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New Year's resolutions for new or aspiring vegans

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I am not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. While they often help us to start the year out with a bang, they tend to leave us feeling disappointed when the big changes we want to see don’t come easily or at all. With a month, many of those once-exciting resolutions have become tedious if we haven’t abandoned them altogether, on their way to being swept up and tossed out like strands of tinsel we’ve found under the couch in February.

Many of us want to bring positive changes into our lives, the lives of others and the planet, so it’s natural that resolving to go vegan is something people are drawn to doing in the new year. How do we keep this resolution from becoming like so many other good intentions we ultimately discard when it’s not shot through with newness anymore?

I see veganism as a practice: to become adept at it, we need to commit to it, through the good experiences (like enjoying the alignment of one’s principles with one’s practices) and the not-so-great experiences (like being treated like a burden at family meals). You don’t become an excellent violinist by just practicing when it’s convenient and dropping the instrument as soon as challenges arise.

Also, just as common sense tells us that a relationship with someone who is there for the fun times but ditches us when things are not as easy is doomed, veganism requires the same kind of commitment of the heart. For veganism to stick, there needs to be that core commitment through the daily experience, some of which can be definitely rockier, less comfortable terrain at the beginning when people are learning their way. I have found that once the heart is fully there, the commitment is fairly easy and once the commitment is there, things tend to fall into place more gracefully.

All this being said, I have been vegan since 1995 and I have gained some wisdom along the way. This is what I think: making a general and vague resolution to go vegan isn’t often effective – resolving to make it easier and more graceful for us to do so is what makes veganism take root. These are the resolutions that will help you to get there.

Resolve to do your personal best. Comparing yourself to another is not realistic or healthy.

There is a quote a wise person (or maybe just some random person on Facebook) said that sticks with me: "Comparing yourself to others is a violent act." So Susie never craved cheese but you do. So it was immediately easy for Abe. Who cares? There is no rulebook and this isn’t a contest. Maybe Susie secretly struggled for a while; maybe Abe had a vegan roommate who helped to make things easier. You never know what goes on behind the scenes, and, frankly, none of that matters. As you are transitioning, simply resolve to do your personal best. Getting out of the mentality that veganism is a race to perfection is essential to a smooth transition and integration. Be gentle with yourself: you are bucking a very ingrained, buttressed system and you are rejecting the status quo with how you are living. In your heart, you know your personal best and you know when you are selling yourself short. Aspire to your personal best and you will reach your goals.

Resolve to avoid an “all or nothing” attitude.

I will always remember something a friend who had been raised as a vegetarian told me years ago. I had asked him if he ever resented that he didn’t make the decision to be a vegetarian on his own because his parents made the decision for him. He scoffed at this notion, telling that he does choose: every day, every time he eats, he gets to make the empowered choice to be a vegetarian. I not only found this to be wise from the point-of-view that he gets to choose to be a vegetarian, but also from the perspective of making this choice every time he eats. Instead of thinking a year ahead (“What will I do at Thanksgiving?”), a month out (“Will I be able to eat out with my friend at our monthly lunch date?”), or even a week out (“How will I make it through this week without my Haagen-Dazs?”), look at this exact meal in front of you. Can you have a vegan meal now? Yes. Now dinner: can it be vegan? Yes. Certainly, planning ahead is wise so you aren’t unprepared for a challenging situation but it doesn’t need to be that stressful. Call ahead, give voice to concerns, offer suggestions. In our minds, we can anticipate that things are going to be way more stressful, difficult and monumental than they will be. Breathe. Live in the moment, not in the anticipated future. Trust that even in the worst-case scenario, it’s really not that bad.

In the same vein, missteps happen. You accidentally ate something that you didn’t know had butter in it. You bought a sweater not realizing it had wool. Too often, we throw out the baby with the bath water. Too often with mistakes, we use those as an excuse to abandon everything when in truth, each moment is a fresh start. No one is competing with you, writing you down on some Illegitimate Vegan List but even if someone were, so what? Talk to any experienced vegan and you will talk to someone who has made mistakes and found his or her footing again. We live in a culture that is very oriented to exploiting animals. Instead of beating yourself up, resolve to do the first resolution – your personal best – and you will be on a productive path again.

Resolve to eat as healthfully as you can, meaning a wide variety of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Prepared or processed foods can be nice options on occasion but they are often expensive, not so great for us and come with wasteful packaging. Focusing on whole foods will help you to feel your best and when you feel your best, life is a lot more enjoyable.

Resolve to check out vegan cookbooks and recipe websites.

Cookbook authors like Robin Robertson and vegan websites like VegWeb can of invaluable support for everyone from novice cooks to more experienced ones, allowing home cooks to recreate old favorites or try foods that are completely new to them. I don’t feel like I miss out on a thing as a vegan: I can have Ethiopian food or American comfort food, Waldorf salads or pad Thai without any compromises in taste. Get over the notion that what you eat has to taste exactly like what you grew up with or keep tinkering with vegan ingredients until you get closer. By doing so, you are actively retraining your taste buds to enjoy lighter, more fresh and healthful food.

