and fell in love with it this time. I discovered the amazing combination that is spinach and feta (in/on everything). I started eating hummus. I learned how to cook eggs in pretty much any way imaginable. I realized that the best pizzas don’t need meat on them.

But Kyle, why now, why not four years ago?

So why am I going to eat meat for the first time in nearly four years? Like my conversion to vegetarianism, I have been thinking about eating meat again for some time now.

My freshman year of college I was studying film at Columbia College Chicago. My first semester I took a philosophy course called “Philosophical Issues in Film.” It remains one of the most influential classes I’ve ever taken (among other reasons, it was the impetus for me transferring to the University of Wisconsin). I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t taken this class2. Each week our homework was to watch a film chosen by the professor then discuss said film through the lens of a particular philosophical idea or movement. One week we watched Koyaanisqatsi. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning ”unbalanced life” although the film translates it as “life out of balance.”

Living life in one extreme or the other is living a life out of balance. Before I became a vegetarian, I was in one extreme: eating meat for most meals and having it be the majority of said meals (if not all of the meal). Being vegetarian meant I jumped directly to the other extreme end of the spectrum (albeit not as extreme as a level-five vegan).

The more I work and live in technology, the more I want to stay connected with nature. Nature is balance.3 To be a part of the natural world, we must realize the roles we play and how we affect our environment.

In the course of my moving away from vegetarianism, I found this piece from the New York Times Magazine from a few years ago. A call for essays about the ethics of eating meat was put out and six finalists were printed in the Times. In her essay “We Require Balance. Balance Requires Meat.” Stacy Roussel writes:

Too much meat creates its own imbalances as farms are converted into smelly feedlots. I am often disappointed at restaurants where vegetables seem to be an afterthought, a mere garnish next to the meat. We need to seek balance in our land and in our kitchens.

[...]

This is why eating meat is ethical. To not consume meat means to turn off a whole part of the natural world and to force production of food to move away from regenerative systems and to turn toward a system that creates larger problems for our world.

At the heart of the original reason I became a vegetarian was the ethics of killing an animal that simply did not want to die. And yet, my mere existence necessitates the killing of animals, no matter what I eat. I step on ants. Animals in the fields end up dying to produce the vegetables and grains I eat. The shelter I require invariable destroys habitats, or has destroyed them in the past. The iPhone I use comes from overseas, and its creation and transportation leaves a toll, as does everything else. It would be foolish to pretend I’m not directly or indirectly causing the deaths of sentient creatures by not eating meat. Even if I could ignore that reality, what right do I have to be an arbiter of life and death?

In the same series for the New York Times, Jay Bost writes:

The issue of killing of a sentient being, however, lingers. To which each individual human being must react by asking: Am I willing to divide the world into that which I have deemed is worthy of being spared the inevitable and that which is not worthy? Or is such a division hopelessly artificial?

Everything that lives and breathes will one day cease to exist. To ignore this reality is to ignore nature. In accepting nature, I accept balance. In accepting nature I must also be grateful for it. To live and to exist in this world is a privilege.4 With this privilege comes the responsibility to mindful of my actions. When I do eat meat, I must do so with the understanding of my role in nature. I must be thankful. I must realize I am no better a person by eating or by not eating meat.

All these things that I’ve learned

After nearly four years, I am a different person. Would I have gotten to the same place I am now if I had not become a vegetarian? Probably, but not as quickly. I have learned a great deal and very little of it has to do with diet.

I’ve learned to tolerate and to accept others that don’t share my beliefs. I’ve learned to not take myself too seriously and to be able to poke fun at myself. I’ve learned I can deal with being the odd man out. I’ve learned I can have friends that don’t agree with me on fundamental issues. I like to believe I’ve learned to be more understanding of others. I’ve learned there is not much more vegetarianism can teach me and that there are a lot more new things to learn that I wouldn’t be able to if I were to remain vegetarian.

It is more important to me to continue learning about the world than to hold to a dogma. If a new understanding challenges my long-held beliefs, I need to re-examine those beliefs. It would be easy to continue being a vegetarian. I know I will encounter the same awkward social situations I did when I first stopped eating meat now. Those who made fun of me for becoming a vegetarian in the first place are going to love this turn of events. Those I’ve inspired to become vegetarian are going to think I’m betraying them or some cause. But it is fruitless to live my life worrying about what others will think of me.

All I can do is be me—whoever that is.5

As I get older, I like to believe I’m getting wiser. I look back at myself ten years ago and see how wrong I was about so much. In ten years time, I hope to say the same thing, or else I’ve stopped learning. Every day I try to be more understanding, more compassionate, and more thoughtful. I have a long way to go, but each day I hope I’m taking a step in the right direction.

Further Reading

  1. And by editor I mean myself, seeing as this is a personal blog. return to article

  2. Which in a very real sense can be said about literally anything in life. return to article

  3. Save for extremophiles. return to article

  4. Although it may not always seem so. return to article

  5. To quote Bob Dylan. return to article