How to Live Gently? With Passion

24 February, 2019

The quality I admire most in people is the degree to which they move gently in this world, full of kindness and tenderness, inspiring ease in all around them. They are patient, not quick to harm, and are often held in high esteem by others. There is no common through-line in those who have it beyond their fundamental decency.

I recently read Animal Liberation and it inspired me to practice vegetarianism again. I have flirted with it on and off in the past but never steadily maintained it, eventually re-introducing meat into my diet for one reason or another. I found that, while it was quite easy to abstain from eating meat after deciding to forgo it, it was significantly easier to slip back into the pattern of eating meat every day without giving a second thought about it.

The original inspiration for my last significant dietary change was reading about the condition of egg-laying hens, which thoroughly dismantled my understanding of what “cage free” constituted. Beyond that I have gleaned, through various sources of information over the years, that conditions in factory farms are abhorrent. The more time I spent thinking about the ethics of eating meat, the more it seemed obvious that people ought to go without it, even those options touted as more humane.

It is sometimes inconvenient not eating meat, but never catastrophically so: most often it means options--at restaurants, office events, group gatherings, etc.--are limited, which is a small cost to bear. People who eat meat consider what I am doing difficult, and I try to assure them that they are just (unthinkingly) following a habit that is not very hard to break, and that they should let their understanding win over their appetite. This line of conversation often does not get far: some admit they probably ought to, but yield to their desire, while others seek to undermine my own professed positions, shifting the focus away from their own consumption.

So what does all this have to do with gentleness? I am, through my diet, trying to extend courtesy and compassion to animals who will only ever know suffering by not participating in an industry that demands their wholesale slaughter. I wish more people would follow suit, but meat reigns in our culture in such a way that is extremely off-putting if you are standing outside of it.

I recently read a wonderful piece in The Atlantic that explored animal consciousness. In doing so it touched on their capacity to feel pain and have an active understanding of their suffering. I was particularly struck by the story of Neminath:

The Jains tell a story about Neminath, a man from deep antiquity who is said to have been sensitive to the distress calls of other animals. He developed his unusual fondness for animals while tending cattle in pastures on the banks of the Yamuna River, in his home village of Shauripur, which I reached four hours after leaving Delhi.

Neminath is one of 24 Jain “Fordmakers,” prophetlike figures who crossed a metaphorical river, freeing themselves from the cycle of birth and rebirth, before showing others the way to enlightenment. The Fordmakers’ life stories tend to emphasize their nonviolent natures. One is said to have floated perfectly still in the womb, sending not so much as a ripple through the amniotic fluid, to avoid harming his mother.

Only a few Fordmakers are confirmed historical figures, and Neminath is not one of them. The Jains say Neminath left his village for good on the day of his wedding. That morning, he mounted an elephant, intent on riding it to the temple where he was to be wed. On the way, he heard a series of agonized screams, and demanded to know their origin. Neminath’s elephant guide explained that the screams came from animals that were being slaughtered for his wedding feast.

This moment transformed Neminath. Some versions of this story say he freed the surviving animals, including a fish that he carried, in his hands, back to the river. Others say he fled. All agree that he renounced his former life. Rather than marry his bride, he set out for Girnar, a sacred mountain in Gujarat, 40 miles from the Arabian Sea.


It was here on this mountain that Neminath is said to have achieved a state of total, unimpeded consciousness, with perceptual access to the entire universe, including every kind of animal mind. Jains believe that humans are special because, in our natural state, we are nearest to this experience of enlightenment. Among Earth’s creatures, no other finds it so easy to see into the consciousness of a fellow being.

When I started drafting this piece I had written that those who live gently seem to emanate the quality effortlessly. It seemed inaccurate because it risked erasing the agency required to practice decency. If it were easy to be decent, there'd be a lot more decency in the world, but it is not easy, and that is why Neminath's behavior is so striking: its opposition to shared norms and convenience is necessarily zealous.

I have focused on vegetarianism specifically in this post, but I encourage everyone to examine the footprint they are leaving through their choices, both those that are conscious and those that are more automatic, like the practice of eating meat. When I first thought about my own ability to live gently, I worried my stridency compromised the extent that I could do so. But now it is dawning on me that my increasing passion is a prerequisite for realizing the standards I am setting for myself and others.

I'll finish this by sharing the words of Louisiana musician Bryan Funck:


It's definitely more philosophical than health. The bottom line for me is because I come from the Nineties hardcore scene I was exposed to that stuff at a young age so at some point, it made sense to me. I'm also the kind of person that can't be half way in, which is why vegetarianism was never really appealing. I wanted to do it all the way. It's hard for me to wrap my head around people not being vegan. There are millions of reasons to go vegan aside from the environmental impact.

Usually, the only excuse is because that people don't want to give up a certain kind of food; or maybe you're poor. It's a little harder to figure out, but you can make it work on a budget — you just have to do a little bit of research. To me, not being vegan in 2018 is like people being racist or misogynist in 2018. It just seems boneheaded to live a life that promotes cruelty so that's why I'm vegan.

I didn't really claim straight edge till my early 20s. Being around so many boneheads in the hardcore scene that were straight edge, made me not want to be associated with those people. Growing up in New Orleans, it's just really easy to get alcohol and drugs at a young age. Early on, I was exposed to a lot of people in my friend circle doing a lot of drinking and drugs and it seemed like they thought they were having a good time but, to me, it was through a weird filter. I would rather like to be able to turn things on and off whenever I wanted. When I want to act like a fool I act like a fool and if I want to be serious I could just be serious. I was never needlessly putting myself in situations where I would potentially have a huge regret unless I made a conscious decision.

Everybody who drinks or does drugs always has some regretful story or got into some kind of trouble while doing those things. I got enough real stuff in my life that I regret, I don't need to create more opportunities for that. I'd rather be spending my time having fun doing good things, making good memories to look back on.