A pervasive myth that has persisted for years is that
vegetarians are intrinsically more kindhearted than
their meat-eating counterparts. This is founded on two
basic misconceptions: 1) gentle people are intuitively
attracted to a meatless diet, and 2) a meatless diet
naturally makes aggressive people more gentle. The underlying
assumption is that food has an incredible influence
over our personalities or that our personalities dictate
our tastes. Neither is accurate. Food choices are influenced
primarily by culture, ethnicity, availability, familiarity,
custom, convenience, taste, mood, and economics.
There is no evidence that vegetarians are more sensitive
or magnanimous than anyone else. History is replete
with the scars of monstrous vegetarians as much as it
is filled with the contributions of selfless others.
To assume that diet shapes one's demeanor is to ignore
a wealth of psychological and sociological factors that
most likely have a much tighter grip on our palate.
People are drawn to vegetarianism for a multitude of
reasons. Although some people have referred to vegetarianism
a "social movement," it is somewhat ludicrous to believe
that a cultural revolution could be fashioned by a group
whose eating habits have an element of commonality but
whose ideology is incongruous. Veganism, on the other
hand, encompasses significantly more than what one eats
or doesn't eat. It includes a reverence for life philosophy
exhibited through tangible endeavors in all areas of
daily living, making it a more tenable route to effect
The point is that social reformation instigated by
compassionate individuals is essential for producing
a compassionate culture, not to mention a compassionate
world. Food choices alone won't cut it. Transformation
requires a fundamental shift in priorities, and veganism
can provide not only the rationale but the tools. However,
is becoming vegan sufficient to INDUCE compassion?
There are principally three reasons why people adopt
a vegan lifestyle: 1) to do as much as possible to eradicate
suffering in the world, 2) to generate inner peace by
eliminating conflicts of conscience, and/or 3) to expunge
karma by observing religious proscriptions. The desire
to end suffering in the world may be based on intellectual
realizations and not necessarily on altruistic empathy.
Also, if an individual is motivated toward veganism
solely for reasons of personal gain, such as inner peace
or karmic relief, it would not be accurate to say they
are driven by compassion. Nevertheless, it is true that
when people strive for peace -- whether it is internal,
external, or spiritual -- they are less likely to engage
in actions that would inflict suffering on others, even
though their justification might be that doing so would
in turn impose suffering on themselves.
A compassionate disposition is cultivated. It is not
the osmotic result of what one eats or even what one
does. It is the consequence of a conscious and concerted
commitment to awaken to the suffering around us, and
then caring enough to do whatever is necessary to end
it. This awareness begins with a longing to see the
truth. It is not rooted in erudite theories or abstract
concepts. It is not a question of whether a cat or a
dog or a fish or a cow or a pig or a person feels pain
and suffers, and certainly not a matter of degree. All
we need to do is open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts,
and the truth will flood our being with compassion.
Even once we perceive the anguish of others, it is
tempting to turn away. Empathic people have tender spots
that can be frightening and overwhelming to acknowledge.
But to become wholly compassionate we must force ourselves
to look directly into the face of suffering. Only then
will we see our reflection and know that the hurt of
others is equal to our own.
Compassion is an affair of the heart and spirit; it
has nothing to do with the head and even less to do
with the stomach and mouth. Neither food nor rhetoric
entertain compassion. Fostering compassion merely necessitates
paying attention, noticing every moment of our lives,
every thought, and every deed, and doing the most in
each moment to alleviate suffering and promote harmony,
justice, and peace.
Vegans are not inherently more loving, generous, kind,
or thoughtful than nonvegans. However, vegan precepts
do present a pragmatic structure for nourishing and
guiding our compassionate nature, independent of whether
veganism or compassion comes first.
Copyright © 1998-2015 by Jo Stepaniak
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