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When being vegan gets in the way of happiness

December 2, 2012

Image courtesy of "Master Isolated Images" / FreeDigitalPhotos.netSometimes my attention to detail makes me terribly slow-paced. How can I go forward with a project, create an elaborate dinner, or press send on an important email, without painstakingly deliberating and debating on how and why it should be done?

Being vegan, or more generally, wanting to reconcile my morality with my daily actions, has a similar, but more profound effect on how I function. It often paralyzes me. I don’t want to be unreasonable in my lifestyle, but sometimes if I’m unable to satisfy my broader ethical questions about whether my individual actions have a positive or negative impact on the world, or cause or not undue harm and suffering to others, I just don’t do it.

Take, for example, my love of cats. As clear from my previous posts on the vegan dilemma surrounding owning a cat, I clearly have issues with the prospect. I agonize over on the one hand, being perfectly able to save an animal from possible suffering (or untimely death) and giving it a good life in my loving home, but on the other hand, compromising my veganism by causing undue harm to other animals by choosing to save another. In a nutshell, I often wonder, when considering all of the surrounding circumstances and implications, what option would be the lesser evil, the greater good, or specifically, would cause less suffering. Without a concrete answer, I have yet to make a decision. Consequently, I don’t act, and I find myself in a perpetual state of inaction (which in and of itself could be considered harmful!).

I’m thinking about this from a very basic level of course. If I saw a person drowning whom I could save, but who I knew ate meat, I would certainly save her, despite knowing that her surviving would cause more suffering to animals. Hell, I’d save a cattle farmer, homophobe, or racist in the same situation. This is the same reason why I am not suicidal, given that my existence arguably causes harm to others with or without me knowing.  To not risk going back into detail on the feline fix, I will wrap up this lengthy example just by saying that I do recognize that on a basic level, there appears to be some hypocrisy in contemplating not owning a pet, if we compare it simply to letting it die. But if we do this kind of comparison, we run the risk of equating human and animal morality.

In any case, regardless of your position on the matter, I think we can both agree that my overactive mind and attention to the consequences of my actions, no matter how small, cause me to fear making a decision and so, in a way, I deprive myself (and maybe also a cat) of a pleasure from which I could otherwise benefit thoroughly. (This may be the opposite of hedonism.)

But I’m tiring of this cycle of thoughts: Should I do this? Not sure? Freeze.

E.g., Should I knit with wool? Is there such a thing as humanely-sheared wool? Is recycled wool ok? Do some sheep require shearing? Are these sheep just a terrible result of human sheep farming? Does the answer to that question matter for those sheep? Does the answer to that question matter for the vegan stance? Not sure? Freeze.

I want to be happy, but I also want to make the right decision. I love knitting and sharing my home with a cat, but I can’t do both right now (unless I knit with vegetable or man-made fibres–which may also be considered unethical from an environmental perspective–or discover that vegan cats exist–which is unlikely, or at least, unethical). So I don’t do either and I create my own misery.

When 99% of the population feels one way and you feel another way, how can you easily justify your position? Even vegans among ourselves disagree on these issues. What ends up being the greater good? My misery for the benefit of what? I see no tangible benefit from my lack of decision, so it causes doubt. It’s like if you refuse to fly because you think it’s bad for the environment, but every day millions of people are flying around the world. What is your one international flight every two years going to actually do for the environment? Actually? Nothing. There is probably more net gain to your flying than there is to your abstaining from it. When Canada is still exploiting Albertan oil sands, withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, shamelessly obstructing progress in other countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ignoring the blatant and precarious signs of climate change, what will cancelling your felicitous trip to visit your friends in Spain do for the world?

Perhaps the net gain of happiness that I would feel knitting and owning–nay, saving–a cat would have the positive ripple effect needed to encourage me to act more than wallow in my own paralyzed vegan state. Many of the positive and negative effects of one’s actions are unknown or cumulative. It is possible I am approaching my internalized ethical debates from too simplistic a viewpoint?

What do you think? Am I just trying to rationalize out things I want to do despite their consequences, or am I being unjustly harsh on myself in a world that will be mostly unaffected by my refusing to partake in certain activities?

Your comments are welcome.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. xxxooo permalink
    December 2, 2012 1:52 pm

    Stop torturing yourself!
    Get a cat, knit with wool.
    Being vegan and making others aware helps….maybe sometimes it all feels so suffocating but you really do make a difference!!!

  2. markey permalink
    December 2, 2012 2:30 pm

    ps living with a cat is a great reminder of how humans are different from other animals. not in a it’s-ok-to-eat-them way, but in a find-a-hidey-hole-and-settle-down-to-die-rather-than-going-to-the-vet way. they will run all over you and your furniture and your life but it is incredible how much you can improve their little fuzzy lives by taking care of them and making them go to the doctor when they are sick. and there are vegan pet foods available. you can keep track of whether they are healthy by taking them to the vet regularly, and a vegan diet may well be healthier for them than eating all of the additives and waste leftovers in mainstream commercial cat food. I don’t know about wool, but I think you don’t have to figure it all out in one day. you can come up with a decision that feels 85 or 90% right and go with it. if it feels wrong when you do it, then stop. ps do you really need to knit with wool (versus cotton)? it’s itchy…

