"How I Became a Vegetarian"
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by Bob Ruhf
Vegetarianism and Christianity
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I eliminated meat entirely from my diet on August 22, 1997 when I was a 32-year-old meteorology student at Central Michigan University. I told myself that I could no longer eat something that had at one time experienced the gift of life. Even the thought of eating a dead animal began to make me nauseous. The following story gives a general account of the events that lead to my choosing a vegetarian lifestyle.
(1) Early thoughts of vegetarianism
My vegetarian desires can be traced all the way back to when I was about seven years old. I started to get bothered by the fact that I was eating things that were at one time alive. I never quit eating meat, however. I began to hear about people who didn't eat meat, and I even asked questions about it. Several people (including an elementary school teacher) said that vegetarianism was unhealthy, and that vegetarians usually had health and malnutrition problems. I accepted this without question, and I never actually made the decision to become a vegetarian.
At the age of nine, I told one of my friends that I wanted to be a vegetarian. He told me that it was a bad idea because I would mess up my health if I did it. He said, "Don't you know that people who don't eat meat are always sick?"
"I know," I said, not yet realizing that his statement wasn't true. "But I still don't like the idea of killing animals."
I began telling myself that I would never kill an animal for food, but I would eat it if someone else killed it.
(2) The "fish story"
There were moments when eating meat created significant problems within my conscience. This can be demonstrated by an experience I had when I was about 10 years old. My dad and my younger brother went fishing. I didn't go because I didn't like the idea of killing or hurting fish. When the time came to kill the fish, my dad asked if I wanted to watch. I said, "Okay," and then watched as he took the first fish out of a bucket of water and cut off its head. The fish continued to move its mouth for a few seconds after its head was cut off, and there was a massive amount of blood visible. My mind focused on the moving mouth and I felt horrified. It was almost traumatic for me. After the mouth quit moving, my mind focused on the blood, and I was sickened. I couldn't stand to see something die so painfully and violently. "I can't watch anymore," I said, and I walked away. My dad finished the rest of the fish before giving them to my mom so that she could cook them. As I heard the fish sizzle in the frying pan, I sat silently and thought about that first fish. All that I could see in my mind was the blood and the moving mouth of that dying fish. I couldn't get those images out of my head because they were so disturbing to me. I refused to eat the fish when they were ready. I said, "I can't eat something that I saw die." My parents didn't make me eat the fish. This was the only incident of me refusing to eat meat.
(3) Debates about hunting and another "fish story"
The thought of eating meat bothered me less as I grew older, but I still didn't like to kill anything, and I still didn't like the idea of other people killing animals. I got into debates with other kids in the neighborhood about hunting. Many of them went hunting with their fathers, but I hated the idea. I began to get the reputation of being the neighborhood "animal lover." I continued to eat meat, however. It didn't bother me all that much as long as I didn't see the animal being killed. I had been told that meat was necessary for a proper food diet, and I honestly believed that I had to eat meat to be healthy.
I continued to feel some disgust about the idea of killing animals. When I was about 12 years old, my brother and his friends went fishing on a dock at a lake where my family owned a piece of property. I deliberately kicked over the can that contained all the fish that they had caught. There was water in the can, so some of the fish were still alive. The surviving fish therefore escaped back into the lake. I pretended that it was an accident, and I even offered an insincere apology. But they knew that I had done it deliberately. Everyone knew that I was an "animal lover," and that I had the motive and desire to "free" the fish. They were pretty angry with me for what I did, but I didn't have a lot of regret about doing it.
(4) Adulthood and the "loss" of my vegetarian desires
Any problems that I had with eating meat were gone by the time I was a teen-ager, or so I thought. I didn't seriously consider vegetarianism again until I was 32 years old. In spite of this, I maintained a general love for life. I never went hunting or fishing. I preserved life as much as possible. I even hated killing insects. I would get extremely angry with people who stepped on ants just because they could. When I was 26 years old, I accidentally ran over a squirrel while I was driving 55 miles per hour on a highway, and I felt deep regret for a long time afterwards.
