For many of us who were originally of the meat-eating persuasion, the conversion to vegetarianism was lengthy and convoluted. After all, major lifestyle changes of any kind don't normally happen overnight. The desire and motivation to change require knowledge and outside influence, to be sure. But it also takes something intangible. From speaking with vegetarians, I've found most of them were guided much more by their hearts than by a rational decision-making process.
I know that was true for me. Looking back on it, I can trace my own conversion to vegetarianism to a series of learning and changing steps that started when I was very young.
When I was a kid my mother's best friend had a vegetarian uncle. The women used to sit at the kitchen table with their tea and talk about him in hushed, embarrassed tones. Maybe I wasn't supposed to know, but of course I overheard everything. I was fascinated. In my mind I tried to imagine someone who didn't eat meat. I conjured up a dark image of a strange, antisocial man. Perhaps someone with a scraggly beard and long, unkempt fingernails.
One day my mother took me aside and confided to me. "He doesn't even wear leather," she said with wide eyes. Wow, I thought. This new information was just too much for me to reconcile with my eight-year-old suburban American view of life. Suddenly the mysterious character I had envisioned was barefoot besides. The thought haunted me for days. He doesn't eat meat or even wear leather, I kept thinking. What an odd person he must be.
I never met the mysterious "vegetarian uncle," and I suppose after a while I pretty much forgot about him. I was busy growing up, and vegetarianism was the farthest thing from my mind. School, friends and activities consumed my time and my thoughts.
By the time I got to high school the country was in the throes of the social revolution of the '60s. New ideas were being tried and old values were subject to question. One day my best friend announced that he had become a vegetarian. I have vivid memories of him visiting our house—sitting at my family's dinner table and refusing to eat anything.
I felt betrayed. Here was someone I thought I could trust, and suddenly he was rejecting the meat-eating lifestyle I had grown up with, and my family had practiced for generations. I was angry at both him and the whole concept of vegetarianism. It was wrong, I told myself. It just had to be wrong.
My friend didn't stay a vegetarian for long. After a few months he moved on to other causes, and I was relieved because we no longer had a major rift between us.
It was several years before I was to confront vegetarianism again. This time I was in college. My junior year I moved to a new dormitory and quickly discovered that a large percentage of the people with whom I was now living were vegetarian. I would sit across from them in the dining hall eating my roast beef and eyeing them—at first suspiciously, but then with a good measure of curiosity. They looked healthy, I thought. Some of them were even fine athletes. They didn't talk a lot about their vegetarianism, but I sensed a great deal of commitment. I knew it took courage to go against the norm, and as I watched them eat their vegetables and grains I couldn't help but be impressed.
The more I learned about vegetarianism, and the more I thought about it, the more conflicted I became. In the back of my mind I was starting to realize that vegetarianism was for me. Intellectually and emotionally I agreed with everything about it. But I just couldn't admit that to myself. Instead I tried in vain to rationalize meat-eating. I was afraid, I guess. Afraid to give up those late night trips to the diner for a hamburger, and even more afraid of the reaction I would get from family and carnivorous friends if I suddenly went meatless. I took the coward's way out—I did nothing.
Three months after I graduated from college I moved to a big city hundreds of miles from home. For the first time in my life I was truly on my own. I didn't know anyone. It was only there, in the security that my solitude offered, that I did something I'd probably wanted to do for a long time. I became a vegetarian.
Over the years since then people have asked me if it's difficult to give up meat. No, I tell them with a casual shrug, it's very easy. I guess what I don't tell them about are the years that I spent finding out about vegetarianism and then struggling to reconcile it with my lifestyle. In retrospect vegetarianism is a snap—the choice is clear, and there are very few worthwhile things in life as easy to implement.
It's just that some of us, I suppose, were a little slow to learn.