What if you’re passionate about compassion, but still working on building your heart into the nuts and bolts of everyday life? What if you care deeply about the forest, but keep forgetting to bring that canvas grocery sac to the store when you shop? Do you write letters to your representatives every time a new piece of animal legislation comes before Congress, but still have trouble finding non-leather dress shoes that don’t make your feet sweat? Have you made the leap to a vegetarian diet at home, but just can’t bring yourself to tell your mom “No thanks” when she serves her special spaghetti with meat sauce when you come for Sunday dinner?
If—like the rest of us—you’re still looking forward to the day when your values will be seamlessly integrated into every aspect of your life, does that mean you’re on shaky ground when you stand up for the issues that spark your passion right now, today?
I recently had a conversation with a neighbor who’s a compassionate advocate for the environment and all its inhabitants. Ray “walks his talk” more than most, and takes responsibility for what he says and does. It’s no accident that he spends his days working to bring sustainable, environmentally friendly practices to the world of business, and is a leader among the many in our community who advocate for organic farming and natural foods. So when a San Francisco Bay area businessman announced a plan to build a slaughterhouse in our rural community, Ray was one of the first people I called in an effort to build a coalition to fight the proposal.
It’s not unusual that a conversation with Ray leaves me with ideas to chew on for days, and this time was no exception. We talked about the proposal in detail, how the plan to kill 50,000 animals a year would wreak havoc on the community at every level, from the watershed and air quality to tourism and property values—to say nothing of the insanity of what happens to animals in such a place, and the impact that would have on the psychic energy of its employees and everyone in the valley. In his intelligent, thoughtful way, Ray said he shared my concern about the hazards and horrors of bringing a slaughterhouse into our peaceful valley town, and agreed it was offensive to him on many levels. But he had serious reservations about his right to fight it—because he eats meat. He spoke of his personal ambivalence about his food choices—he’d been a vegetarian and given it up—and described a vision for taking the life of an animal for food in a way that honors the animal’s life and sacrifice, with a real consciousness of the enormity of the act. Still, my friend acknowledged that he eats animal flesh with the full knowledge that it comes from places that have no such consciousness—he consumes the fruits of places much like the one I wanted to keep out of our town. It wouldn’t be responsible, Ray said, for him to consume animal flesh on the one hand and on the other say, “Not in my backyard,” when it comes to the location of the facility that provides it.
At first, I could only accept his position—with a large dose of respect for his frankness and his integrity. But something kept telling me there was a glitch in his argument that didn’t quite hold up. I couldn’t help feeling that he was setting a standard that’s higher than any of can realistically attain.
As Ray described it, he was reluctant to take the “not in my backyard”—“NIMBY,” as he called it—position. But would it really be disingenuous to protect his own “backyard,” even though he wasn’t ready for change across the board? To take a different perspective, if the proposal was to build a huge new dam to hold back the Russian River that runs through our valley, and destroy wildlife habitat and the last of the salmon that live there, should we decline to fight it because we still like to turn on the light switch when we come home at night? Don’t we have the right to lobby for a wind generating farm instead, even while we continue to use power generated in less sustainable ways?
We all attempt to draw a “safe haven” of sorts around the perimeter of our own space, however we define it—around our hearts, our homes, our neighborhoods, our country, or around the causes we hold most dear. I drive a car that uses more gas than I like to admit, and yes, I still struggle to remember to bring those used grocery bags along when I shop. But I choose not to buy meat or leather, or products with animal by- products in them. I don’t cook meat in my home, and ask guests not to bring it in. So geographically my home is my little safe haven, and spiritually and psychologically the issues that involve animals are my little corner of the world. I can make those choices, and at the same time accept that if Ray and I have lunch together he might order a hamburger—and that’s okay, I can still enjoy his company. I can’t change the way the rest of the world eats (not this week, anyway), nor the fact that some restaurants serve meat, or that slaughterhouses exist in the world. I know full well that if I stop the construction of a slaughterhouse—or a dam—in my town, there’s a pretty good chance someone will build one in another town somewhere up the road. But I can work my heart out to protect my corner of the world…and then work my way out from there.
There are a hundred causes I care deeply about, but I don’t commit time and energy to all of them. What’s more, they may not be the same hundred causes you care about—or at least we might not prioritize them in the same way. I care about the environment, social justice, world peace, and a google search full of causes and organizations that fall under those headings. It just happens that animal rights, wellness, and happiness make up the corner of the world I live in—my “backyard,” so to speak. Those are the issues I choose to focus my time and energy on, and that have the greatest impact on my lifestyle choices. If I’m not standing in front of the bulldozer that’s about to build that dam to block the river, it’s not because I don’t care about the salmon—it’s just that I’m busy writing an article for I.D.A., or giving my beloved elder canine a dose of Arnica to ease her aging joints. Or maybe it’s just that I need to clear my head and rest or laugh with a friend. None of us can stand in front of every bulldozer, or prevent the world from building another slaughterhouse or serving up another hamburger. We choose our battles. We do what we can do. And if we can’t carry the banner for one piece of an issue, it doesn’t mean we lose the right to carry it somewhere else. More importantly, it doesn’t mean we can only throw up our hands in frustration because there are just too many battles to fight.
To return to Ray’s NIMBY dilemma, I think he can choose to eat meat and still oppose this particular slaughterhouse because he wishes for a better way, because he holds a vision for a deeper, more conscious relationship with the animals he brings to his table. He can also choose to opt out of the slaughterhouse battle entirely, and carry on his work for those issues that sit most squarely in his personal backyard. His corner of compassion may be different from mine, just as mine is most certainly different from yours. But as long as each of us holds tight to our own vision for a better world, and works to create that safe haven in our own geographical, spiritual, and ethical backyard, the world will in fact be changed.
If you fight for something better in your corner of the world, and I fight for something better in mine…and we work our way out from there, …sooner or later all our little corners will begin to overlap. Your backyard will be my backyard. And sooner or later, “not in my backyard” will stand for something much bigger than anything you or I can imagine right now.