On the weekend I had dinner with an old friend and his wife, and was surprised to learn he’d become a vegetarian. (Or, as he preferred to phrase it, “I don’t eat meat.”) He’s an immigrant from eastern Europe, and for his parents meat was the foundation of every meal. When his mom made a vegetarian soup for his wife a decade ago, his mother agonized, “There’s nothing in it!”
But now, after eight years of marriage and his wife doing most of the cooking, he realized he didn’t eat meat much at all, and giving it up made him feel healthier. He didn’t want to go on about it, mount any moral high horse, and he didn’t feel any particular angst. Just no more meat. Even more amazingly, I learned his parents were starting to see the possibility in plant-based meals: his mom now makes meals from the Oh She Glows vegan cookbook. Last year they all shared a vegetarian Christmas dinner.
It seems most people are agreed that our society is more divided than ever. In a couple conversations lately, people have lamented that there’s no point in talking to some people: they’ll never change, and we’re irreconcilably divided by an ideological no-man’s land.
Sometimes we venture out amidst the barbed wire, only to come back angry and bleeding, and conclude that had not been worth the cost. But real, lasting change takes time. And in a world that fetishizes crash diets and life hacks, we forget that. Most often, change isn’t swift, it’s the proverbial drop in the bucket: the result of conversations and experiences and news stories and books and TV shows. We are impatient for change, but ask any therapist or coach: small, sustainable changes are most likely to stick. That’s for all kind of psychological reasons, but one of the most important, I think, is that the motivation becomes organic and intrinsic—as we acclimatize gradually, we’re convincing ourselves.
And of course for anyone to want to change, they need a reason. Which means we have to show up for what we care about. And then we have to show up again. And again. And again. I try to remind myself of this when I’m feeling impatient having a conversation about feminism or racism, things that I’ve worked to educate myself in for years. But people may not have had the benefit of that gradual education, and in fact, may be wading through all kinds of “alternative facts.” I need to be as patient with them as others have been with me.
I can be most impatient around environmental issues, especially around garbage: I have moments of indignant rage at people disregarding the low-hanging fruit, like take-out coffee cups, plastic bags. But I have to remember that other people don’t see posts about this on their Instagram every day*, that they might have other concerns or priorities. And of course, that as someone who still eats meat in 50% of her meals (a slow reduction still in progress), I’m far from the ideal environmentalist. Certain changes will be harder for certain people. And let’s not forget, our system and our culture actively undermine sustainable choices day in and day out**, just as some communities make it harder to embrace certain ideas: think of the strength and conviction required to swim upstream.
Change takes time, and while it might feel like we don’t have any on issues of life and death (of people, of a planet), the thing we can least afford to do is give up. We need to keep leading by example, having tough conversations, patiently and compassionately, not so we can change people, per se, but so that they have the motivation to change themselves. I think about my friend’s wife, the patient and compassionate sort, making a decade of vegetarian meals before her partner shared her values.
I always come back to Solnit’s Hope in the Dark on this, on how change that was once unthinkable becomes something that now seems inevitable. In a chapter about the Cold War era, she writes, “We inhabit, in ordinary daylight, a future that was unimaginably dark a few decades ago, when people found the end of the world easier to envision than the impending changes in everyday roles, thoughts, practices that not even the wildest science fiction anticipated. Perhaps we should not have adjusted so easily. It would be better if we were astonished every day.”
In these conversations about change I’ve been having, I mention my grandparents, first-generation German, Catholic immigrants who arrived here after World War II. In their last years in their home, they got some new neighbours, a gay couple. At first, this was a reason for occasional disparaging comments or jokes around the house, especially from my grandfather. But over time, things got neighbourly, and they got to know the men as people. My grandparents even attended the couple’s wedding, and one of the men came to my grandmother’s funeral and asked me to email him my eulogy so he could share it with his husband. But what I remember most of all is a conversation with my grandparents over lunch one day. The subject of the neighbours came up, and my grandmother, washing her bottomless sink of dishes, said with a kind of sigh, “Oh yes, they’re very nice men, but…”
My grandfather interrupted gruffly. “No buts,” he said. “They’re very nice men. End of story.”
* Instagram is such a kind of reverse-fun-house of perfection, and that applies to zero-waste spaces too (bright light, white walls, green plants, natural wood toilet brushes). But over time, I’ve found some accounts which are both realistic and support those gradual, everyday changes that can make radical difference over time: @zerowastechef, @yourecofriend, @popcorn.ceiling.life, @zerowastedork.
** CBC’s Marketplace just did an episode on plastic waste in grocery stores, and you can see there how we’re set up to fail on the plastic front. It’s pretty disheartening, but there’s a grocery store in England featured that reminds us that change is possible.