I went vegan for compassionate reasons. I didn't want to cause harm to animals -- sentient beings whom I respected and cared for. Donald Watson, founder of the British Vegan Society, invented the word "vegan" in 1944. At first the term only applied to food, but the Society extended the definition in 1951 to mean "the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals." Watson lived to age 95. This vegan doctrine is one that I try to live my life by, if only imperfectly. If I can live happily and healthily without hurting an animal to the age of 95, why would I want to do otherwise?
When I transitioned to my now vegan lifestyle, I was under the impression that "making a mistake," such as consuming something that I was unaware had butter in it, meant that I had canceled out my veganism. I believed that unless I was a perfect vegan, I was not a vegan at all. Through the years that I've been living this lifestyle, I've become wary of anyone who claims perfect veganism. I can't speak for everyone, but I don't believe that there is a perfect vegan out there. That doesn't mean that I willfully eat animal products or intentionally wear makeup with carmine (derived from the bodies of bugs) in it, but I also don't let slip-ups cancel out my compassionate lifestyle.
I believe it is 100 percent possible to live a 100 percent vegan life. From what I've read in books (such as "The China Study" and "The Food Revolution"), watched in films (such as "Forks Over Knives") and experienced from interacting with other vegans, I believe that we can get all essential nutrients from plant-based foods. There is evidence that there is absolutely no requirement for the ingestion or use of any animal product in order for us to survive healthily and happily. It has been my experience that I don't need to consume animals in order to live optimally. The realities of my imperfect human life on this planet are usually what challenge my vegan lifestyle.
Try as I might, I am not a perfect vegan. Walking on the ground, I'm sure I've stepped on bugs. I am certain that in restaurants I have unknowingly eaten non-vegan ingredients that have been mixed into dishes I've ordered, thinking they were vegan. I have sat in cars with leather seats. When I had cancer, the chemotherapy that helped to save my life was tested on rats. There are a myriad of ways that we can be imperfect vegans. But that doesn't mean that the things we do to help the animals in striving for a vegan lifestyle are discounted. Everything we do to exclude animal products from our lifestyles helps the animals. And the best I can do is to consciously exclude as many animal products from my life as is within my control.
I've found that the very topic of imperfect veganism can strike fear in the heart of an otherwise secure vegan. For me this fear is generally of having my ethics concerning animals attacked as soon as I reveal this "vulnerability" of imperfection. And a fear of failing my fellow vegans. But I've also found that the vegans I respect most in this compassionate movement, those who have sustained a vegan lifestyle for a long time and who help others, will admit their vulnerability as imperfect.
The difference between veganism and other intentions in life is that veganism is, in fact, a life or death scenario. I don't want to eat meat because it is a dead body. I don't want to drink milk because a cow has needlessly suffered for it. I don't want to wear leather because I don't believe that it is fair for a cow to lose its life so I can put on a pair of fancy shoes (especially when there are so many wonderful vegan options). So my mistakes in living vegan aren't the same as having a typo in an important letter or jaywalking. Veganism is very important to me for these and other reasons, and I don't take my compassionate lifestyle lightly. However, until society has changed on a larger scale and nothing is produced with animal products, chances are I am going to be living imperfectly vegan. To invest energy in beating myself up over it, or attacking others for being imperfect vegans, wouldn't be helpful to anyone.
I consider being a vegan as similar to being a parent or a doctor in the sense that I am responsible for the lives of others through my actions and decisions. However, no doctor or parent is perfect. I reckon that most parents would admit to being imperfect. I will guess that many parents have yelled at their children even if they didn't believe it was the correct way to treat them. That doesn't mean that those parents should give up on striving to be good, kind and compassionate parents in every way possible. Just because I have had my mistakes as a vegan, does not mean that I give up my intention of living without causing harm to animals. I try to learn from my mistakes, acknowledge myself as imperfect and continue to do my best to live a vegan lifestyle.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, a vegan hero of mine, author, and host of the "Vegetarian Food for Thought" podcast addresses possible vegan slip-ups in the chapter "Day 30: Keeping It in Perspective: Intention, Not Perfection" of her new book, "The 30-Day Vegan Challenge." She writes:
Because many people mistakenly believe that being vegan is about being perfect, they often accuse vegans of being hypocrites... All we can do is the best we can with the information we have at the time; as we grow and learn, we can strive to make the most compassionate, healthful decisions possible. Keep in mind that being vegan is about intention, not perfection.
Maybe someday society will have shifted so much that it will be more easily possible to live a purely vegan lifestyle. In the meantime, there's a lot we can do to help the animals in the here and now.
Maya Gottfried is the author of books, essays and articles for children and adults. She has previously written on her experience with cancer for crazysexylife.com. Her autobiographical essay "Untitled" appeared in the book "Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes." Maya's most recent book for children, "Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary," is about the real-life residents of national farm animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary. Read her blog on Red Room.