I maintained a respect for vegetarians, but I didn't seriously consider becoming one. In 1995, I saw the television episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa became a vegetarian. I was fascinated by the episode, although I remember thinking, "It's a great idea, but it's too bad that you can't be a vegetarian without having health problems. There's no way to get the right amount of protein." I never questioned the beliefs that I was taught when I was a child. After all, even a teacher had told me that vegetarianism was unhealthy. I had accepted what I was told without question, and I never searched out the truth for myself. My childhood concerns against eating meat appeared to be gone. I got used to the idea of eating meat, and I even enjoyed it. I especially enjoyed chicken and fast food hamburgers. My favorite meal was a Big Mac or a Burger King Whopper. I even forgot that I had at one time considered becoming a vegetarian. However, an awakening was about to take place in my life. I had suppressed my desires for 20 years, but all of that was about to change.
(5) My vegetarian desires awakened again
In April of 1997, I was a 32-year-old student at Central Michigan University working on a Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology. I was in the meteorology lab with several meteorology students, including a student named Heather. I can't remember all the details of our conversation, but I remember Heather saying that she was angry with people who killed animals in order to make fur coats. I responded by saying, "That makes me angry, too!" Heather then made a statement that caused me to suspect that she was a vegetarian.
"Do you eat meat?" I asked.
"No," she said.
"Really?" I asked with a surprised tone of voice. "You're a vegetarian?"
"Yeah, I'm a vegetarian," she said. "I haven't eaten any meat for eight years now."
"Wow!" I said. "I didn't know that you were a vegetarian."
"I thought everybody knew that I was a vegetarian," Heather responded.
"I didn't. Don't you have health problems because of it?"
"No," Heather responded. "My doctor says that I'm okay."
This comment caught me completely by surprise! My first thought was, "What??? Her doctor says that she's okay??? Why would a doctor tell her something like that? Vegetarianism is unhealthy! Why would her doctor lie to her?" However, I had known Heather long enough to know that she didn't have major health problems, at least none that would be related to a bad food diet. This produced a very real case of "cognitive dissonance" within my mind!
I started to ask her an endless series of questions. My first question to her was a very stupid one. It was a question based on a common stereotype that vegetarians are obnoxious and rude. I asked her, "How strong is your belief about this? You're not the type of person who likes to say things like, 'You're murdering animals' to people who eat meat, are you? I mean, you don't have trouble with other people having meat, do you?"
"No, it's just a personal belief," she said. "If people want to eat meat, then that's just their belief. That's their choice."
I asked her questions about why she was a vegetarian, how she became a vegetarian, and what sort of things she ate. Other students in the meteorology lab began to laugh and snicker a little when I kept asking my questions. They seemed to wonder why I was so fascinated by the subject.
"I hope you don't mind all of my questions," I said. "I actually find this to be quite fascinating."
"People weren't meant to eat meat, you know," Heather continued. "The human body was not made to handle it. The body can function better without it."
I wasn't sure what to say in response to this statement. I had believed all of my life that meat was necessary for a proper diet. I suddenly realized that I had never actually heard any evidence that the human body had to have meat to function properly! I wasn't quite ready to admit that I may have been wrong, and I "bluffed" my way through the rest of the conversation.
"I don't know about that," I responded. "You can make an argument for either side. I mean, I've heard arguments on both sides. I've heard people say that the evidence points to the idea that vegetarianism is better for the body, and then I have heard people say that people who don't eat meat have malnutrition problems because there are some nutrients that you can only get from meat. You can make a case for either side."
Heather could have responded by saying, "What evidence have you heard people use to support the idea that vegetarianism leads to malnutrition?" If she had said that, I wouldn't have had anything to say. I had never actually heard any evidence that vegetarianism leads to malnutrition! I didn't want to admit that I had blindly accepted what I was told without actually researching it. Heather didn't challenge my comment. She merely shrugged her shoulders, nodded, and said, "Okay."
"I mean, I respect you for being a vegetarian," I continued. "If you want to be a vegetarian, then that's fine!" Then I said with a laugh, "I don't want to be a vegetarian, though! I love meat too much."
"You and me both," Dr. M., a meteorology instructor, said. Others nodded in agreement.
Heather left the room a few minutes later.
(6) Another conversation
I went an entire day without meat on April 24th, which was only about three weeks after my conversation with Heather. However, I was not yet consciously considering becoming a vegetarian permanently, and I went back to eating meat the next day.
