I’m going to tell you a story. It’s still happening. To me. Inside me. This story is not about you in any specific sense. That said, my story is always yours and yours is always mine in a way that our minds appear shockingly unable to comprehend. It’s only not about you if we both choose to forget that your liberation is tied up with mine. And I don’t know about you, but liberation and my deep, abiding faith in our ability to achieve it together, is why I get up in the morning.
When I moved to Washington, DC in 1999, I began attending Quaker meeting. I was hungry for quiet, connection, community. Outside the meeting house a banner hung on the fence. It asked, “How does your life help to remove the causes of war?” I remember thinking, reflexively, that this question was not for me. I hate war. I’d do anything I could not only to stop it, but to erase it from our history on this planet. “I hope other people see this and take a look at themselves,” I thought. Whew. That was a close one.
Slowly, I let the question settle inside me over the weeks and months and years. As it turned out, as I became increasingly honest with myself, I was not actually living in a way that prevented the causes of war. I was living in a way that sanctioned and perpetuated harm. I was consuming beyond my actual need. My life was geared toward maintaining my own comfort and whatever power I had in my little world. I deserved so many things. I was sure of it.
That inquiry began more than 20 years ago. My metamorphosis has been glacial in its pace. I have dipped my toe in and then walked away so many times. From all of it. I have tried things out and then retreated. Coming slowly to terms with the unpopularity that accompanies the journey toward my own personal integrity. As I continue to explore what does not serve me and to acknowledge where my life choices are harming the world around me, a mantra has risen up inside me.
Let it make you tender.
It felt like the only thing I could do. Revert to tenderness. I felt angry. I felt sad. I felt overwhelmed and insignificant in the face of all the harm. All the killing and consumption and disconnection. I saw clearly that I had two choices. I could close in and become hardened or I could open and continue to soften, even when it felt painful or risky.
To choose the former would be to choose more harm, so I continued to move forward. In tenderness.
The latest unpopular aspect of my evolution is a movement toward veganism. It’s been fascinating to watch how my choice to stop eating dairy (and let’s be clear, I’m still in process on this one) is upsetting to other people. A person who is truly dear to me and whose heart I love and admire asked, “How did this happen to you?” They weren’t kidding. They were truly at a loss to understand why I would make this choice. When I explained that I could no longer pretend that my consumption of milk and butter wasn't tantamount to saying that I’m cool with baby cows being separated from their mothers so I could have the milk that was being made for their sustenance, they responded by saying that as long as human children are suffering, they can’t care about a cow.
At this point in my process as a human on this precious earth, my caring about a cow is the same as my caring about a child. We are here to live in harmony, not to use each other like things. Humans in power have separated humans who are considered less from their children and families for centuries. It was essential to enslavement. It’s key in genocide. Our disconnection from each other and the smooth dehumanization and objectification is all part of why our world feels like a hellscape.
My life no longer feels more important than that of any other animal. And I am an animal. My supposed intellect does not separate me. If anything, it requires me to be kinder, more considerate, more committed to loving stewardship.
In Exterminate All the Brutes, Raoul Peck explores that stark turning point that happened to humanity when we began to be able to “kill at a distance.” When we could shoot and kill or bomb and kill anyone, any being, into the millions, without ever having to look in their eyes, something irrevocable was lost in us. For me, it started to feel like I was doing that same thing when I bought meat at the store. When I bought milk. Someone killed that cow. I could never do that, personally. Someone pulled that calf from its mother and took it off to a tiny pen to become what we’d later purchase as “veal” so I could have milk. Me? Cal Cates? I could not do any of those things. The harm necessary to land meat on my plate or milk in my cereal became too much. Inside me.
George Floyd on my computer screen. Dehumanized. Erased. A cow that some people can’t care about. Children sold away from their mothers. Woodrow Fucking Wilson. Mass incarceration. Chickens being sucked up into vacuums by the thousands so we can have nuggets and wings. Six t-shirts for $15 while 2% of garment workers are paid a living wage. I just can’t do it anymore. I want, in every way I can, to pull myself and my choices and my breath away from this tangled web of harm that is “the way things are done.” For me, enough has become enough and so I choose, each day, to lessen the amount of harm I do by the way I live.
I’m not telling you to become vegan. I’m not calling you a terrible person who is living out of integrity. I don’t know you or your values. I’m telling you that my heart and my soul are begging for me to continue to move toward liberation. I am telling you that I am no longer going to allow myself to become bogged down in rationalizations and excuses of “What does it matter?” and “I am just one person.”
Ram Dass said, “I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion—and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.” Much work lies ahead, and inside. I am here for it.