Resolve to build a vegan community for yourself.

Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, everyone thrives with some community. This could mean one or two close friends or dozens of acquaintances you can turn to for support. Many people find most of the support they find online, such as on Facebook, to give them the boost they need but we are a social species, so meeting in person can add dimension and depth to your quality of life. With meet-ups, animal advocacy groups, festivals and so on, we can nurture relationships that will help us when we’re feeling isolated. Please seek the community of like-minded people to the degree that you want to put yourself out there: if you do so, veganism will be that much easier.

Resolve to not take others’ reactions personally.

Vegans are up against some pretty ingrained attitudes and customs. People are naturally defensive around vegans because we represent the often-unspoken elephant in the room: that even as morally motivated individuals, the vast majority of people still think it’s okay to kill some for a fleeting pleasure. Most omnivores don’t support cruel practices because they delight in violence but because they don’t want to challenge their comfort zone and privileges, or they simply don‘t know. Our presence reminds people of the internal conflict between their words and their actions so many lash out at us unfairly. Whether it takes the form of belittling, passive-aggression or verbal attacks, remember that very often, it is not you that others are reacting to, it is the idea of you and what you remind people of that they don’t want to acknowledge. It’s easy to be more understanding when we realize this essential vulnerability. That being said, never put up with abuse. In your interactions, strive to be honest but fair, kind but direct. Basically, model how you would also like to be treated. It’s not that difficult.

Resolve to build a well-stocked kitchen of staples.

It is so much easier to not fall into old habits when we’ve built a little safety net for ourselves. Consider a well-stocked kitchen one of your best safety nets as a new or aspiring vegan. How well-stocked you are will depend on what you like to frequently eat, but I like to have some staples that last a long time always on hand. If you have these items, you can always at least improvise a decent soup: onions, garlic, ginger, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, vegetable stock, frozen corn and frozen peas, tomato sauce, salsa, canned or dried beans, a variety of grains (rice, quinoa, barley, for example), noodles (Italian-style pasta and Asian noodles), non-dairy milk, canned coconut milk, vegan curry paste, miso paste, tamari or soy sauce, peanut or almond butter, tahini, ketchup, mustard, olive oil, sesame oil, vinegars, spices, nutritional yeast and so on. Here are great ideas for a well-stocked vegan pantry.

Resolve to cultivate joy in your life.

There are some very sad things we become aware of as a result of our convictions about compassionate living. It can feel like an overwhelming amount of information sometimes, especially now that it’s easy to gain access to so many stories and videos online. Many of us have heavy hearts that feel so tender and nerves that feel so raw sometimes. Feelings of grief, anger, resentment and deep alienation are common among people who are beginning to immerse themselves in the often-overwhelming reality of what the human race does to animals, not to mention anxiety over the destruction of our planet. These are all reasonable responses to a violent world.

It is vital if you are going to stick with veganism, though, that you cultivate joy in your life. If you don’t, you are at risk of burning out or, if not burning out, becoming the kind of person who doesn’t have much of a positive influence on others. What brings you joy? Exercise? Volunteering? Painting? Spending time in nature? Resolve to spend at least a few hours every week actively cultivating your joy. Too often, we have a form of survivor’s guilt, asking what we did to deserve happiness if there are others who are suffering so badly. Here’s the truth: no amount of your own anguish will lessen another’s suffering. If you can turn the joy into fuel, though, that will help you to become a more grounded, effective advocate for the animals and that is what they need most of all. Also, you deserve to have joy in your life for your own reasons.

Resolve to think about the attitude you are projecting because that is what you are also manifesting.

If you have tried to go vegan in the past but failed, look at that experience with honesty and self-compassion: did you feel like you were “missing out”? Did you set yourself up for difficulties by isolating yourself? Did you not assert yourself? Were you overly hostile? I have found that success with veganism has so much to do with attitude. If you feel ostracized, alone, misunderstood, resentful and so on, that is the message that you are projecting into the world and that is being reflected back to you. Not only is this damaging to veganism – remember that you may very well be the only vegan the people in your life come across - it is not going to create a resilient person who is able to navigate the natural ups-and-downs of bringing big changes into one’s life. Changes are possible when we can easily integrate and incorporate them into our lives: pushing a boulder of anger and resentment with us everywhere we go is naturally exhausting. Make it easier on yourself by adjusting your attitude: you are creating good in the world. You are in alignment with your values. There is so much to be grateful for with that. Remember the joys of veganism, of which there are so many, and this will propel you forward, giving you strength when you feel overwhelmed. Yes, there is a lot of work to do, there is so much unnecessary pain in the world, but as people actively creating positive changes, there is so much to be thankful for and we cannot forget that.

I hope this helps. May all have a compassionate and joyful new year, full of good health and positive changes.

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