[Editor’s note: Every week New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions, and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose or — no surprise here — a party. ]
My girlfriend is a vegetarian, and we’ve been dating for a year now. I love her a lot, but she hates that I eat meat. Like most Americans, roughly 100% of the plates I put in front of me have a dead animal somewhere on them. Over the course of our relationship, my girl has pretty much convinced me it’s unhealthy, both for my body and the environment. The proof is pretty irrefutable, but I can’t picture cutting out meat completely, even if I’d like to. A life of not eating tacos, pepperoni pizzas, and cheese burgers is no life for me (yes, I’ve tried meat substitutes as alternatives, and I hate them). So my question is basic: how do I give up something I know is bad for me and my relationship if I love it so much?
– Meat Eater
Dear Meat Eater,
I don’t like people telling me what to do, but sometimes it’s good to hear people out, especially if they’re turning me on to ideas I haven’t fully contemplated before. For example, when I was 13, I started dating my first serious long-term girlfriend, and her family introduced me to all sorts of new experiences — everything from the music of George Clinton to the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. One day, her parents gave me a paperback copy of Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature. The book was a revelation. It completely dazzled me as an amazing piece of writing from a unique man, and it was the first time I’d been presented with deeply coherent ethical and biological reasons for not eating animals.
I read the whole book in one day, and by the next morning, I had become a vegan. Dick Gregory’s book was the first time I really fathomed the idea that when I ate steak, I was eating cow’s body. And that a grilled chicken sandwich was bird’s flesh. And that bacon was pig’s meat. Even a glass of cow’s milk suddenly seemed completely bizarre and grotesque — why would I, a human, drink the mother’s milk of a totally different beast?
Five years later, I moved to New York City, and due to laziness and cheapness, my daily vegan meals began to decline in quality. On certain days, I’d just three whole containers of plain tofu. Other days might consist spaghetti sauce over cold lentils. Occasionally I’d splurge and eat black bean tacos from the Chinese owned Tex-Mex “Fresco Tortilla” place, or Middle Eastern falafel and hummus from the place next to my work. The food wasn’t bad, but I realized if I put in more effort, I wouldn’t have had such a boring menu. By that time, I had really forgotten about meat and cheese and eggs to the point where I didn’t crave them anymore, but I wasn’t exactly having a great time with my food.
After a while, I broke up with my girlfriend and she moved back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we were from, and I stayed in New York City. I clearly remember the day I decided to break my vegan diet. At the time, I hadn’t really associated it with the end of our relationship, but looking back, that must’ve been part of my subconscious reasoning — I guess I wanted to reclaim a version of myself that had existed before her and her family came into my life. So, I went with a friend to a Thai food restaurant and nervously ordered a swordfish steak. I was excited, but also afraid that eating fish flesh would make me sick.
Turned out that the meal was one of the best and most memorable of my life. I gradually began the process of becoming a full blown omnivore once again and haven’t stopped since. I had really enjoyed my vegetarian and vegan diets, but I also was amazed to discover that I still loved every single animal product I came across. In fact, I seemed to love it even more.
What was most interesting was that even though I had seen lots of brutal slaughter house video footage, and had researched all the damage that animal products can do to the human body and the environment, it didn’t really make me feel bad about eating it — I actually felt I enjoyed it more passionately. Why didn’t I feel guilty? Part of me is still disturbed and mystified that I can engage in something that I once thought was pure evil, and do it with an awareness and sense of glee. I suppose I had accepted and actively embraced my preferences, and since I had more respect for the intensity of what I was actually engaged in, it brought me pleasure.
Even though I didn’t raise and kill and prepare the meat myself, I was aware that it didn’t magically appear on my plate, and not having that “bad-faith” actually added a level of value and plain awe to the entire meat-eating experience. Eating meat was more intense than ever, especially when I fully fathomed that it’s dead animal’s flesh that went through all sorts of cruel and unusual steps to reach my mouth as food. As a society, we must embrace our choices if we’re going to honestly engage in them. If we love eating meat so much, we must take full responsibility and be willing to deal with all the horrifying and sinister aspects of its production. Even if an animal is raised “ethically” and treated to the finest “free-range” lifestyle before it’s slaughtered, we’re still engaged in a cycle of death and abuse and waste and damage to ourselves and the planet. It’s an undeniable fact that the cattle industry is responsible for more damage to the ozone than just about any other single source. And yet, we must think its worth it if we’re still demanding our beef.
We should be honest with ourselves. When we pretend we don’t realize that we’re eating a dead animal, or we ignore the brutality of the whole process and put it out of mind, that’s when we commit our biggest sin. We should take full ownership of what we’re doing, not so that we stop enjoying what we consume, but so that we’re fully aware and accountable for the repercussions of our actions.
When someone gets an abortion, we don’t think, “Oh, the fetus just magically disappeared.” When someone is executed on death row, we don’t think, “Oh, that inmate just passed away somehow.” We realize the violence and the severity of what’s really going on. Killing other beings is painful and heavy for everyone, even when it’s for a good reason. And killing other beings is painful and spiritually troubling when that “good reason” is hard to pin down. We must wrestle and struggle with these uncomfortable and unnerving thoughts and be brave enough to confront them head on.
In the end, it seems nearly impossible to exist in the world without doing it damage. To create is to destroy, to live is to cause death, to experience pleasure is to cause pain. It becomes a slippery slope — we live in a world full of rotting darkness and crushing confusion — just to carve out a moment of happiness and security is a tremendous and fleeting triumph. To think we can live without “doing wrong” is wrong. But we can always strive to do better. Most of all, we must strive to be aware of what we’ve already done and continue to do.
Your girlfriend shouldn’t try to force a particular diet on you, but she has the right to leave you if this no-meat concept is really important to her — she actually has the right to leave you for any reason she wants. You also have the right to leave her if she tries to tell you what to do and you don’t like it. From what you said, you already tried not eating meat and didn’t enjoy it. So, now you must face the fact that you might have to choose between your girlfriend and meat. If you do choose meat, and she does leave you, I’ll bet you’ll end up savoring every bite of that bacon cheese burger even more than before. You better.
Party in good faith,
P.S. Eating meat is bad for you. Smoking is bad for you. Having unprotected sex is bad for you. Doing drugs is bad for you. Using a cell phone is bad for you. Living in a city is bad for you. Being alive is bad for you. But it’s worth it.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.