Even though I was back to eating meat, my vegetarian desires were far from over. My views were in the process of being completely overturned. This was evident by the changes that started to occur during the eight days that followed April 24th. I suddenly felt sickened by the thought of eating meat! I tried to eat a couple of veil patties but I almost threw them up several times. I tried to eat an ordinary can of tuna fish, but I had trouble keeping that down as well. I went to visit my family on April 29th, and my grandmother took me out to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I ate two pieces of chicken before I suddenly couldn't eat anymore. The thought of what I was eating was beginning to disturb me!
I still had doubts, however, about whether or not vegetarianism was the best thing to do. Overthrowing a life-long belief was not an easy thing. However, there was no stopping what had been started. I was well on my way to becoming a vegetarian.
I went on an eight day long research trip on May 3rd, which was the first Saturday after my college semester ended. Dr. M., Central Michigan University's primary meteorology instructor, was researching a weather forecasting computer model. He took a group of six meteorology students to Beaver Island (which was an island in the northern part of Lake Michigan), and I was one of the students who was given the privilege of going. Heather was also given the opportunity to go. We spent two hours on a ferry traveling from the mainland to the island. It was during this ferry ride that I had another conversation with Heather about vegetarianism.
I walked into the ferry's interior sitting room when we were about half way to the island. I walked over to a map that was on the wall closest to the front of the boat. Heather and Dr. M. were looking at the map, and the three of us started talking about the details that were on the map. I wanted to ask Heather more questions about her vegetarianism, so I started a conversation about it.
"So, how did you become a vegetarian?" I asked. "You didn't just wake up one day and decide to become a vegetarian, did you?"
"No," she said. "It was very gradual. At first I couldn't eat one type of meat, and then eventually I couldn't eat another type. By the time I was 11 years old, I wasn't eating any meat at all. I haven't eaten meat in 8 years now."
"How did your parents respond to your vegetarianism?" I asked. "Were they concerned? Did they try to stop you?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "They used to make me sit at the table until I ate the meat. I would sometimes be there until 2:00 in the morning. I would fall asleep there!"
"But you wouldn't eat it," I said.
"No, I never did. They eventually stopped making me do that."
She told me a story about a time when she was at a camp that had almost no food for vegetarians. She ate nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for a week. She said that she became seriously sick.
"There were six vegetarians at that camp," she said, "and we all got sick."
We continued to talk for quite awhile. I was impressed by what Heather had to say. I could tell that she was extremely committed to her beliefs. I was especially impressed by the fact that she wouldn't compromise those beliefs for any reason. She had refused to eat meat at the camp even though it resulted in her getting very sick. (I was convinced that she would have died before eating meat.) She also didn't eat meat no matter how many times her parents tried to make her. I admired that kind of strength and dedication. This conversation would stand out in my mind over the next few months and would serve as an inspiration for my eventual decision to become a vegetarian. Heather had the insight and strength to become a vegetarian at the age of eleven in spite of the fact that she was under a lot of pressure not to do it. I, on the other hand, had ignorantly believed that vegetarianism was unhealthy for over 20 years. I would eventually ask myself, "If Heather had been able to stand against such pressure at the age of eleven, how could I continue to justify eating meat at the age of 32?"
(7) The final decision
It took me until August 22nd to completely eliminate meat from my diet. It was a very gradual process for me. I quit eating hamburgers by the month of July. By early August, I had eliminated all meat from my diet except for chicken and meat on pizzas. The last time I ate meat was August 21, 1997. I ate several pieces of a pizza loaded with meat. It made me sick for the next 36 hours. I decided at that point that I would never eat meat again, and I have remained a vegetarian to this day.
My first few months of vegetarianism were very exciting for me! It was like a "born again" experience! I felt like a new person! It was almost as if I had been freed from a sort of prison. I no longer needed meat to survive. I was free from that forever! Every time I drove by a McDonald's, I would smile with delight and think, "I'm so glad that I don't eat dead cows anymore!"
I wanted everyone to know that I was a vegetarian. I talked about it so much that I got on a few people's nerves. A very small number of people even criticized me openly, although most people didn't have a problem with my vegetarianism, or with me talking openly about it. I eventually backed down on the number of times that I talked about it, and this seemed to cause the few critics that I had to back down as well. While I wanted to be open about my vegetarian lifestyle, I didn't want to become obnoxious or pushy. I knew that I had to respect those who chose to eat meat. After all, I had eaten meat until I was 32 years old. What right did I have to criticize others?
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