Yesterday, for the first time in perhaps a year and a half, I just happened to drive past a dairy farm. I hadn’t intentionally been avoiding dairy farms, though I would be the first to admit that such a place could easily be one of the things in life that might actually be worth avoiding. If you’ve ever been to one, or near one, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, let me paint you the briefest of pictures.
The first thing you notice, as you approach a dairy farm, is the stench. I don’t want to exaggerate and say the stink travels for miles, but the simple fact is that the stink travels for miles. You smell it long before you see it. It’s an acrid smell, a mixture of ammonia, methane, and shit. When you see it, the visuals match. The farm is all silver metal fences marking out the boundaries of dark brown muck punctuated by feeding and watering troughs. A few scattered poles hold up small sections of roofing as token wards against sun and rain. Then there are the cows, of course, crowded together in the narrow strips of shade near the feed, covered from hoof to mid flank in shit or mud or both.
It looks like one of the most miserable circumstances of a life I can imagine. Certainly the cows wouldn’t choose to be there, if they were given a choice. I was momentarily outraged at the insensitivities of my fellow men, who apparently thought that this kind of treatment of these animals was somehow justified. And then I realized: this is the price of cheese.
A few years ago my daughter decided to stop eating meat. At first, it was only chickens. Specifically, the chickens we had kept for years, who had gradually stopped producing eggs. My ex-wife had them slaughtered, and the downstairs freezer suddenly became the repository for a seemingly never-ending supply of chicken. Though it was handy for last minute dinner ideas, my daughter refused to eat that meat. And then, as her siblings teased her for it, she started doing a little research on animal cruelty, and she quickly went from not eating those chickens, to not eating chicken in general, to not eating meat at all, and eventually to not even consuming eggs or dairy.
I’d like to brag and say that I joined my daughter in her vegan diet as a show of support. There are only two problems with that claim. First, it was Girlfriend’s idea. She’s the one who saw that my daughter was being teased for her convictions and suggested that we adopt her eating habits so that she wouldn’t have to feel she was standing alone. So Girlfriend and I stopped eating meat. And the second reason I can’t claim any credit for supporting my daughter is the fact that though I’ve flirted with veganism, I’ve never been fully committed to it.
As a matter of general principle, I’m of the opinion that perfection is the enemy of progress. If you call yourself a vegetarian, but you have steak once a year on your birthday, then you can no longer legitimately call yourself a vegetarian. And since you’re not a vegetarian, why deprive yourself of steak at all? If you call yourself a vegan, but you forgot to check a label and you ate something that an animal once breathed on, you’re not a vegan; you’re a dismal failure. So you may as well eat bacon for every meal. For that reason, I don’t like to call myself a vegetarian or a vegan, because one infraction makes my entire life a lie. Instead, I say that I prefer to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet.
I eat a mostly vegan diet, but I don’t stress out about checking the contents of each package I buy. I still eat eggs occasionally. Every once in a while, I consume a little dairy. I don’t stress out about it. I like the concept, though not the name, of the reducetarian movement: it’s hard for most people to eat no meat, so just ask them to eat less meat; it’s even harder to consume no dairy, so just ask them to consume less dairy. It’s not perfect. But it’s closer to perfect than either not trying at all or trying, failing, and giving it up as too difficult.
So I don’t stress about my diet. I eat vegan meals about 90% of the time, and vegetarian meals about 99% of the time. Yes, that means that every once in a while I go into a restaurant that has no vegetarian options and instead of walking out, or going hungry, I order something from the menu. On a more regular basis, though, my two biggest weaknesses are eggs and cheese. There are great vegan alternatives for meat. And a lot of really great meals that don’t even pretend to be meat. There are plenty of milk alternatives, and even ice cream is available in non-dairy versions now. But I’ve had more difficulty accepting vegan replacements for eggs and cheese.
So I buy a dozen or so eggs a month, and I buy cheese. Mostly my cheese purchases are in restaurants, where the percentage of meals that were vegan would be a lot higher if not for the cheese. But every once in a while I buy some cheese for home use, too. And I’m okay with my choices. I’m following the reducetarian path. I’m causing far less suffering for animals than other people. I’m not perfect, but I’m doing something.
