Eye of the Beholder

Do you ever have moments when things just click? Several strands of thought weave together fluidly and something you’ve been mulling over becomes clear? That happened to me on Tuesday morning.


 

I’ve been skirting around the idea of being a vegetarian for almost a year now. We rarely cook meat at home and when we were still living in California, I was exclusively eating vegetarian. I had a number of strictly vegetarian or vegan friends which helped.

I fell off the bandwagon when we moved to the Midwest. We still eat primarily vegetarian at home, but there are a lot of great restaurants in Chicagoland and we’ve been eating out (and eating meat) a lot. I love trying new foods and I didn’t want to limit myself to only vegetarian food – no Caribbean goat curry, no crispy bacon, no juicy burgers, no fancy dry-aged steaks. Just thinking about it is making me hungry.

Still, I’ve felt this constant tug to stop making excuses and stick to my self-professed values. There are so many good reasons to eat vegetarian, from environmental impact to health benefits. The only compelling reason I have to eat meat is because I like it (a lot). That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it’s a line of reasoning that requires some serious thought.


 

 

On a completely different topic, I started taking guitar lessons last month and I love it. Not because I’m any good at it – I stink actually. My attempt at “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” sounds like a sloth casually strangling a cat: painfully slow yet jarringly screechy.

But learning how to play an instrument for the first time, reading sheet music, seeing the patterns that create songs, has changed how I listen to music in my day-to-day life. It’s like I’ve cracked open a door that been closed my whole life. Except it’s not just a door. It’s the wardrobe to Narnia and there’s a new universe full of rich experiences on the other side.

I read recently that there is a neurological basis for this perception about music – it really is a different kind of human experience. MIT researchers showed for the first time that the neural circuitry that responds to music is distinct from the speech processing parts of the auditory cortex. Some evolutionary biologists argue that music preceded speech and perhaps language evolved from music. We are hardwired to take pleasure in music, though the biological imperative to do so is not entirely clear.


 

Back to Tuesday morning. After making my oatmeal and coffee, I sat down to eat breakfast and, as I was staring blankly at my kitchen shelves, I noticed a bright, clear reflection through the window on to a big, silver serving spoon.

It’s the simple things, I thought to myself, as I went to get my camera to take a picture of this cool inverted image. And I started to think about how much pleasure we get from such simple things. We seek them out, try to capture them in our memories and on film. They are the bright spots in our days, the objects of mindful meditation, the seeds of happy thoughts. This response, a refreshing flush of endorphins, is biological. Evolutionary. Older than old. So old that it’s not exclusively human?

If beautiful sights and sounds trigger deep, ancient circuits in my brain that give me pleasure, isn’t it possible that at least some animals can feel the same thing? The biological imperatives that drive me to seek out the sun and space and vibrant plant life, do they exist in animals too?

I’ve never really gone in for the animal rights arguments for vegetarianism. I’m not an animal person, never had any pets, don’t particularly like farms. The reasons behind my (aspiration to) vegetarianism are mostly about maximizing utility for humans, so the largest number of people can live their best lives.

This was the first time that I’ve really felt in my gut that it was wrong to deprive creatures of life, to deprive them of sunshine and open fields and breezes, for my benefit. I could read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation a dozen times and still not feel as strongly as I did in that moment, when it finally clicked.

I kept asking myself, What happens when a baby cow looks at a blue sky? And, if it is in any way like what I feel, what right do I have to take that away?

 

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