  3. Amanda permalink
    December 3, 2012 6:29 am

    My poor sweet pea!!! What a terribly difficult sounding way to live :( All any of us can do to reduce human and animal suffering and environmental destruction is the best we can with what we’ve got… but a lot of these issues are complicated! You we’re not elected chief whipping boy for the whole human culture! Save a cat… that cat’ll be eating meat with you or without you… but only suffering out on the street or in a cage. I think the environmental point you raise about artificial products such as synthetic wools is a good one. Reducing the suffering we cause is important, but our reliance on cheap readily available synthetics can be very problematic for the earth (which in turn causes suffering for all)… I mean its going to be hard being vegan after the environmental apocalypse crushes organized society?!? Amiright?!? (that was kind of a joke :) All this sounds bossy, and from a stranger to boot! Really I just felt compelled to encourage you to give yourself a break… I type this with purring kitty on my lap, she is rubbing face on the side of the screen making it hard to type. Trust me.. .its worth it :)


  4. December 3, 2012 11:33 am

    I think you are on to something here. I’ve realized a long time ago that there is positive and negative in everything you do, and you’re right, it’s paralyzing if you try to detail it to the point where you are living a life that has the least negative impact – because you’re right, ultimately to remove yourself from the planet is the logical outcome of that exercise, and that clearly doesn’t make any sense. Really, we would never wash, never buy anything new (come to think of it, my couch is over 20 years old and looking its age!), never go anywhere and basically not contribute anything to society if we want to strive to that level of idealism. Even if you determined that saving a cat was the best possible thing to do, aren’t you then being selfish/ not good enough by not saving 2 or 3 or 4?
    I think it’s about not sweating the small stuff. We could always be doing something greener, more helpful, more ethical. I know you well enough to know that you are always well on the good side of the equation. The little bit more you might be able to do with increased suffering and inconvenience will not have an impact and as you say, only serves to contribute to your own needless suffering.

  5. janet permalink
    December 10, 2012 10:21 pm

    lucy-puah! if strangers are telling you to get a cat – then I say get a cat!

  6. December 24, 2012 1:23 am

    To your final qu… the ladder.

    Great comments by all!

    In reference to Amanda’s comment – cats cannot eat a vegan diet. Period.

    Lucy-puah!! bhahaha omg LOVE IT! MISS HER! :*(

    You would make a great companion to any feline or hare ;) Love you xx

  7. Alison permalink
    March 3, 2013 9:20 am

    You just pretty much articulated my thoughts on the whole matter of overthinking (very eloquently, I might add). I think the problem lies with the sheer impossibility of quantifying and comparing different kinds of suffering. I don’t know anyone else who does this, and seeing other people act with such disregard for animals, or the environment, or other issues I go out of my way to care about and change my habits for, is discouraging and makes me want to revert back to a lifestyle of apathy sometimes out of simple despair. But despite what sadness and frustration it might bring, I think it’s still important to be conscious of the implications of what we do and even though this knowledge may be a burden, it’s our responsibility to bear it.

    • April 7, 2013 10:09 am

      I fully agree! I think we can remain cautiously optimistic at any rate. With a bit of patience and forward-thinking, perhaps one day the “burden” we bear will be shared by most! In the end, I feel that most people do not believe in undue suffering. Education and truth will eventually win over ignorance.

      Thanks for your comment!

  8. April 28, 2013 10:04 am

    Hi- I just found your blog but I’ve been scrolling through, and I love how considerate/analytical your thoughts are of other view points and your own internal dilemmas. First, both this post and the one about mortality deal with subjects that, as others have said in previous comments, will just overwhelm you if you let them consume you. Sometimes it’s important to be aware (like, if you’re weighing the risks of going skydiving (mortality) or whether or not to buy veal (ethics)), but since you’ve already thought about these issues, you’ll be able to make a good, rational decision when the time comes.
    This post also made me think of that corny but poignant story about the little boy on the beach picking up the starfish. Here’s a link, if you have no idea what I’m referencing, lol:
    Thanks for the posts, I plan to keep reading.

  9. Rasitha permalink
    January 12, 2015 11:15 pm

    think of it this way, if you become miserable, that would show others looking to be vegan, that vegan lifestyle is miserable. the net effect might be that 3 people who might’ve become vegan eventually, didn’t even try.

    So you need to stop sweating the small stuff. stand your ground in big decisions like being vegan. adopt a cat, feed it meat, research on vegan pet food, maybe some actually work?

  10. July 14, 2015 12:23 am

    Veganism shouldn’t feel like a restriction when it’s all about liberation. Before Veganism can become the norm, it needs to feel normal. You have to be practical and realistic. I don’t think Veganism is about perfection, but rather doing the least harm. You can own an outdoor cat that is spayed/neutered & let it hunt in the wild. I’ve done this & the cats were happy (and so was my wallet). Your contribution (or lack of it) is significant in helping animals and the planet, but it does no good to feel miserable. Andre 3000 is a music artist (you may remember “Hey Ya!”by Outkast) who was a strict Vegan for 14 years before he gave it up because it interfered with his social life. Being militant is just not a sustainable way to live in the long run. There are vegan alternatives for wool, even one called Vegan Yarn. You can travel on a flight that could lead to an interaction (or few) that would bring awareness to Veganism. You may bump into someone who can turn you on to a vegan product that you’d never know about in the states. There’s always a learning experience waiting or room for expansion when you allow yourself to act. Even if you make a mistake, or find that the choice was in error, then you still gain a better understanding of what’s more valuable to you & can move forward accordingly.

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