As I child, I decided I would stop eating meat. It was one of those goofy things that kids do and I don't recall how long it lasted - it wasn't long. I went right back to my old ways soon thereafter and became a confirmed and unhesitating meat eater. One day, many years later, my son, then in his early teens, announced that he was going to stop eating meat. Without a moment's pause, I found myself saying that said I would join him. I have been a pescatarian (fish-eating vegetarian) ever since. It has been about five years now.
People often ask me why I chose this life style. Meat eaters want to know why I am 'depriving' myself of the essential pleasure of eating meat. Vegetarians want to know why I am such a wimp and not ethical or committed enough to go all the way to abstain from eating fish. [Vegans, who do not consume any animal products - including milk and eggs - are so far above me on the moral scale that they barely think I'm worth talking to.]
For a while, I would respond to the questions from carnivorous inquirers with a recitation of my various ethical rationales for avoiding meat. I could create a fairly convincing story when I tried. But the honest truth is that I had no reason for my choice - at least no overwhelming conscious one.
Now, there are plenty of good reasons to remove meat from our diets and all of them are made infinitely more compelling by the fact that meat eating is simply a choice: we do not need to eat meat to survive or to be healthy: 1) Meat eating is bad for your health - avoiding it is clearly better for your heart and circulatory system. 2) Farming meat is a very inefficient way to feed people - only one tenth as many people can be fed on meat than on the grain needed to produce that amount of meat. (This is hard to justify morally in a world where people continue to starve.) 3) The production of meat produces an enormous quantity of greenhouse gases, connecting our dietary preferences connecting to the acceleration of global warming. 4) The animals we eat are different from us in only subtle ways. To me at least, unnecessarily killing creatures with personalities and brains that work a lot like ours is just wrong. 5) Last, but not least, there is Bambi - the cuteness argument. How can you eat something with a cute face? [This is related to my rationalization for eating fish. Not nearly so cute!]
But the true basis for my decision was something different. I jumped at the opportunity to make myself a particularly awkward dinner guest because I wanted to be different. Not just different in the sense of odd or quirky [although those who know me will happily offer that I didn't need to eat differently for that.] What I wanted - without recognizing it consciously - was a way of living that connected to my broader spiritual choices and commitments.
In that, I was being anything but unique. Virtually every religious tradition has imposed some sort of dietary restrictions. Jews have the laws of Kosher and Muslims, in a very closely related system, eat only food that is Halal. Buddhists avoid all meat, Hindus do not eat beef, Christians have their fasts, and so on.
Many, many reasons have been put forward for religious dietary rules. From my own experience though, the power of a dietary restriction is that I have had something to remind me every day of my commitments - of the person I am trying to be. And, it has some real advantages in that it is easier than never cutting my hair, less conspicuous than growing a huge beard, less painful than piercings, and much less permanent than tattoos!
The world we live in does not make it easy to be mindful and deliberate about our choices. We are bombarded by stimuli and dazzled with temptations at every moment. It is a tremendous challenge to recall our deeper commitments amid the many demands on our attention. The way I eat is just one small way in which I can keep myself present to the way of life I have chosen and the vision I have set out to reach.
Although my reasons for becoming a pescatarian initially had little to do with the good moral reasons for avoiding meat, I have since become convinced that this is indeed a good way to live responsibly on the earth. I have tried not to be militant about it, but I do feel very strongly that it is considerate of our fellow human beings, it is respectful to the other creatures that share our planet, and it is a way to live more lightly on the Earth itself.
And, by the way, I would really enjoy some barbecued ribs right about now and my home-made tofu jerky, while tasty, is not nearly the same...