Friday, July 22, 2011

Why I Am a Vegetarian and Diana Nyad

I suppose I might have titled this, “Why I Am Not a Flesh Eater,” if I was to most closely mimic Bertrand Russell’s famous speech and essay title, Why I Am Not a Christian, off of which I was riffing, but that sounded a bit rugged for my taste, though, come to think of it, so is swimming with the sharks, which is what inspired this missive.

A friend sent me an email the other day asking, “What do you think about the sharks?” She was referring to the flurry of reader comments around a story about Diana Nyad, who, any day now, will swim from Cuba to Key West—103 miles, which is predicted to take somewhere around 60 hours. If it wasn’t already impressive, Diana is 61 years old, which certainly adds a “Wow” factor to her athletic endeavour. But there was this business of the sharks.

Re-Posted from HuffPo with title change

Apparently, most long distance swimmers who have taken on this particular challenge have swum in a shark cage, which is, as it sounds, a cage surrounding the swimmer, protecting her from those animals. The drawback (at least, a swimmer like Diana considers it a negative) is that the cages are tied to a boat and dragged along behind, which means the swimming is easier and faster (in 1997 an Australian did the Cuba-Key West swim in 24 hours with the cage-advantage).

Instead of a cage, Diana will be flanked by two kayakers with shark shields (electric shock rods) and there will be four shark divers on board the support boat, ready to dive in and spear threatening sharks to death.

To death? I missed the part where the sharks volunteered to give up their lives for Diana’s swim. I have no love of sharks in particular, but I’m not sure why creatures living in their own environment, way out at sea (we’re not talking about holiday-makers at the beach a la Jaws), may be punished for doing what they are genetically engineered to do, so that one of us humans, can pass through their environment on a personal mission to prove her strength and endurance.

Don’t get me wrong, I think personal missions of strength and endurance are to be celebrated. Such quests, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in Flow, enable us to expand our concepts of our selves, which, in turn, builds the self-confidence that “allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.” All good so far. And don’t get me wrong on this next—in the person vs. shark, I save the person. Still, there’s a difference between an accidental encounter and a courted encounter. As athletes, we take great care to respect our bodies, should we not extend that same respect to our environment, others, to other creatures as well? Should our athletic endeavours come at others’ expense? Diana and her sharks disturb me.

Not as much as Food Inc., which I finally got around to watching, which lifts the veil on the food industry, exposing the insidious cycles of corporate control, government support, animal cruelty and, worst of all, how this fosters our diabetes epidemic. As Eric Schlosser points out in the movie, if our food system of factory farming disdains and disrespects animal, so will we adopt this same mentality toward other living things, humans, strangers, foreigners, people with whom we disagree.

Both Diana’s sharks and Food Inc. reminded me of why I am a vegetarian. I have been so (with some early recidivism) since I was sixteen, close to 2/3rds of my life. Why?

I recently came across a Sikh story, told in Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of Buddha, which conveyed, more lyrically than I ever could, why I made this choice. The story (and I quote directly from Brach’s book):

An aged spiritual master calls his two most devoted disciples to the garden in front of his hut. Gravely, he gives each one a chicken and instructs them, “Go to where no one can see, and kill the chicken.” One of the men immediately goes behind his shed, picks up an ax and chops off his chicken’s head. The other wanders around for hours, and finally returns to his master, the chicken still alive and in hand. “Well, what happened?” the teacher asks. The disciple responds, “I can’t find a place to kill the chicken where no one can see me. Everywhere I go, the chicken sees.”

Indeed. I cannot eat something, or rather some formerly living creature, which I could not look in the eye, and then kill. The rule is my own, for me (I would not impose it on you), because not only the chicken sees, but also I see myself, and then I must live with myself. One of the cornerstones of health, something we are hyper-keyed into as athletes, is the ability to live comfortably with oneself. As much thought as we give to our workouts, that and much more we need to give to others in the world.