Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Following Atticus Has Meant Learning Compassion

I changed something in my life this week.  It wasn’t an earthshattering alteration, but I feel good about it nonetheless.  Writing about it here and now is the only reason anyone (other than my close friends) will know there’s something different. 

Last year I decided to switch to a plant-based diet because I didn’t want to eat animals or animal products anymore.  I did well and was quite happy with my new way of eating and I only deviated on a handful of occasions while out with a friend eating cheese on my pizza or when I faulted and didn’t realize there was butter or milk or eggs in something I ate.  But that didn’t matter too much to me since I’m not about beating myself up about any of this. 

You see, I wasn’t out to change the world, simply to change myself. I stopped eating animals because I didn’t want them to have to suffer for my desires. 

Interestingly enough, when some friends learned of my vegan diet they were immediately threatened by my choice.  Perhaps they thought that I would then become an angry apostle of veganism and they actually became angry with me.  But that wasn’t my intent.  I don’t really care what anyone else eats.  That’s their business, just as what I eat is my business.  Besides, who was I to criticize them after spending half a century devouring McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, and Pizza Hut as if my life depended on it?

Recently, however, I feel as though I’d not gone as far as I could.  The more I look into how animals needlessly suffer for
, the more I realized there were further steps I could be taking.  My clothes for instance.  I bought a new pair of Keen sandals this past year but there are animal products in them.  I could have just has easily have gone with some vegan sandals but I’ve always bought Keens. It was a matter of habit and convenience.  And my bathroom cabinets – they were filled with the usual toothpastes, shaving creams, soaps, shampoos, antiperspirants, etc.  So this past week I decided that I would go the next step and from now on I would only buy cruelty-free clothing and my toiletries and household cleaning products are now all cruelty-free. 

What is cruelty-free? 
Wikipedia (talk about convenience) defines cruelty-free as: “
is a term often used by animal rights activists to describe a product or activity which does not require death or harm to animals. This includes products which have been tested on animals, since these tests are often extremely painful and lead to the suffering and untimely death of hundreds of thousands of animals every year.”

So why am I telling you about this if I’m not asking you to change?  I’m simply writing this as a public contract to myself, just as I have made much of my life public on our Facebook page, on our blog, or in our memoir. 

And what’s created this change in me from a fellow who loved his McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, and Ben & Jerry’s?  I can give you three reasons: Maxwell Garrison Gillis; Atticus Maxwell Finch; and William Lloyd Garrison.  Over the past thirteen years I have loved these three friends dearly and they’ve helped me to see things differently, just as I’ve helped them to live their lives differently had they not been with me.  Each has been a mutually beneficial partnership.

I’m no longer one of those people who says “My dog saved me”.  I just don’t believe that to be the case.  Not my case, anyway.  I’m now a person who believes that friendship transforms all of us and I prefer to think of the animals I’ve shared my life with as my friends.  I’ve changed because of them; just as they’ve changed because of me. 

Lord knows I wouldn’t want any of my friends, two-legged or four-legged, to have to suffer so that someone can wash their hair, brush their teeth, wear a leather belt, or have a meal.  And since I don’t think of dogs as that much different than us, and I don’t think of dogs all that different than pigs, cats, rats, monkeys, cows, bears, foxes, moose, eagles, hawks, and many other living creatures, I also see my own reflection in all of them as well.  I don’t believe in human slavery, therefore I don’t believe in animal slavery either.  I guess this is all part of my soul’s progression.  I’m becoming who I want to become.

Before you go thinking I’m too strident about all of this. I have to tell you that I’m not a fan of the vegan police – those holier than thou activists who seem to be angry about everything.  (They are all or nothing activists who even get angry at other vegans for not being “vegan enough”!)  Who I am a fan of is of compassionate people like Kathy Freston, Gene Baur, Lindsay Nixon, Rip Essyltyn, Dreena Burton and others in the vegan movement who use compassion and lead by example.

