An Open Letter to Myself As A Young Vegan Activist…

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Credit: Doris Lessing/Literary Ladies Guide

December 3, 2020

Hey, kid —

It’s 1995 and you’re a new vegan. Way to go! High fives all around. You could probably wear fewer butterfly clips and should definitely stop plucking your eyebrows to death but, hey, it’s 1995 and you’re on a good path. (Otherwise.)

What’s interesting is that you will only realize that things are kind of rough for vegans in retrospect, from me sitting at my laptop and writing this in 2020 (don’t freaking ask me about this year), because in 1995, you’re so full of zeal and you also don’t have the foresight to know what’s coming around the bend. I don’t want to spend too much time telling you about the future because it’s not all that relevant to this letter but I will tell you that things are going to get dramatically better with regard to vegan food, both quality and availability. That cheese you’re eating in 1995 is scary — you can stop pretending otherwise, we both know it’s true, the sooner you give up the ghost, the better — and if you’re really smart, you’ll start experimenting with cashews but this is all to say that things get so much better, not that it would matter that much to you.

What’s important for me to express, though, is not that there is amazing vegan cheese with your name on it in, oh, about 20 years (you’ll just have to hang on) but that there are certain things I wish I knew as a newbie vegan activist, things that would have helped me to make better decisions. Right off the bat, here’s one such example I was slow to learn: Not every vegan is deserving of your time, trust or respect.

Bold words, but hear me out.

You are young and way too trusting so I know it’s a shocker but there are some unpleasant people out there of all variety, vegan and non-vegan. Manipulative people, abusive people, bigoted people, terrible people. With your rose-colored glasses, though, you never see it coming with vegans because we’re supposed to be better than that, right? 2020 me would hazard a guess that the average vegan is more compassionate, community-minded and considerate than the standard issue omnivore but that still doesn’t mean it’s all that challenging to find vegans with some pretty harmful ways of treating others. It is no small fact, too, that being vegan gives someone with, say, Narcissistic Personality Disorder the perfect cover for manipulating and abusing without easy detection. I’ll be honest; All these years later, I still have to remind myself that someone claiming to be vegan doesn’t automatically translate into a decent person. It’s better if you learn this early, though, so you don’t keep trusting and forgiving the wrong people.

I believe that the antidote to this is to find community. Your vegan tribe is somewhere out there and they are the ones deserving of your time. Since I am writing this in 2020, I can tell you that some of your community may even be online, which is just too trippy to try to describe to you in this letter. Anyway, figure out who you want to include in your vegan tribe by using the same standards you do in other areas of your life: Seek out people who are kind, considerate, interesting, supportive and fun. It’s not rocket behavioral science; I’m just saying don’t drop your standards of what you’ll accept just because someone happens to be vegan. Again, abusers and assholes, they are lurking. Be prepared. If another vegan dismisses your activism, if you can never do enough, if they try to cajole you into their style, if they are always nitpicking and pointing out your mistakes, if they seem more interested in playing “gotcha” than being supportive and helpful? Red flag, red flag, red flag, red flag, red flag. Find your tribe, kid, so you can encourage one another to do better, not push on old shame and “not enough” buttons.

Which leads to my next point: If you want to avoid burnout, you will have to find ways to be balanced. Keep up your old hobbies; develop new ones. Going vegan is kind of like putting on new glasses that change your vision but also how you feel: Only other vegans can really see and feel what you see and feel, the everyday, unnecessary cruelties and the massive scope and scale of it. The sheer brutality of what we do to other animals can feel incomprehensible and all you want to do is wake people up to it, have them see the world through your new lenses. I get it, but I am not here to talk about that.

It is so easy to experience burnout when things feel insurmountable and you see little progress. In fact, it is a perfect recipe for it. The worst thing for the animals, though, is for you to burn out. Let me tell you something that I don’t know if you’re going to want to hear but I think it’s important to say: You know all those circuses you protest in 1995? All the times you stand outside with a sign or pamphlets and get mocked by attendees and circus clowns alike? As I write this in 2020, it was only a few years ago that Ringling Bros. announced their final show. Seriously, you all stood out there in the rain and the snow and the hot sun for all those years and only recently did society start changing enough that Ringling no longer had a viable business model. Girl…So my point is to celebrate the victories when they come, even if they are imperfect and incomplete (and they almost always will be), because changing society can take a looooooong ass time. Some changes will come about quicker but the animals need for us to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Find ways to foster balance in your life so you can be there for the long haul.

Speaking of balance, I feel that the biggest enemy of new vegans is black-and-white, success-or-failure thinking. I struggled with this myself — hey, I didn’t have a letter like this — and I know that this mentality is the downfall of many aspiring vegans. If you make a mistake, you accidentally have dairy or you just can’t resist that donut, just get back on it. I’m not going to say it’s okay because that’s not for me to do but I can say that it is a steep learning curve and habit change for a while. The animals don’t benefit from your self-flagellation: Just do better. That’s all. And we have all been there. Lecture over.

Last, you’ve probably noticed that there are some people who resent you or feel defensive around you just because you’re vegan, often simply by your existence as one. I want you to feel these next four words in your very core: That is their problem. I will even repeat and italicize: That is their problem. You may find that some of your family and friends will try to kneecap your veganism, take it as a personal rejection or otherwise be kind of ridiculous about it. I know it’s difficult at times but I can tell you, hindsight being 2020 and all that, that the people who are the most defensive are often the people who are triggered by guilt and they are the ones who are the most likely to come around. That’s just a little secret between the two of us.

Anyway, Mars, I am proud of you and your choices. I hope this wasn’t too pushy. I just didn’t ever get a letter like this in 1995. Or maybe I did but I was too busy plucking my eyebrows and didn’t notice. In any case, keep on keeping on. (I mean, I know you will because I am you.)

XO —


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