What You Do Matters
from No Compromise Issue 22

by Zoe Weil

Many of us have heard the story of a boy who came upon a beach peppered with dying sea stars. The boy began throwing the sea stars, one by one, back into the ocean to save them. An older, and presumably wiser, man who was watching the boy commented to him that his task was futile since he could not possibly make a difference. As far as the eye could see there were sea stars dying on the beach, and the boy would never be able to rescue them all. The boy looked down at the sea star in his hand, said “I can make a difference for this one,” and proceeded to throw the sea star back into the ocean.

Many of us find validation in this story for the work that we do to help individual animals, but lurking in the back of our minds is the nagging question of whether the man is right. Are we really making a difference given the magnitude of animal suffering? We know we may be making a difference for some individuals, but when the task at hand is so enormous, we may wonder if it matters. In the face of an enormous job, what can we do that will really make a difference? What, in fact, will make the most difference?

There is a way to help animals each day of our lives, a way that forms the basis for activism, a way that makes the biggest difference of all. It is modeling our message fully. We are spokespeople for other species, and the more we make our own lives the message of compassion, the better spokespeople we become. Some of you may be thinking, “I’m already a vegan,” assuming that this is the pinnacle of living non-violently towards animals, but the message – and the task required of us – includes more.

Obviously a vegan lifestyle saves animals. But the difference between a consumptive vegan lifestyle and a simple vegan lifestyle is the difference between life and death for other species. Many of our daily choices affect animals indirectly but just as inevitably as the choice between a hamburger and veggie burger. Each product we buy uses resources. Each block of tofu came from soy beans often grown far from us, transported, cooked and processed, packaged, transported again, refrigerated at a grocery, transported again to our home. Each gallon of fuel contributes to wildlife deaths and pollution of animals’ habitats. Each purchase has a price – whether or not it is vegan.

Indeed we have to eat, many of us have to drive, and we all need products to survive, but we consume so much more than we need, and we often choose vegan products thinking our work is done, failing to reflect upon the choices we could make that would minimize suffering even further. What harms less: a closet full of plastic shoes, or a closet with a single pair of leather shoes? These are certainly not our only choices, (we can have a closet with a pair of hemp shoes), but the point is that a vegan who buys cruelty-free products by the armful is a vegan who is harming animals. And a self-righteous vegan with a dozen plastic shoes that have cost many animals’ lives ought not to be judging and criticizing (and perhaps yelling at) the owner of a single pair of leather shoes.

By buying locally-produced, organic food as much as possible, purchasing products we need rather than those we simply want, shopping at thrift shops rather than buying new, rejecting the messages that would have us buy more, and being respectful of others whether or not they share our views, we get closer to modeling a message that ultimately supports life and minimizes harm.

The next step is modeling the message of kindness in all our interactions: with animals, of course, but also with people, even those whom we perceive as animal exploiters. While we must never accept the abuse that some perpetrate on others, we can work to “love the sinner,” demonstrating respect and compassion toward everyone so that we are the kind of people to whom others gravitate. This may seem like a minor goal in the scheme of things, but it is perhaps the most important goal. Only when we are true models of compassion and kindness will others want to join us.

The place to start is with ourselves: our individual lives, choices, and actions. When we work on making ourselves the best possible role model for compassion, we see that compassion follows in our path. Others listen to us because we are willing to listen, instead of yell, at them. Others follow our lead, because the path we have forged is meaningful, gratifying, and life-affirming. Others do not feel judged by us, but feel welcomed because we have issued invitations rather than orders. Others note our sense of self-esteem and want what we have: integrity and meaning in our lives.

What we do matters. It is never a futile endeavor to be kind. Kindness changes everything. It changes how we feel about ourselves, and how others feel about us. And kindness can be viewed broadly: we can be kind to everyone-- to the people working in sweatshops to produce our clothes (by not supporting such labor practices), to the life support systems of our planet (by boycotting polluting industries and products as much as possible), and to animals (by minimizing the harm we cause directly and indirectly through our food and lifestyle choices). When we model that message of true kindness we become ever more effective agents of change, and our lives take on a meaning that keeps us going even when the task of ending suffering seems, at times, insurmountable.