In my many conversations about veganism, I often hear something along the following lines: “I don’t really eat/crave/need animal products, but I’m not sure I could ever be a ‘perfect vegan.’ What if I mess up, or crave a non-vegan food”?
If this statement—or something akin to it—resonates with you, then let me tell you something that perhaps nobody else has: Of course you might mess up. In fact, you probably will. And that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go vegan.
I mean it. Pledging to be vegan doesn’t mean that you’re pledging to be a perfect; it means you’re pledging to try. Intentions matter. Whenever I write about the choice to be vegan, I return to the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism, which has always rung true to me. Veganism is:
A way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.
Another iteration of this pledge is this:
[Vegan lifestyles are] ways of living that seek to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
What I like about these definitions are their clarity and their inherent gentleness. The Vegan Society makes clear that veganism is a pledge not only to eat non-animal foods, but also to avoid commodities like leather, which are often a by-product and support the continuation of factory farming. At the same time, the language used here—“encourages,” “possible and practical”—indicates something important, which is that even the most passionate proponents of veganism are merely asking people to do their very best. Effort and intention is the point: results matter too, but in my opinion, they take second place to the ongoing intention of make vegan choices, day in and day out. Sooner or later, most vegans accidentally consume non-vegan food, or they encounter some sort of temptation, whether food or commodity. Whether or not these temptations get the better of us is less important than how we react to the experience: does one non-vegan choice beget more, undermining the lifestyle altogether, or do we simply recognize that we struggled, forgive ourselves, and remain committed to making vegan choices as we go forward?
Suppose a person who is committed to veganism gives into the temptation to eat a non-vegan food (or use a non-vegan commodity). This person wakes up the next morning totally recommitted to veganism again, and continues striving to make compassionate choices. Another person is eating an entirely vegan diet, but doesn’t do so out of a sense of passion or conviction; is the first person any less of a vegan than the second one? I don’t think so. Again, intentions matter. It’s not all about intentions—obviously, at a certain point, intentions and actions need to intersect—but my point is simply that the spirit of veganism doesn’t only reside in how precisely you follow the diet. It resides in how deeply you care about what the lifestyle signifies–and this encompasses both food and other lifestyle choices, including personal care and attire.
What you may not realize if you’re only just learning about veganism is that all vegans—or at least, every vegan I know—has had some kind of “imperfect” moment. Indeed, unless you have superhuman diligence when it comes to examining ingredients and asking questions in restaurants, accidental slip ups are almost inevitable. I’ve specified in restaurants that I don’t consume any animal products explicitly, only to find out halfway through a meal that I’m eating something with butter on it. I spent an entire summer eating the bread at SweetGreen before I realized that it’s not vegan. This was certainly a teachable moment as far as restaurant dining goes—I often forget to ask about bread and pasta—but it didn’t feel like a big deal to me. As soon as I realized, I stopped ordering the bread. End of story. I was committed to making vegan choices beforehand, and I’m committed still. I’ve written more about the issue of accidental consumption of non-vegan foods in a post entitled “When Non-Vegan Foods Attack.”
What about the non-accidental moments? What if you’re at a party one night, and after a few glasses of champagne you find yourself eyeing the finger food and, before you know it, munching on a cheese cube? What then?
Same idea. Acknowledge that this was a moment of struggle—a moment you don’t wish to repeat—grant yourself some compassion, and move on. Wake up the next day and reaffirm the reasons why veganism matters to you; if it helps to read one of your favorite vegan websites or books, or to prepare a vegan meal, then do it. Remember that striving and seeking are the essence of what it means to be vegan. And the longer you strive to make vegan choices, the easier it becomes to make them consistently. It’s a process, but keeping your intentions and motivations alive will carry you through it, until the whole thing feels like second nature.
I’m not trying to suggest that vegans should grant themselves leeway to “cheat” (what an unpleasant word!). I’m just trying to give you the tools you need to deal with moments of temptation, and remain committed to veganism in spite of them. So many people who are right on the cusp of becoming vegan don’t do so because the concept of “perfection” scares them; I’m saying is that “perfect” vegans are very few and far between. But the thing that unites all longtime vegans is that their commitment to the lifestyle has remained constant, even when they’ve come up against the reality of imperfection.
