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
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.