And then, yesterday, driving past the dairy farm, trying not to breathe too deeply as I stole horrified glances out the window, I came face to face with my imperfections.
I am able to eat cheese because I am really good at compartmentalizing. I hate driving past dairy farms. I would cringe at the thought of having to spend even an hour next to one. I couldn’t imagine working at one. Yet for some reason I am okay with the idea of giving my money to someone who then forces cows to live out their entire lives in that squalor. Just so I can enjoy a little cheese.
Obviously, though, it’s not just me. For the amount of dairy I consume, I’m not personally responsible for even one full-time cow. If I only ate vegan meals, not one cow, not one chicken, would be out of a job. I can’t change the world by myself, and I wouldn’t alleviate any animal suffering even if I could truly call myself a vegan. My personal influence is, in quantitative terms, quite literally, zero. In fractional terms, sure, I and several other people between us could put a cow or a chicken out of business. But all by myself? I’m powerless.
What struck me, and what stayed with me, then, about my dairy farm moment went beyond my personal contribution to the plight of animals. Rather than the facts of what my behavior enabled, I was fascinated by the why of my participation. As someone who is aware of the plights of animals, as someone who is sensitive to the suffering of animals, as someone who wants to contribute as little as possible to the industrialization of suffering, why am I able to ignore so easily this cruelty?
You see, I’ve been thinking lately about how easy it is to be callous to the suffering of others.
Three brief vignettes:
One. My brother suffered for several years from depression. He is the sibling I’ve always felt closest to. I felt really sorry for him. I wanted to do something to help, and a few times I invited him to join my family in an activity. And when the activity ended, he went back home to his empty apartment and I went back home with my family, tucked my children into bed, and then snuggled with my wife. He was depressed for years. And I “helped” him a couple of times. I felt bad for him, but I certainly didn’t feel his crushing depression, and I didn’t do nearly enough.
Two. My grandfather died when I was still in high school. My grandmother is still alive. She has lived alone for decades. Every once in a while my wife would suggest going to visit her, and I would reluctantly agree. I didn’t enjoy spending time with my grandmother. I didn’t know what to talk about with her. But she was always so delighted to see us and spend time with us. And after each visit, I would take my little family home, and I wouldn’t think about her for months at a time, until my wife once again suggested a visit. It’s not that I didn’t care. I felt bad for her, but I certainly didn’t feel the interminable hours of loneliness that she was experiencing, and I didn’t do nearly enough.
Three. Recently I’ve experienced both depression and loneliness. I’ve watched as people around me reached out to me, spent time with me, and then retreated back to their happy bubble of love, fulfillment, and family. I’m not unappreciative of their efforts. Like my grandmother and like my brother, I don’t expect anyone else to save me. But I know, from having been there myself, that while people might feel bad for you and want to help, there is a huge difference between compassion and understanding.
When the suffering isn’t yours, you can think about it for a few minutes, very sincerely and very honestly feel bad about it, and then move on to your next activity. But if you are the one who is suffering, you can’t just turn it off and go home. It’s with you. It’s immediate. It’s demanding. And sometimes it feels inescapable.
As humans, it’s so easy for us to get caught up in the details of our own life. And I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong. But it’s really difficult to confront the full reality of suffering when it isn’t you that’s suffering. Maybe even impossible. And because we are unable to fully know it, we are unable to fully appreciate it, and then we act in ways that might even prolong or deepen the suffering. Most of the time it’s because we don’t know about pain that doesn’t touch us, but sometimes we do it even when we know that there is suffering and want to help.
I think we all drive past the dairy farms, horrified at the very idea of them, fume a little about our broken society, and then, a few miles down the road, satisfied with our own righteousness, we roll down the windows, turn the music up, and enjoy the beautiful sunny day. A week or two later, we find ourselves in a restaurant once again, the specter of the dairy farm only a dim memory, and we barely pause before ordering that mouth-watering fettuccine alfredo.
Because, after all, there may be a horrific price for cheese, but someone else is paying it.