With the New Year right around the corner, gym owners all over the country are salivating. They know this is the best time of year to recruit new sign-ups: people with the best of intentions to get fit, the majority of whom will hardly put their memberships to use come February when their resolve has fizzled out.
For sure, it is possible to make significant changes overnight. We’ve all heard about – and in some cases even personally known – people who one day decide they will quit smoking and then do so, never looking back.
But more often than not, it takes time to bridge the gap between our ideals and our day-to-day behavior, especially if there is no externally provided sense of urgency for doing so.
Case in point: it took me roughly 15 years to become a vegetarian.
For me, the transformation occurred more or less in stages. First I phased out red meat from my diet but still ate plenty of chicken, turkey, and fish. Some years later I became a pescetarian (vegetarian-plus-fish), a diet that stuck for the better part of a decade. And then, around five years ago, I made the leap to full-blown vegetarian (but not vegan, although some days my diet amounts to this).
My number one reason for this shift towards veggiedom was a growing discomfort I felt about eating sentient (or, by the time they arrive on our plates, once-sentient) creatures. I can recall driving on the interstate and seeing a truck carrying probably hundreds of chickens, in cages and crammed together in close quarters, and being haunted by the brief contemplation of their fate. The image brought to my mind the thought of Jews being carted away to concentration camps in WWII. Sadly, the more I learned about factory farming practices over the years, the more apt the comparison seemed.
And yet…I lived with this discomfort for a pretty long time before I changed my eating habits.
No Impact Man
One of my favorite films from the last few years is a documentary called No Impact Man. In the film, New York City-dwelling writer Colin Beavan conducts a year-long experiment to see if he can radically change his lifestyle in such a way as to result in “no net impact” on the environment. He takes on this self-imposed challenge in an effort to live a life in accordance with his values. “What if I actually tried not to hurt the environment?” he asks. “What would that feel like? Is it possible? Is it practical? Is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much?” His paradigm, as he states in the film is: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
He proceeds to make a series of drastic lifestyle shifts, in stages. He stops using all forms of carbon-producing transportation (including elevators). He ambitiously attempts to reduce his trash production to nearly zero (since the majority of trash is food packaging and food waste, he shops at his local farmers’ market and brings his own containers with him, and he composts food scraps at home in a worm bin). He makes his own cleaning products, and does away with toilet paper. Halfway into the year, he even voluntarily shuts off the electricity in his home.
Did I mention that Colin has a wife and two-year-old daughter who essentially get roped into doing this experiment along with him?
If you subscribe to the premise – as I do – that everything we do (and do not do) has an impact of some kind, then being a “no impact” man (or woman) is actually impossible. The question is not whether or not we will have an impact, but what the nature of it will be. If nothing else, Colin’s choice to take on this radical experiment has definite impacts on his relationship with his wife, Michelle, and the conflicts that arise between them make up one of the most interesting aspects of the film.
(Incidentally, if you like the film, the book is equally good, if not better – I highly recommend both for the full “impact”!).
The Question of Impact
If everything we do (and do not do) has an impact of some kind, how do we know for sure what kind of overall impact we are having? If our words and actions are often subject to the interpretation of others, how can we even be sure we are having the impact we are aiming for? How can we be sure that our actions do not result in things that actually contradict our intentions? For instance, as consumers we can choose to support certain businesses or industries and boycott others. But how can we know the conditions under which every single article of clothing or food item we purchase were produced? How can we possibly know all of the ramifications of every little decision we make during the course of a day?
The simple answer is: we can’t.
Undoubtedly there are things we do all the time that have both positive and negative effects at the same time (using planes, trains, and automobiles both facilitates the timely transportation necessary to accomplish any number of worthy human goals and simultaneously emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, for instance). So the question of how to live one’s life, both in the “big” sense as well as in all of the seemingly trivial decisions made on a daily basis that add up over time, can be an overwhelming and confusing one.
Clearly, intentions are important. But, just as clearly, one’s intentions do not necessarily translate into concrete results in their purported direction (hence the old expression about how the road to hell is paved).
Also pretty clear is the importance of being informed, educated, and knowledgeable about the people and the world around you, and the effects that you are having on them. But no matter who you are – and no matter how dedicated you may be in your quest for knowledge and Ultimate Truth – even in this day and age of the Internet, what you know and understand is bound to be dwarfed by that which you do not.
It seems to me that the best any of us can do is to align our actions with our deepest values to the fullest extent that we can – with the awareness, understanding, and resources we have at any given moment in time. And once our consciousness is raised about something – about, say, the harm we didn’t even realize we were causing – to then make changes accordingly, as best as we are able.
The essential, and profound, question that Colin Beavan brings to the fore in No Impact Man is this: “Can I live on this planet doing more good than harm?”
More Good Than Harm
Part of doing more good than harm – perhaps even the hardest part for us hominids – is being kind and forgiving toward ourselves. When we don’t live up to our own ideals (or even those ideals we have adopted from others, often unwittingly), it is all too easy to give in to some form of self-hatred.
But rather than harshly judge as failures the imperfect implementations of our aspirations, we might benefit from acknowledging them as part of the process. And, while we’re at it, we could even choose to give ourselves credit (gasp!) for the times and ways in which we do succeed at living up to our ideals. It would seem that doing so would be an effective means of prompting more successes along the way to internalizing a desired way of being.
I’m not saying I know how to do this, mind you, but it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? 😉
Given all that I have learned about food thus far in my forty-one years, I feel very good about my decision to be a vegetarian, even if it did take me fifteen years to get there. The time would have passed anyway, and now I’m living that much closer in line with my own values. There’s still plenty of room for improvement in my diet – not to mention other aspects of my life – but “progress, not perfection” remains a helpful mindset for me.
And I’m not one to make the bold claim that I know what diet is best for everyone (in fact, I don’t believe there necessarily is such a thing), but if you are at all curious about the benefits of vegetarianism or veganism – for humans, animals, and the planet at large – I encourage you to check out the following wonderful and eye-opening documentaries that have come out in recent years:
New Year’s Thoughts and Wishes
Whatever your own personal New Year’s resolutions may be, my advice is do your best with them, but be as kind and patient with yourself as you can in the process. Every action taken in accordance with your ideals is a personal victory, and can later be cited as evidence to yourself in the ever-building case for why you can accomplish what you set out to do. Habits develop over time. The more we repeat any behavior, the more we reinforce it. Progress, not perfection. Fall off the horse, jump back on. We are all works in progress. I write these reminders as much to myself as to you, dear reader.
Happy New Year, and Peace and Goodwill to All!