Recently I read somewhere that deciding to live cruelty-free is an easy thing to do.  It may be, but deciding to live that way and living that way are two different things.  The switch is not easy, not for most of us anyway.  I’ve had to break bad habits, give up things that have always been convenient, and I’ve had to start thinking in an entirely different way.  In her book, The Lean, Kathy Freston goes about helping people make the switch to healthier, vegan eating with a commonsense approach of doing something simple each day to make the step by step switch.  She teaches us to lean into the change.  That’s what I’ve done. 

Here’s what I like about my own progression to this new lifestyle.  I now feel more in tune with myself and with animals.  I don’t feel so hypocritical anymore – saying I love animals and ignoring what they had to go through to get to my plate and into my belly.  And more than anything I’m becoming more thoughtful.  I think about my place in the world and the choices I make and who they are impacting. 
Life is a journey and this is where mine has taken me.  It’s not the way I planned or expected it, but it feels right. 

Joseph Campbell, the late mythologist, said,
“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Following Atticus and his obvious compassion toward other animals (regardless of the species) has helped me understand compassion, while taking in unwanted and elderly Max and later Will has helped me exercise it as I never have.  And using the Golden Rule of treating them as I wish to be treated has helped me grow and transform in life.  Such is the gift of true friendship.  

(Following Atticus has lead to a more compassionate way of life for me.)
(Bringing in Will, an elderly special needs dog, has helped me exercise compassion.)


Carl said...

Wow! This really hits home. I just now finished lunch from Burger King and I was already feeling gross inside. I love animals and I'm now thinking if you can make this change so can I. Thanks for the inspiration. I'm overdue to do the right thing by MY "friends."

Jo said...

Great points! Wonder how you find and can be assured that products are, indeed, cruelty free. Would love to have a reliable resource for those products or can we really take a company's word for it?

Anonymous said...

Tom, you truly write from the heart, very inspirational. Thanks for being you! Love Following Atticus, Will & of course you! Simplicity, Patience & Compassion! Onward! Jan

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Jo, very good question. You cannot take a company's word on it. But you can check out this link and it will tell you! Thanks.

Claire said...

Thank you and Kathy Freston for reminding people that it's okay to lean into change.

Anonymous said...

I stopped eating meat a couple of years ago and only eat bit of dairy but maybe now is the time to stop eating that little bit.

Kristyl Adams said...

I've been researching and using Cruelty free products for years. Funny how you can even find many of them in the Dollar Store :) I'm not a hundred percent at this point...but doing my best. A lot of reading/studying involved. Look for the logo...(Leaping Bunny) :D I also don't try to infringe upon or judge others and what they do, but I do mention the choices if they are interested. Animal testing for one, really upsets me inside. I can't bear the thought of it, personally. I do know what they do to them and have seen far too much. Stops me cold in my tracks and makes my choices easy ones. As for the junk food etc...I was very fortunate to have grown up on a holistic, organic ranch in Colorado after being born in New England and my mom packing up me and my bro and moving. She was very brave and took me back to nature and working with mother earth at 9 years of age. I learned to love animals and protect animals. Very fortunate.

Carter W Rae said...

As always Tom Thank you for sharing your journey. This is a continuing journey of learning and enjoying walking further into the light .... Your photos and quotes are very appreciated and discussed in my little circle... I think that the times we are living in right now are a continuation of looking to the truth for progression and profound happiness for all. Your journey is most defiantly, to us, a great part of this process.. Again thank you so much for sharing this all ... with your crew in spirit ..... All the very best from us .

Penni said...

I have been vegan for about 2 1/2 years and feel so much better physically and spiritually. Question Atticus and Will eat a vegan diet? I have thought about that for my Yorkie off and on. I have known people who have only fed their dogs vegetarian diets,

Anonymous said...

I have so much respect for you being your own person and the respect you have for everyone else. Your posts have become my inspiration message every day-maybe not to be just like you but to be my own person, and to show more respect and kindness to others-of all creation. But most of all, you and your family bring the most heart warming smiles and peace to everyday life.

Anonymous said...

Very well said..i have been slowly making changes as well, just so i could live with myself, and be able to look my cats in the eye. As my mother said, sometimes all you can do is change your corner of the world, and remember that others are always watching, so live by example...

