Staying Joyfully Vegan In A Nonvegan World
If you have been vegan for a while, you may feel like you’ve reached a sort of stasis. At a certain stage in our journey, being vegan becomes another part of who we are, and something we don’t have to think about as actively or as often. What might have felt like an effort when we first transitioned is now a natural, normal aspect of our lives. What might have once felt like a struggle now feels like a joy. At this stage, we embrace the fact that in order to make a difference, we may have to do something different, but we also know that different doesn’t mean inferior—and neither does it mean superior. We know we’re no better than anyone else for being vegan; we’re just better than we were yesterday and the day before that.
Having veganism fully integrated into our lives can take a long time to achieve, and it can be a hard road, laden with stigma, social difficulty, and challenges that come with being advocates for something we care so much about. Staying vegan can be hard; staying joyfully vegan in a nonvegan world can be even harder. But, when we reach a point of full integration, we can liken it to achieving a sort of cruising altitude that helps us rise above such challenges with grace.
When joyful veganism is fully integrated into our lives, we consider it a victory when we find one vegan item out of twenty on a restaurant menu—and even more of a triumph when we see that the menu of our favorite restaurant becomes default veg, because we know that will lead to more vegan food orders. When joyful veganism is fully integrated into our lives, we feel elated when our workmates ask us for vegan recipes and our neighbors include vegan dishes at the annual summer fête, or when our special meal at a wedding inspires envy in all the other guests. We celebrate when we travel and see vegan options in the unlikeliest of places; we may not find a five-star gourmet vegan restaurant, but we’re thankful for and make the most of what we do find. It’s not that our expectations are low; it’s that we see abundance rather than limitation, plenty rather than scarcity.
Part of living joyfully as a vegan means feeling grateful rather than entitled, and embrace the ethic that we have chosen: aspiring to live with integrity and compassion, knowing that every decision we make is done with the intention of not contributing to the suffering and exploitation of human and nonhuman animals and of not causing harm to ourselves. We accept that we will make mistakes, because we know our goal is not perfection. Our goal is to strive for unconditional compassion and optimal wellness, and we see veganism as a tool for achieving these goals. Embracing our vegan identity means embracing the journey and welcoming its imperfections—being adaptive, creative, flexible, humble, truthful, playful, patient, emotional, unapologetic, and fully human with all our flaws and foibles.
The New Normal
It takes time to get used to change, especially what change itself may take time. The good news is that anecdotal and empirical examples of improved emotional, mental, and physical health among vegetarians and vegans are extensive. Aside from measurable and observable physical changes that can take place — like improved cholesterol, improved kidney function, decreased arthritic pain — when veganism is integrated into your life, there are a number of other things you become accustomed to and amused by, things that become the new normal.
The vegan jokes will persist. Even though being vegan for a long time may feel joyful, most likely you will be subjected to the same comments twenty years from now as you are today. You can shrug, roll your eyes, politely ask that they stop, and even laugh—and know that the next one is just around the corner.
People will always suffer from whataboutism. As a matter of self-preservation, people will deflect the harm of their own actions by trying to discredit veganism and by pointing out the supposed hypocrisy or privilege of those who identify as vegan:
— You’re vegan? Well, what about plants? They have feelings, too!
— You’re vegan? Well, what about the fake leather you wear? That’s environmentally destructive!
— You’re vegan? Well, what about the insects you kill when you drive your car? That’s not very compassionate!
Some of these questions are asked out of genuine curiosity and some are asked to try and catch you in some logical flaw that will justify meat, dairy, and egg consumption and undermine your way of living. I often joke that people expect vegans to have advanced degrees in nutrition, philosophy, history, anthropology, religion, animal husbandry, ecology, and the culinary arts—and it’s only funny because it’s true. Feel free to respond to such questions but just don’t be surprised when you hear them again and again.
Everyone is an expert. While no one cared about your increased risk for heart disease when you were shoving meat, cheese, and eggs in your mouth, suddenly everybody is a self-declared dietitian when they hear about your veganism. Get used to it.
Everyone wants to know what you eat. Everyone, from complete strangers to close family members, will still be curious about what you eat—because they really don’t know. You may know you don’t eat iceberg lettuce every day, but they may not. You may know how easy it is to bake without eggs, but they may not. You don’t have to entertain every question you’re asked, but they are part of the territory, and they’re wonderful opportunities to debunk some myths about what it means to be vegan.
Some friends and family will fuss over your veganism—in a good way. While family can be a barrier to veganism in some contexts, some of your loved ones—even just casual friends or coworkers—will be very protective of you, going out of their way to make sure you have something to eat at an event you’re attending together or calling a restaurant ahead of time to find out what’s vegan. You may feel like much ado is being made unnecessarily, but just appreciate the support.
