I was at Essencha Tea House, finishing my lunch of a creamy split pea soup, delicious quinoa salad and their amazing vegan buckwheat crepes with a cup of black tea and a book, when a man at the neighboring table asked me what I was reading.
The older couple at this table came in just a few minutes before and I overheard at least one of them ordering a turkey sandwich. “There is no telling where this conversation will go.” I thought as I turned the cover of Tom Regan’s “Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights” towards them.
Admittedly, this wasn’t the best choice of a book for a peaceful lunch. Reading about someone’s suffering is never easy. It has a benefit of boosting one’s determination to work towards putting an end to abuse, but it does make eating a bit challenging at times.
“Animal rights.” he acknowledged. “Why do you read this book?”
There were so many ways to answer his question. But I thought that these people came here to enjoy a quiet Saturday lunch. They don’t need to hear about the suffering of the turkey they are about to eat right now. So I went with a neutral and fairly meaningless answer of “I’m just interested in animal rights.”
“We don’t like it when animals are abused or mistreated.” the man said and his companion nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, most people don’t.” I concluded.
The conversation stalled.
They resumed talking to each other. I opened the book again and stared at the paragraphs of text describing the abuse of the animals in our factory farms. I felt very guilty. I had an opportunity to make a connection between the abuse of the animals that I’m sure these nice people would find unacceptable and the meat on their plates and I didn’t take it.
There was no lengthy internal deliberation about my choice. I simply opted to prioritize the feelings of the strangers sitting at the next table over the unimaginable suffering many animals have to endure during the course of their lives at the hands of our species. Why did I do that? Was I wrong to keep my mouth shut? It certainly felt that way.
Nevertheless, I felt like my choice was informed by compassion. I spared this couple the discomfort of having to face the reality of their day-to-day choices, at least at this time. It was as if the compassion for these people was at odds with the compassion for the animals.
But is it really a compassionate choice to avoid bringing up a painful truth just to spare someone a little discomfort? I know that I would prefer to have learned the truth of animal agribusiness much earlier in my life.
We are often on this fine line between educating the people around us about the suffering our society inflicts on others and becoming those unpleasant characters who get into your face with their brand of propaganda every chance they get. Think what you will, but the time and the delivery of the message matters a lot. You can’t just shove your beliefs down someone’s throat and expect them to respond favorably. On the other hand, we never want to miss the opportunity to open someone’s eyes to the implications of the choices they make.
There are no simple answers. Which makes me long for a world where I won’t have to think, read, and agonize over the other people’s choices to eat, use and abuse the animals. I would much rather just enjoy a delicious vegan meal on a sunny Saturday afternoon.