January 14, 2007

Recovering My Authentic Self

Posted in happiness, recovery, vegan at 1:47 pm by nevavegan

Recovering My Authentic Self
(Or why everyone might as well become vegan today)

Due to some recent tragedies my thoughts lately have centered on childhood memories, trying to sort out what is meaningful from what’s not.

My earliest memories involve awe and wonder, staring at butterflies, marveling at the vastness of the night sky. This is important because for years my parents told me that I was born happy. They said I almost never cried as a baby. They claimed I was sick a lot but just kept smiling through each illness. That is until about age three when they claimed my personality took a drastic change for the worse; I started to cry all the time according to them. I complained and whined; I didn’t like the food they gave me. I became ungrateful.

Looking back there seemed to be some really important things going on. When I was three my brother went to school and I was alone all day long in an unhappy house, or at least that’s how it felt. I also know now as an adult that I have and likely had then, some food allergies and asthma, which were never taken seriously or treated by my parents. But whatever the cause, and however much I shake my head at the concept of parents who wouldn’t seek medical attention for what they claimed was a dramatic change in their child’s personality (or for that matter ever consider the fact that their ridicule helped nothing), this essay isn’t about childhood injustice. I intend instead to write about happiness and authentic self.

After going through a period of really deep depression recently I find myself clinging to this mythic image of me as being born happy. It tells me that somewhere inside me is the potential for happiness.

This is important because a recent study demonstrated that for most people happiness is reliant on internal factors, not external ones. The study showed that lottery winners were no happier after a year than anyone else. It also showed that people who’d been paralyzed in accidents were no more depressed after a year than people in the general population. Instead people returned to a level of happiness or depression that they’d had prior to the life changing events.

Hence my subtitle. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they could never become vegan because they’d miss their favorite food too much, it would be too hard, or they’d be depressed if they didn’t have meat every day. But the study seems to indicate that you could become vegan today and after some initial turmoil of adjusting you’d be just as happy, or not happy, by next year as you are today. Both encouraging and discouraging.

But we might have reason to believe that becoming vegan might actually increase levels of happiness at least initially. I mean for the person; it goes without saying that adopting a vegan life style will greatly increase the happiness of the animals. What I mean is that by taking a really positive action for the animals and environment, anyone who is vegan should have something to feel good about every single day.

I’ve always said that being vegan has given me a lot more than I’ve ever given to the cause. It’s not the reason I went vegan in the first place. But more than a decade on I find that there are more benefits and fewer drawbacks than I ever dreamed of. Becoming vegan lead me away from a lifestyle of violence, it forced me to reconsider assumptions that were harmful to me, it opened me up to learning about other cultures, other cuisines, and other philosophies.

When I decided to give vegetarianism a try when I was in high school my mind set was one of worry (I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone), fear (how was I going to make this work), hope (here I was finally trying to make a stand for my beliefs), and not a little resistance (I felt compelled, but did I really want to disrupt my entire life like this).

I was a kid who cooked. By and large I got positive feedback on my cooking. It was a source of some self esteem. What did I cook? Lemon chicken, ham, butter-laden pastries, big slabs of beef, and cakes, pies and cookies made with eggs, butter, and milk.

It was tough to go from someone who made food that others wanted to eat to sitting there in the kitchen with a big bag of brown rice and a big bag of split peas wondering what the heck to do. For the first time I was making dismal failures that nobody wanted to eat. Then I started college. With my own kitchen and my own time I decided to start learning and trying new things. Some were awful, some were wonderful, and I actually feel like I’m a better cook today for being vegan than if I’d rested on my early laurels and made nothing but coq au vin for the rest of my life.

Again, that’s not a reason to become vegan. It’s not about ethics, it’s all about me. Still, it’s a good reason to not turn away from veganism if it appeals to you. Because it’s all about that basic premise—we go through drastic change and end up more or less where we started. I wanted to be a wonderful cook, and if I do say so myself, I think I am.

Also happily I retrained myself from loving foods dripping in butter and wrapped in bacon to eating more fresh veggies and more wholesome choices. A sort of side effect, much to my benefit.

But back to the story at hand. If I consider my authentic self as intrinsically happy and look for ways to recover my authentic self, I have to think about what factors make most human beings happy. We all say it, money can’t buy happiness, but do we really understand it? Money won’t make you happy, food won’t make you happy, stuff won’t make you happy, but changing the way you think can make you happy, doing good things can make you happy… Finding your authentic self, the one that saw the world with wonder and kindness can make you happy.

When my aunt was dying and I went to see her for one final visit she was unrelentingly cheerful. Confined to a wheelchair with gauze wrapped around stage four bed sores, she went shopping, did crafts, and spent time with her loved ones. We all pasted pained happy faces on, determined to keep up the charade for her sake. But inside we were thinking “Doesn’t she understand? It’s not going to get better this time.” But now I understand. It’s not that she didn’t know she was dying, but that she saw the path in front of her and knew she was going that way with a smile or with weeping, but time wasn’t stopping for her. You can’t always change the circumstances but you can try to do the best with the time you do have.

And why does happiness matter? I mean other than this vision I have that happiness is my authentic self? Because first and foremost I’m no good to anyone, let alone myself if I’m hoping to get run over by a truck every day. Because happiness is a gift we bring to the world and it’s contagious. It costs nothing, uses no resources, releases no green house gasses, and yet I can bring some small bit of it to anyone who is open. I can take my happiness and use it to help animals, to help people. I can show people that a non-violent approach to life can be fulfilling and joyful.



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