You don’t know everything. And that’s okay. Though there may be an expectation that vegans have advanced degrees in nutrition, philosophy, history, anthropology, religion, animal husbandry, ecology, and the culinary arts, that expectation doesn’t come only from nonvegans; it may come from you as well. We put so much pressure on ourselves to have the perfect answer to every question we’re asked, but here’s something to get used to: you don’t know everything, and you don’t have to. You can say, “I don’t know,” and the world will still turn. As much as you’ve learned, there is always something you haven’t yet. Staying vegan and joyful means remaining humble and open to new thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. Above all, it means taking care of yourself as you move along your journey and make it sustainable.
What May Surprise You
Your food awareness increases. It increases not just in terms of ingredients and cuisines that become familiar to you, but in terms of being more mindful about what and how you’re eating. Whether you become vegan for health reasons or not, as time goes on, you may seek out more nutrient-dense foods, the benefits of which are extensive.
You have more impact on people than you realize. While I encourage you to keep your expectations in check, you may discover that you’ve inspired some people to make changes in the way they eat just because they see your changes. They may not have become vegan, but they may have swapped some nonvegan products for vegan ones and they cook more vegan dishes than they did before you become vegan. That’s something to celebrate.
You become more tolerant. The passion that fueled you in your early days continues to burn but with a little less heat. Staying joyfully vegan means accepting that some of your family and friends may never become vegan. It’s not about mellowing out, it’s about finding a more sustainable temperature at which to burn, so you don’t burn out.
You decide to keep a vegan home—but you compromise when necessary. In the beginning you thought you could handle having animal products cooked or brought into your home, but now you just want one little corner of the world where the sights and smells of animal products don’t penetrate. Of course, sometimes the people closest to us, even our partners, are not vegan. Compromise is key.
You date nonvegans. You realize that if you set out to find a match only among vegans, your pool would be very small, so you broaden your criteria by searching not specifically for “someone who is vegan” but for “someone who is loving, kind, intelligent, compassionate, and thoughtful.”
You know that being vegan is not a panacea. You let your actions and values speak for themselves and don’t feel you have to be a perfect poster child for veganism. You may get sick, make mistakes, and gain/lose weight—whether you’re vegan or not. You may have love handles, drink too much, get overly emotional, and succumb to your worst character defects. By being the best vegan you can be, you will remain human—flawed, imperfect, vulnerable to illness, and mortal. You also recognize that being vegan is not the solution to all of your problems, or society’s problems. Being joyfully vegan doesn’t mean stopping with doing hard work in other areas where work is needed.
When veganism is fully integrated into our lives, the conscious choices we make feel liberating rather than limiting, and we accept that reading labels, constantly being asked about veganism, and having fewer menu options in restaurants are small prices to pay for the potential to manifest our deepest values in our everyday behavior. Where others may see lack, we see possibility; where others may see inconvenience, we see opportunity.
There are many reasons people think being vegan is about restriction rather than expansion, and I think it has to do with the perception that being vegan is about saying no—about refusing things that are offered to us. It appears that being vegan is about denial and sacrifice, and that’s the problem—the perception of what it means to live vegan. If you’re on the outside looking in, you tend to see only what vegans don’t choose. You don’t see what we are choosing. In public settings in a world dominated by the animal-eating culture, people see vegans rejecting things far more than they see them embracing things. And that’s the gift. That’s the surprise. Though being vegan does involve saying no to some things—namely destructive environmental practices, animal cruelty, and egregious violence—at its core, being vegan is about saying yes.
By choosing to look at what we do to other animals for our convenience and pleasure, we’re saying yes to our values of accountability, responsibility, and commitment to truth and knowledge. By standing up for our beliefs, we’re saying yes to our values of justice, courage, and service to others. Being vegan is about saying yes to the bounty of plant-based options that are available to all of us. Being vegan is about saying yes to our values. What’s the use in having values if we don’t manifest them in our behavior? Being vegan, which extends to every area of our lives, is an opportunity to do just that: to put our abstract values into concrete action. It may be just the start of a larger journey of recognizing various social justice issues, or it may happen later in the arc, but being a joyful vegan is one of the many ways we can actualize what’s in our hearts.
It’s ironic, of course, that being vegan is perceived as restrictive, since the majority of people, including all of us before we were vegan, choose to live in willful ignorance, closing our eyes and cuffing our ears, saying, Don’t tell me what happens to animals. I don’t want to know. Don’t tell me how unhealthy this hot dog is. I don’t want to hear. We quite explicitly hinder our awareness because we’re afraid to look, afraid to know, afraid to change. To me, that’s limiting. That’s restrictive. On the contrary, being vegan is about being willing to know, willing to explore, willing to look, willing to experience what is painful but true.
That’s expansive. That’s abundance. That’s vegan.
It’s useful to think of living as a joyful vegan as a journey with no destination. Savor the highlights, take note of the landmarks, and go up, through, or around the obstacles you will inevitably encounter. Travel above and beyond what’s familiar, whether you go around the block or around the globe. If you’ve lived your whole life seeing the world from your front door, it might feel overwhelming, but it’s worth it, and you’re not alone. Many before you have traversed the same ground, and many will follow behind.