[The opinions expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect the position of ARAUNY.]
It can be easy to get discouraged when we see the suffering in the world, the suffering of both people and animals, in every town across the globe. We can feel as though the problem is too big, and too few people care. Even good people we love seem oblivious and unconcerned about the harm their actions cause. We can’t see things improving, and change seems impossible. What is the point of yet another petition or march, when the deck is so completely stacked against us?
I have a very small answer, and it begins with a “Hi.” Every other day I run two miles along a route with many kids trudging to school, sometimes in the cold and dark. As is my policy, I give a cheery “good morning!” to all of them. Beginning with no responses, after a month or so a few would say “hi” back, and by December almost all do, and some even smile! It is not hard to imagine that someone who smiles and says hi on the way to school is at least .0001% more cheery when they arrive, and says something .0001% nicer to someone else.
I care deeply about the suffering of people, but because many vegans feel particularly isolated in their sorrow over animal suffering in the midst of a meat-eating frenzy, I’m going to narrow the rest of my examples. My closest friend went vegetarian after about a year of discussions about why I switched from vegetarian to vegan. It was an important part of my life, she cared about me and would ask how it was going for me. It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that she would become vegetarian – I was just telling her how I felt. I never asked her if I had influenced her, since I didn’t want to imply she couldn’t think of it herself, but… probably at least a little, right? My Dad started out angry at my becoming vegan; two years later, after many conversations, he told me he wanted to be one. He tells me he often stands up for the vegan position in conversations with friends and family. My daughter went vegan after talking to me about it. So did another friend. I can think of several friends who have cut back on meat or dairy since knowing me. A lot of nice people ask me questions about being vegan; they are honestly confused about the issues, and tell me they appreciate my thoughtful, non-judgmental answers. They don’t usually run home and throw away all their meat, but there’s at least a hairline crack in that wall, and they now know a vegan who doesn’t fit the awful stereotype.
It is not easy to keep saying “hi” to people who ignore you month after month. It is not easy to stand up for vegan values in an engaging way in the face of indifference or hostility. It takes courage, it takes patience, and it takes faith, a faith in humanity, faith in change. Go ahead and march for farmed animals, sign checks and petitions, write letters, hand out leaflets, table, speak to groups. I do these things, too, but I bet my greatest influence is unintentional, just in the way I live my life, in the obvious peace I’ve found in letting go of eating animals. I can stand up firmly for animals in public forums, but I think I shine brightest when I can offer gentler activism one-on-one through my peaceful action and speech.
Ultimately I have to accept that I can’t control other people, or fix the world, and I still have to leave space for compassion for those who are suffering now, but I don’t let it discourage me. Celebrate the effects your smaller actions can have, even if they seem to diminish into the darkness. Keep listening for those echoes, and I think you’ll hear them.