False Love

jasonlmorrow's picture

An acquaintance of mine feels a strong spiritual connection to bees. They are a sacred animal for her. She supports work to help curb their diminishing population, and I assume she calls upon them as spirit allies. It's very common in Pagan, shamanic, and other communities to call upon the guidance and protection of animal spirits. When we were discussing veganism, she told me that she could never become fully vegan because honey is very important to her due to her spiritual connection with bees. It struck me how the same feeling - regard for bees - led her to consume honey and me to eschew it.

In spiritual circles, I've often encountered the idea that if we love animals, we must eat them or their products.

I abstain from animal products because I care about animals and I care about not causing harm. There are plenty of other reasons to abstain, of course, but that's the reason I give when people ask why I'm vegan. A number of people have responded that they make sure to thank the animal spirit for its sacrifice, and that this makes it all right.

I admit I used to do this. There was a time during my long awakening process that I still ate meat but rejected the use of leather or fur. Unless of course it was shoes, or the little leather tags on jeans, or anything else I didn't see a convenient way to avoid. At the time I had this Goth/biker/hippie/3-wolf-moon-shirt vibe going on. I fell in love with a leather jacket and had to have it. I wrestled over it, decided to get it anyway, and then thanked the spirit of the cow for its sacrifice. Little did I know, I should probably have been thanking multiple cows. At the time I also wrongly believed that leather was a byproduct of cows that were already killed for meat.

A stronger form of the "give thanks" argument is that it's wrong to abstain from eating meat, because then the animals die for nothing. Their meat is wasted if no one eats it; by eating it, you give their death meaning. This is wrong because they wouldn't be dying for nothing if we weren't buying their flesh, skin, and other products. If I buy the flesh of Animal 1, I'm signing the death warrant of Animal 2. Animal agriculture doesn't just happen, it's a business. Every purchase creates demand.

When I hear the giving thanks argument now, I immediately put myself into the scenario. I imagine that aliens, or vampires, or some random neighbors, have killed me for food. Does it matter to me that they eat my meat and thrive on it? Will I resent the one who, out of a respect for human life, chooses not to eat me? If they kneel down and say, "Thanks for your sacrifice," will I truly be grateful for that tiny consideration? No thanks, I'd rather just not be killed. It's not a gift or a sacrifice if it wasn't actually offered.

People might say that putting those thoughts into a cow's head is anthropomorphizing, but I'm not the one suggesting we give thanks to their spirits. Well, OK, I do suggest that, but not as a get-away-with-killing-you-free card. What's more likely to bother people about my scenario, however, isn't the unlikeliness of it. It's that I'm comparing an animal life to a human life.

And that's why I say it's not really love. We like animals. We think they're cute. We want to learn some wisdom from them, maybe. But ultimately we're not willing to grant them agency, the right to decide how they live and die. We debate their ability to suffer. That's not love. If the five minutes of pleasure you get from eating a fish seems worth that fish's entire life, that's not love.

This all reminds me of the larger way in which we misuse the term "love." We often say we love someone, when what we really mean is that we love being around them. We love the way they make us feel.

Iris Murdoch said, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” That is the essence of my veganism. Not all animals have the same level of intelligence as the human animal. They have different behaviors and appearances. But I'm willing to grant them reality. An animal exists on its own, for its own reasons. It's not just a figure in my life. An animal is not just what it can do for me.

I once went to a Lakshmi puja (a Hindu ceremony honoring the goddess Lakshmi). I know that it's standard to offer milk and honey to the gods, so I asked ahead of time if it would be all right to skip that part or use an alternative. The organizer said that it was, but explained that milk is perfectly acceptible since it's the purest food there is and comes from the sacred cow. I don't think he ultimately understood that that's precisely why I don't use milk, because I respect cows.

I just don't think one can say to an animal, "I think you are sacred, therefore I am going to forcefully take what is yours." Both parts of that statement can't be true. I prefer, "I think you are sacred, so I'm going to leave you alone and watch you from afar, with awe." Or even, "I'm going to spend my time not eating you, but protecting you."

I have some collected feathers on my altar. I have a little bit of a robin shell that I found discarded after the baby had emerged. These are very meaningful to me in my magick. To use store-bought feathers that involved plucking a captive goose... Imagine the pain of having your hair or nails ripped out. That's not the kind of energy I want in my magick, and it's not the way I show respect to animal spirits.