If you’ve preemptively decided that there are certain occasions on which you know you’ll eat non-vegan foods, or certain non-vegan foods you intend to eat no matter what, then veganism may not be resonating with you at the moment. But if it’s your sincere desire to adopt a vegan lifestyle, and you fear that you may at some point hit a snag, then I’d gently encourage you to try. After all, ”imperfection” (to use a word that I don’t like using in the context of food choices, but you know what I mean) is constant in life. Can you imagine if we never took an exciting new job, just because we suspected that we might one day make a mistake? Or if we avoided relationships, simply because we knew that we might one day be tempted toward an infidelity? Or if we didn’t go to school, because we knew that certain subjects (ahem, Orgo!) would prove difficult? If our desire to do these things is sincere, it’s not worth preemptively stopping ourselves because we know that the path won’t always be easy. And the longer we do things, the easier it becomes.
I’ll end by sharing a little story. This happened when I’d been eating vegan for about six months (and was starting to eliminate animal-derived apparel), but hadn’t quite started calling myself vegan, because it all still felt a little bit like an experiment. One day, in spite of the fact that I hadn’t been missing dairy at all, I had a random craving for Greek yogurt. Not a particularly intense craving, but a craving nonetheless. And for whatever reason—perhaps because it was the first time in a while that I’d wanted a non-vegan food, perhaps because I wanted to see how I’d respond to it—I went out and bought a container of Fage. I ate about three bites at the office before realizing two things: first, that yogurt was far less tasty and appealing than I remembered, and that my memory of it had been greatly enhanced and embellished by the fact that I no longer ate it; and second, that animal foods no longer felt “right” to be, both viscerally and in a spiritual sense. I threw the yogurt out (to this day, I still feel truly regretful about having wasted it, but I couldn’t finish, and felt odd offering half eaten yogurt to one of my coworkers), and that was the last time I ever consciously purchased or consumed an animal food.
Looking back on this moment, I don’t remember it as a “lapse” in my veganism. I suppose that, technically speaking, my evolution as a vegan began after the yogurt incident—I wouldn’t mind defining it as such—but I actually see what happened as a defining moment for me as a vegan: it was the moment in which my commitment to the lifestyle was truly tested, and in the end, it galvanized me further toward veganism, rather than turning me away. It was the moment in which I realized that the things I craved from my old life no longer felt right; they didn’t taste the way I remembered them tasting, and more importantly, they didn’t feed my spirit in the way that I’d learned the food on my plate could. Before I became vegan, I made food choices that I thought would keep me thin and fit. When I became vegan, I started making food choices that both delighted my senses and also fed my soul; they did so by showing me that the food we eat touches lives other than our own, and that we can actually do active good by eating a compassionate diet. That day, as I rejected a food that still held some nostalgic appeal, I realized that veganism was not a passing fancy or an experiment; it had become a part of my identity. (This morning, a reader pointed out that the word “veganism” implies more than self-interested motivations. I agree, and by those terms my early vegan days don’t fully fit into the idea of a wholly vegan lifestyle. So we can think of them as an introductory chapter to my vegan journey; the days when I was making vegan choices, but still moving toward the full spirit of the lifestyle. In any case, I see that period of my life, and this incident within it, as a part of the longer story.)
So you see, this small moment of temptation and challenge was actually crucial in helping me remain committed to veganism in a macroscopic way. People often respond to cravings or to vegan “slip ups” with either heedless self-laceration and guilt, or with defensiveness and rejection of veganism (I felt tempted, therefore veganism can’t be right for me). Instead, you can use these as teachable moments, in which you learn to refine and think consciously about your lifestyle choices. If you’re an imaginative type, think of them as the temptations and challenges thrown in the way of every epic hero as he or she journeys toward a destination. You may not end up responding the same way I did—I realize that there’s another possible ending to this story, which is that one yogurt becomes two, or three—but I’m offering up the possibility so that you can see that exceptions and challenges are a part of every vegan’s journey. Going vegan doesn’t mean you’re pledging not to have these moments; you’re simply pledging to keep your heart open to veganism in spite of them.
If you’re curious about veganism, but have shied away because you fear “messing up,” don’t. Remember that most vegans have had some sort of exceptional moment of temptation, and that they’ve learned to accept, forgive, and move past these moments. Long-term intentions matter most. Don’t count on making exceptions to your veganism, but don’t avoid the lifestyle all together because you have a little self-doubt. You’ll never know until you try. And, to bring it back to the Vegan Society’s definition, trying—or “seeking,” to use their more poetic word—is what it’s all about.
I’d love to hear from vegans about the moments in which they’ve felt challenged, and how they moved on. And I’d love for those who are considering dietary changes to tell us whether this gives you any peace of mind! Your words are always welcome.
Have a great night, friends.