Is This the Hill You Will Die On? Lessons in Family, Compassion, and Finding Peace.
As a child, I was fortunate to be raised in a home where reason, analysis, and critical thinking were the languages by which we communicated truths to one another. My parents were, and are, to this day very religious people, yet they always insisted that their children discover truth for themselves and judiciously avoided the phrase “because I said so”, in regards to our adolescent inquiries. For some children, being raised in a household that was deeply spiritual was an experience many are desperate to forget, and some leave behind the family faith traditions, but with the encouragement and guidance of my parents, I was able to cultivate a sense of reason, and critical thinking, and perhaps even more importantly, a deep appreciation for the spiritual side of life.
When I was nearing the end of my final year of secondary education, being on the cusp of my eighteenth birthday, my father called in into his office in our home, and sat me down. This was not an uncommon practice; over the years, my father often communicated messages he deemed important for his children from the safety of his office, so that together, we were free to dialogue and discuss many controversial topics from a place of mutual respect and consideration for another point of view. My dad told he me loved me very much, and he wanted to impart a critical truth to me before I was to leave for university in the fall. In this instance, I cannot recall the exact words he used in our conversation, but the essence of his directive will always be preserved in my mind. He encouraged me, as he had over the years, to test and seek out the truth in the face of competing messages of materialism, consumerism, and vanities. He reminded me that much of the world has placed its trust in elements that will eventually crumble and fade away; he told me that if I invested in the lives of those around me, if I were to serve my community, if I was to grow in my spiritual journey, I would first have to test each message against the basis of what I knew to be true. Years later, I would find a message that helped to give structure to his advice, via the Reverend Andrew Linzey; he reminds us that the true ethical test of religion, faith, and spirituality must be this: is it helping to make us into more compassionate, kind, merciful, generous individuals? If upon self-reflection, finding our response to be in the negative, it would behoove us to reevaluate our spiritual journeys, and perhaps change our course.
Over the past two years, I have applied this advice, sound reasoning, and logic to my journey on the vegan path. My parents taught me how to think critically, and to peek behind the curtain, as it were, to discover the truth that is so often hidden in plain sight, if only we were to look for it with fresh eyes. And yet, the road I have traveled has been fraught with difficulties, to be perfectly honest. With respect to the practice of veganism itself, there has been nothing but ease, joy, and peace in my life. It is often said that being a vegan in and of itself is quite simple; the only difficulty one faces is found in relations with those who make up part of our lives. It is one thing to spread the message of compassion and kindness to strangers; admittedly, we find ourselves on occasion preferring to plant seeds on foreign soil, eschewing the land that we are all too familiar with: our friends, and our families.
Part 2 begins here (600 words only) When a stranger informs us that they are unmoved by the message of widening one’s circle of compassion, we may be disappointed; we may even find ourselves frustrated, confused, and downtrodden that this individual has yet to awake to the compassion they have within themselves. Yet, in my personal experience, the magnitude of these difficult realizations is much greater when it concerns those with whom we have lived, those with whom struggled with, those with whom we have broken bread with for so many years. It is perfectly natural to care deeply for our families; after all, they have made up a large part of our lives, for better or for worse. They have seen us through so much: our triumphs and victories, our struggles and our difficulties, our successes and our failures. They so often know us in a way that very few people do. Perhaps these ties, along with others, can make the realization that our parents, brothers, uncles, and sisters do not yet understand the joys of living in accordance with the values and beliefs we hold so near and dear to our hearts.
My father recently came to stay with me for a few days over the Christmas break. At the moment, he lives with my mother overseas, which means that our in-person visits tend to be few and far between. He was well aware of the fact, as was I, that we would inevitably be discussing veganism during his visit. As a lifestyle, and as a journey, veganism does not always resemble a religion, or a belief system, or other ideological frameworks, in the sense that one can perhaps keep to those beliefs in a private fashion; yet in the case of veganism, your stance on a non-violent, healthy, compassionate way of life is publicly manifested at least three times a day when you dine with others, who will most likely be curious as to why you are abstaining from something that seems perfectly normal, natural, and necessary to them (in the words of Melanie Joy).
When sharing a meal with your family, you’re doing much more than simply taking in calories in a collective space; you’re connecting with one another in a manner that extends beyond the table, beyond the physical realm of the dining room. Family traditions around food, for many people, have incredibly deep roots that reach into customs, ancestral traditions, and bonds that, for our non-vegan family members, often appear to hold members together as they share in a ritual that has been practiced since the beginning of time. As I came into veganism by way of health, initially, it was (in the eyes of my family) somewhat more acceptable to abstain from a particular item on the table due to health considerations (after all, most people are not going to attempt to make a case for the health benefits conferred to us via red meat), but it was another matter entirely if I preferred to sit in abstention on the grounds of morality and ethics.
Perhaps the reader may, at this juncture, be wondering where and when the “hill to die on” metaphor came about in regards to arguing a position, and how it may perhaps provide us with key insights into understanding the interrelational dynamics between family members where one is doing their best to live a live that minimizes harm, and the other is perhaps still wrestling to reconcile their deepest held values of kindness and mercy with the stark understanding that their daily actions might perhaps betray the integrity of these values. My father is a kind man, and his heart is certainly geared towards a generous appreciation for life and the lives of beings around; years of tender care towards our companion animals have certainly proven this value beyond a shadow of a doubt. And yet, my father has consistently defended his participation in a cruel system on the grounds that, due to to his personal religious beliefs, he is free to do so as he chooses. This is the hill that he will die on, as I fervently argue the converse of his position.
This is not the time to discuss the convoluted ramifications of how religions and animal right issues intersect; that is a dialogue that will be discussed another day. That being said, it remains a fact that my father has yet to see the inherent contradiction between his belief that it is morally wrong to cause suffering on the basis of pleasure, amusement, or convenience and his continued participation in an overarching system that runs in direct opposition to all that is just, kind, compassionate, and responsible. This past week during my father’s visit, this was the hill that I died on, over and over and over again. I simply could not, despite my best efforts, help him to see this deep seated inconsistency that was plaguing his sense of what was good, and right, and just in the world.
My father departed once again. Our visit had come to a close, and we embraced tightly; for all that my father and I see differently about the world, we’ve never stopped loving one another. We both remained firmly entrenched in our positions, however. I wrestled with so many questions after his car pulled away: was there any way that I could help him see this truth that appeared so blindingly, incredibly clear to me? Was it not brilliantly, painfully obvious? How could someone so wise and contemplative on many issues completely miss the mark on this particular topic? After several hours of introspective study and meditation, the truth once again returned to me, and I was at peace. It was never my place to “force” anyone to see this reality. I will never be able to “argue” anyone into being true to their values they hold so dear. I will never “fight” someone into expanding their circle of compassion. In my future articles, the reader will quickly see that I am somewhat of a broken record on the following point: embodying the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, commits us to also being peace and compassion to ourselves as well. As vegans, we’re attempting to manifest compassion to a world that is desperately in short supply of this virtue, and our actions can often feel like drops in a bucket that seemingly appears to grow ever larger. The world is changing, bit by bit, thanks to the commitment, perseverance, and non-violent actions being taken by activists in their communities across the globe. We must not forget this fact, even when it appears that everyone around us is still asleep to the truth. A compassionate lifestyle is our best hope for a rejuvenated planet, so that we may heal our lands, the lives of the non-human earthlings we share the planet with, and our own hearts.