Over the years I’ve used the season of Lent as a sort of laboratory for experiments with truth. Perhaps that’s not the most properly penitential way to go about these 40 days of fasting, which should be more outwardly directed than inwardly, calling us out of ourselves to service, repentance, giving, and recognition of our own fragile contingency.
My experiment this year was going vegan—eating no animal products at all, whenever possible. And this isn’t the first time. I did it also one Lent a few years ago along with several of my then-housemates, all of different faiths. That time, for me, it was difficult. Of all things, I couldn’t stop missing cottage cheese and probably splurged like crazy when Easter came.
This year couldn’t have been more different. I never once missed not being able to gobble down a slice of pizza or guzzle a glass of milk. A few baked goods with eggs in them might have been tempting, but that’s as far as it went. In fact, I loved being vegan. I’m not quite attentive enough to my body to know the difference in that regard (so brainwashed with Platonic-Pauline flesh-hating as I must be by now). But in my heart, I suppose you would have to call it, it gladdened me enormously not to be consuming the produce of other creatures. Closer, eating felt, to the hope of living nonviolently in the world.
The difference, undoubtedly, was all in the preparation leading up to this Lent. First, of course, was the not-so-subtle nudging from my mother over the preceding few months. For nutritional reasons above all, she has taken dairy out of her diet and has been rather evangelical about the idea. Intellectually, the nutritional reasons don’t do much for me, but more subconsciously, maternal pressure does wonders.
Along with that came some conversations with my former UCSB colleague Aaron Gross, a remarkable scholar and activist. For the Brooklyn Rail, I covered the launch event for his organization, Farm Forward, which is working to end factory farming. Aaron brought to my attention the deep moral and ecological bankruptcy of the animal farming industry—even to the point that the infrastructure no longer exists for truly sustainable practices at a large scale if someone wanted to try them.
Trailing on that, then, came more conversations with my friend Bryan, a fellow writer and passionate environmentalist. While my tendency is always to come at difficult social problems with novel, Yankee-ingenuity approaches, he puts his trust in simplicity and restraint. Not enough people today are willing to recognize, as Bryan does, that technology will not save us until we save ourselves. The upshot of his attitude is: we have to treasure the things we need and happily put aside the things we don’t. For him, this is less a matter of personal discipline than plain sense.
Comparing this year to the last time makes me realize how much preparation matters. It made the difference between 40 days of exhausting torture and 40 days of happy sacrifice. Actually, preparation is what Lent itself is all about—building ourselves in anticipation of the resurrection at Easter, ensuring we can experience, as fully as possible, its meaning. To those who would say that people are nothing but gut-level, instinct-processing machines, this Lent gave me an answer. Yes, perhaps we are gut-level, instinct-processing machines, but we are also much more. What we learn, think, and discuss matters enormously. Through these, guts and instincts can be calibrated and satisfied—not even necessarily through some dualist super-mind from outside, but by the resources our desires themselves have at the ready. The desire for compassion happened to have been built up strong enough by my friends, in this case, to overcome the desire for cheese.
Lent is over, and I guess I’ll be going back to my usual leniency: most-of-the-time vegetarianism, though this time with most-of-the-time veganism added on too. If there’s one thing I’d like to share about this experience, it goes to those who, when I said I was going vegan, said, “Oh, I could never do that.” Yes, you can, and a zillion other things. We can change the way we live, together and with the planet. It just takes preparation.