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Penny, Atticus and Will do not eat a vegan diet. I put my trust in the hands of our wonderful vegan vet who suggested against it.

Dave Woodford said...

Tom, Keeping a vegan diet and making "cruelty free" choices are decisions individuals must make for themselves. No one should pressure you one way or another. My daughter has been vegan for several years now. Her knowledge of nutrition is really impressive considering she is largely self taught on the subject. She is very healthy and active. It's not a choice for me, but I do find myself eating healthier due to her influence. Best of luck to you.

Barbara said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm not vegan but I started buying almost all of our meat from local farms where you can go see what these animals' lives are like and how they're really allowed to live a good life until the end. Once I learned how factory farms treat their animals, especially hogs, I can't bear to support that kind of thing. To me it's equivalent to torture.

I think for the many of us who don't want to take the leap to vegan, buying humanely raised meat, eggs, and dairy is a really good option. But after reading your post I think I need to now take a look at what's being done with animal testing of products, I guess I didn't know it was still so widespread. I think if more people knew about stuff like this it would stop. So again, thanks for posting this.

Shellie said...

Thanks so much for your wonderful post. I'm a vegan for just about a year now, and very happy with my choice which was made for ethical reasons. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

Sandy said...

How about creating an innovative way to help animals and also improve humans' health? You have a great deal of influence and many friends. What if those of us who are vegans or who have delicious, gourmet vegan recipes (I created a fantastic stuffed portobello mushroom one yesterday) all contributed our favorite ones and made a book which could perhaps be entitled Atticus' and Will"s healthy recipes for humans? All profits (if any) could be donated to a worthwhile charity such as a cardiac unit of a hospital and copies could be given to cardiac patients. This project would be very meaningful to those of us who love all creatures, great and small, and also to those of us who are concerned with the harmful effects that an animal based diet has on
our health.

Marlee said...

Got here by clicking the link in your comment on Dreena Burton's blog, about being "vegan enough." I am continually intrigued by how many paths there are that lead to a desire to adopt a vegan way of life. I came to it for the health benefits, and couldn't be happier that the same diet that is most healthful for me is also the most compassionate to animals and lighter on the environment. It all just makes sense! Do not underestimate the influence you may have on your readers, to contemplate whether their lives demonstrate compassion toward animals. Also, if you have started to notice any health benefits as a result of becoming more plant-based, I would encourage you to share those successes now and then as well. Having focused on health to start out with, I too am at the point of wanting to research how I can replace some of my household cleaners and personal care products with those that are kind to animals. So, thanks for being yet another voice along my path of continued learning and reminding me to do some more research on that topic.

I'd rather be sailing said...

I too came to your post from Dreena's. Wonderful posting that says it all. In my process of choosing to be vegan, I've learned how much I dislike labeling and judgment. We're so guilty of doing both without knowing the whole story. In our compassion for animals, we've forgotten to be compassionate to each other.
I think my issue is listening to so many friends complain of health issues and doctor visits. It becomes a contest of who is the they eat plastic and pretend food.

Kelly said...

A close friend of mine is a vegan too and because of my birthday party I just took a closer look on the stuff we are eating, because I wanted to make everything vegan so that she can eat it. Even the cake was vegan!^^
And if somebody lives really strictly vegan, this is quite difficult for my experience. Although my friend said it's not that difficult for her... For me it was! xD
I have huge respect for vegan people!
It's great that you want to do this! :)

Unknown said...

This is my first time posting, but I have been so inspired and moved by everything you have written. I, too, have found myself on the cruelty-free path. Like you, it is has been hard to juggle my love of animals with my eating habits. But it was my students who really pushed me over the edge. I teach a course on human rights and the final project is for the students to chose a topic they are passionate about and to do something to help make it better. We include all sentient beings and the earth as potential subjects. Every time I teach it, some students will do something about animals. This past term three students made movies about the treatment of animals used for food, testing on animals for our daily products, and the leather industry. Their movies were so powerful that I can no longer compartmentalize my life they way I have done. I always hope to make a change in my students lives, but they make an equal or larger change in mine!