Mark Twain said that quitting smoking is among the easiest things one can do; he did it all the time. I would add vegetarianism to the list of easy things. In high school I became a vegetarian more times than I can now remember, most often as an effort to claim some identity in a world of people whose identities seemed to come effortlessly. I wanted a slogan to distinguish my mom's Volvo's bumper, a bake sale cause to fill the self-conscious half hour of school break, an occasion to get closer to the breasts of activist women. (And of course I did also think it was wrong to harm animals and destroy the environment.) Which isn't to say that I refrained from eating meat. Only that I refrained in public. Privately, the pendulum swung. Many dinners of those years began with my father asking, "Any dietary restrictions I need to know about tonight?"
I first became a vegetarian when I was nine, in response to an argument made by a radical babysitter. My great change---which lasted a couple of weeks---was based on the very simple instinct that it's wrong to kill animals for food. I imagine most children have some version of this instinct at some point, and while it says nothing at all about the rightness or wrongness of meat, the overcoming of it can, itself, leave a mark. Parental explanations almost always come in the form of half-truths, glossings over, or worse---"Animals live long, happy lives in the sun, and when they one day die, they share their meat with us." Kids are even better at recognizing such bullshit than adults, even if, because they need a stable world, they don't pursue it. Whether or not something is learned about food, something is learned.
My most recent shift to vegetarianism was inspired by the birth of my first child. Facing the prospect of making food choices on his behalf---and of having to come up with explanations that he would also digest---I took the questions posed by meat seriously. Instinct no longer felt like enough. And neither did information. I wanted to have a full engagement with the subject. I wanted to see it for myself, not because there isn't ample access to relevant photographs and videos, but because I was not the photographer. (Observation is easy, implication is honest.) This full engagement -- which resulted in my book, Eating Animals -- required me to visit factory farms in the middle of the night, dissect the emotional ingredients of meals from my childhood, and probe those instincts of right and wrong that two decades earlier made me change. The answers to some questions became very clear very quickly. Some remain cloudy.
Will this vegetarianism be the last one? It's impossible to say, of course, but with my filled-out picture of not only contemporary animal agriculture, but my own understanding of fatherhood, it feels impossible to imagine a time when I would bring such food---which is virtually always unhealthy, destructive and cruel---into our home. Our home could not be our home in the same way, given what I now know.
But perhaps there's more to it. Perhaps it took all of that previous inconsistency, all of that pendulum swinging, to bring me to this place. Perhaps "failing" was not failing but approaching, one awkward step at a time, what I always wanted.
The question, I've come to think, is not what inspires one to change, but what inspires one to remain changed. It's easy and common to learn something---through an argument or fact, image or experience---and feel compelled to make different choices. But for how long? Change is inspiring, but only rarely durable. Part of this difficulty is found exactly where you'd expect to find it: most change isn't easy. Making different choices at restaurants and supermarkets is, for most people, harder than it might seem. What's the big deal? Order something else. The big deal is we've been eating these products since we were kids, and we digested them with stories. We got over our colds with chicken soup. We celebrated the Fourth of July with grilled burgers and hot dogs. We ate our grandmother's brisket. These things matter. As do our cravings. As does convenience.
But I wonder if more of the difficulty doesn't come from the ways that we talk and think about change. When it comes to meat, change is almost always cast as an absolute. You are a vegetarian or you are not. It's a strange formulation, and it's distracting. (Those who profit from animal suffering and environmental destruction want us to think in dichotomies, rather than practical realities.) Imagine someone asking you, "Are you an environmentalist or not?" For most of us, caring about the environment isn't an on-off switch, but a set of daily choices that we try to respond to as best we can. I buy energy-efficient products, and turn off lights when leaving a room, and recycle and so on. But I also fly on airplanes. Does my occasional flying completely undermine my identity as someone who cares and tries? Should I, faced with my inability to live consistently, make no efforts to live better?
Obviously not. We don't live our lives on the inside flaps of philosophy textbooks. We live in the world. And in the world, everyone is a hypocrite. In the world, change is not a switch but a process. Being serious about changing requires a certain amount of forgiveness. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't draw lines in the sand, or that we should be quick to accept all of our own apologies. But if animal welfare matters to us, if the air and water matter, if swine flu and E. Coli matter, if global warming matters, if biodiversity matters, if rural communities matter, if our ability to tell honest stories to ourselves and our children matters... then we shouldn't be distracted, intimidated or misled by someone else's idea of purity. We should begin at the beginning, and begin now.