Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to veganism for many people is one they will encounter right away: The avoidance or even dread of entering new territory that is wired right into us. Right out of the gate it seems that moving towards veganism is hamstrung by this innate desire to avoid the things that make us feel vulnerable, like mistakes, imperfection and discomfort.
No huge shocker here, but I have some thoughts about this.
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When I first went vegan in 1995, it felt like the learning curve was both very steep and jagged. Even as a vegetarian of over ten years at that point, many things I used to eat, wear or buy were no longer available, that was a given, but even some things I’d thought were fine had animal ingredients in them. I was lost at cooking, figuring that so much -- pizza, enchiladas, chocolate chip cookies -- was never going to be eaten by me again. Then there was my wardrobe. Then there was dining out, traveling and social gatherings. Everything felt challenging and ungainly, expensive and impenetrable; every attempt to minimize mistakes felt miniscule and futile. That first year, I hit so many walls and was humbled pretty much daily. Things were legitimately tougher then, though: we didn’t have the options and inroads we enjoy today. Plant-based diets were far more uncommon and certainly not dependably available on a widespread basis. My mind was made up, though. I was going to do this thing through sheer force of will if necessary.
Through the stumbling, though, I was learning. I was gathering my resources. I was gaining experience. I was learning -- painfully, at times, and full of frustration as well -- things that I could apply immediately to making veganism easier for me, like where I could find lunch options at work if I didn’t bring my own within a ten-minute walk, or how to find cruelty-free cosmetics and personal care products through my worth-every-penny guidebook that fit in my bag. Through activism, I found new friends who shared my values and lifestyle, and we helped one another gain more proficiency and better shoes. I found new recipes I loved in the vegan cookbooks that were starting to pop up here and there and I even started the process of figuring out how to adapt old favorites with dairy and eggs. (If I never have to have another agar cheesecake, though, I won’t miss it. No, not even for old time’s sake.)
The point is, slowly but surely, a certain deftness developed within me. If veganism hadn’t been as important to me as it was, I probably would have quit after the second time I mistakenly bought “dairy-free” cheese with casein in it (((shudder))), but it was that important so I didn’t quit. Lo and behold, it within a matter of months, it got easier. Yes, I still stumbled, just as I sometimes do today, but less often.
This should not be a surprise. It works this way for learning all things: Practice, consistency, intention, perspective and attitude make all the difference.
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The first time my veganism was tested in a major way, and also the first time I really internalized that “Hey, I’m kind of good at this!” feeling was when we took a road trip down Route 66 the September after going vegan. I was understandably nervous about driving through parts of the country that are still, more than 25 years later, not exactly vegan hotbeds but I figured that we could stock up on nutrition bars and power through. At times we did just that - or dug into our stash of the only hummus in 300 miles to get us through a long stretch - but more often than not, we did just fine. I flipped through my dueling, well-worn vegetarian restaurant directories with notes in the margins and we found places to eat. I figured out how to cobble together meals at the hotel breakfasts. A vegetarian server at a Chinese restaurant in Missouri helped us to put together the best meal we’d had in days and even gave us crystals as we walked out the door. Health food stores fueled us with snacks. I learned how to read between the lines on menus and develop confidence with ordering food. It was kind of a trial by fire, but because of that and the previous work I’d done to learn how to do this, by the time we returned home a week or so later, I felt a new self-assurance in my veganism. If being hungry on the red dirt roads of Oklahoma without obvious vegan options didn’t break me, nothing would.
Expect that there will be bumps, especially in a world that is not exactly designed for veganism. That is part of learning and those very bumps will help you to gain experience and skillfulness. Do it long enough with the understanding that it’s not about perfection -- which is about the ego -- and about trying to live a more conscious, compassionate and intentional life, and before you know it, you will have plenty of smooth surfaces between the bumps. It won’t be long, too, before you’ll be having your own a-ha moment of figuring out your options at your metaphoric only-restaurant-in-miles-in-Oklahoma and when that happens, you will know that, baby, you’ve got this.
Did you have a moment or experience that really challenged your burgeoning veganism? What did you learn from it? How did that help you gain your confidence as a vegan?Recognizing that many of us have neophobia to greater and lesser degrees is an honest place to start. Even if it’s not a raging phobia with a capital P, learning new things is often uncomfortable because of the unavoidable period of uncertainty and awkwardness before integration. It’s just baked into pushing yourself in new directions and many of us are wary of “looking stupid”, even when no one is watching. If you want to maintain your current level of normalcy, that is easy enough to do. Just keep doing what you were doing and don’t take on new challenges because they all require a period of incompetence, from learning ballet to learning a new language. Wading into new waters requires a certain willingness to stumble or fall, pick yourself up, learn and grow from the experience, and adopting veganism is no exception as it is a new territory for many of us. It’s easy to maintain the personal and cultural status quo of not rocking the boat, and accepting that the discomfort of learning something new is necessarily part of the process can be challenging to those of us who just want to get it right the first time.
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