My fun (not really) vegan discovery last week was that the wax used to coat grocery store produce is often derived from insects. I had always known that there was a wax coating on many of the fruits and veggies I was buying, but had innocently assumed that it was vegan. As I looked at the display sign telling me which items were coated with this suddenly not-so-innocent substance, I wanted to cry. Many of my favorite fruits and vegetables were there: apples, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, even avocados. Why would they bother shellacking an avocado? No one cares about the outside! Despite all my good intentions, I had still inadvertently been consuming animal products. I felt awful and defeated.
For many vegans and vegetarians, this is a familiar feeling. The swoop of dread and sadness as we realize that yet again we have to figure out how to navigate a world where so many products are derived from animals or their exploitation. Sometimes it can even feel like we are being tricked. After the diligent label reading to check for any dairy or egg products and the realization that wine is frequently not vegan, now we have to worry about what our vegetables are coated with. Shouldn’t we at least be safe in the produce aisle?
What I have come to realize in my years as a vegan is that if I focus on perfection, I will end up endlessly stressed and upset with myself. There will always be an occasional (and often inadvertent) slip up. I am going to eat a cookie my coworker brought in and assured me was vegan, only to realize that they thought vegans could still have butter. I am going to be starving in the airport, unable to find a vegan option and so desperate that I eat a bagel with cream cheese. And I am going to accidentally consume an avocado that was shellacked with beeswax. None of that is the end of the world. When I occasionally or accidentally consume an animal product, I am not a bad vegan.
In our current society, with common food processing practices and standards, it is unlikely any of us will be able to maintain a 100% vegan diet 100% of the time unless we are able to grow and process a significant portion of our own food. Because of this, we should look at veganism as being about harm reduction. As a vegan, I work to ensure that as few animals as possible are harmed by my actions; I always strive to make the decision that will have the most positive impact possible. However, occasionally I do not realize that I am eating an animal product (like with the wax on produce) or am unable to reasonably avoid animal products. Ultimately, I have to accept that my best is good enough. Beating myself up over slip ups or accidents will ultimately just exhaust me and may even lead to what I call “vegan burnout.”
“Vegan burnout” occurs when, despite a vegan’s best efforts, it begins to feel that it is impossible to successfully and entirely avoid animal products. Refined sugar, produce wax, red food dye, gelatin, and even sometimes beer and wine…not to mention avoiding animal products/testing when buying clothes, home goods, and beauty products. Balancing vegan values while functioning in a non-vegan society can be exhausting, but it is also intrinsically rewarding. Vegans are exercising the ability to care for and be compassionate towards other creatures, and that is a beautiful thing. However, sometimes falling short of our ideals can make us feel bad about ourselves. Alleviating animal suffering can seem like an impossibly large task, especially when we are met at every turn with a new conundrum. Wouldn’t it be easier to just give up? When I ask myself this question, I try to remind myself that I am aiming to reduce the harm as much as possible rather than aiming to be perfect.
Perfection is an impossible goal in this life. While we should all strive to do our best, we need to accept that our best may sometimes fall a little short. If I drunkenly eat a slice of cheesy pizza… It’s okay. Rather than berating myself, I remind myself to pick myself up, dust myself off, and move on. Mentally beating myself up and punishing myself can’t undo what happened, and it won’t make me feel better either. When I make a mistake, instead of feeling like I have failed, I try to have compassion for myself.
I try to use my slip ups as learning experiences, and come up with a solution to the problem. Did I eat that slice of pizza because it was 2am after a night out and I was starving, with no vegan options in sight? Next time, I will carry a snack with me. Or, better yet, leave a delicious pre-made meal in the fridge for when I get home. Have a glass of non-vegan wine? Research which wines are vegan or download an app that makes it easy to look up vegan beers and wines on the go. When I realized that a lot of the produce I had been buying was coated in a non-vegan wax, I resolved to start buying as much of my produce as possible from the farmers market and from stores that sell locally grown, unwaxed produce. Additionally, frozen fruits and veggies are not waxed. Rather than spending time and energy being upset with myself, I put that energy into finding a solution that is practical and works for me!
Once we start to view our mistakes as learning experiences rather than shortcomings, we can reduce the likelihood that we will experience “vegan burnout.” Being kind, compassionate, and gentle towards ourselves as well as towards other creatures will ensure that we are not only helping to end animal suffering, but also creating a warm, nurturing way of life that will inevitably attract others. Acknowledge that we are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world, but we can try our best to effect meaningful change. We can manage to be kind to ourselves while we do our best to be allies to animals and the environment. Continuing to do our best and reducing harm as much as possible will have a far greater impact than falling victim to “vegan burnout” and giving up. Although please, please, please stop using bugs to wax avocados.
Get more like this—Sign up for our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!
Photo: Hanna Postova via Unsplash