One of the things that I’ve discovered about being a (mostly) vegetarian / (sorta) vegan* is that if I don’t plan accordingly I will nearly always be starving whenever I fly anywhere. The vegetarian options on a plane are inevitably either very sad salads or cheese plates, hence the hunger.
Last week when getting off a plane in San Francisco I had an extra 10 minutes before being picked up at the airport, and I found a small place to get Chinese food, mostly stir-fry. You’ve been to this place and its many cousins: pick the entrée (chicken, beef, etc.) to go with your noodles or rice for $10. As usual there was no non-meat option, which to me means no lunch option, so I asked the woman behind the counter what I could do and she told me that they’d be happy to whip up a vegetable stir fry (for $16, but that’s another story).
This got me thinking about doing what I want versus following rules that I set for myself.
The omnivore I used to be would have happily and without a second thought ordered the chicken or beef entrée. The vegetarian I aspire to be saw nothing to eat and asked a different question that led to a different outcome – one that I was just as happy with (and my omnivorous self would have liked just fine as well, but would never have dreamed of asking). With the pre-existing rule in place I behaved differently and got a better outcome for me.
Reflecting on my ongoing exploration of the practice of generosity, it’s impossible to ignore that virtually every major religion has specific norms and expectations around generosity, giving, caring for others. When I think about what my generosity exploration is a reaction against, part of the answer is the modern, progressive, liberal, often not-so-religious worldview that is all too familiar to me as an American northeasterner who went to a liberal arts college. In this worldview I’m supposed to be aware of and care about the world, supposed to believe in the role of government and believe in social safety nets, but in terms of how I individually am supposed to act, what’s considered right and wrong, sacred and profane, how I fit into a broader group (my community, my religion, my extended family) and how and when I subjugate what feels right to me to rules or expectations or group norms or tradition – it’s a conversation we rarely have and often don’t even know how to start.
What have we lost in this world free of constraints? What do we give up when we shed rules, expectations, obligations, a sense of duty or service or respect for traditions?
The balancing act is that I am a huge believer in bucking tradition, in unshackling ourselves from a set of norms that keep us from contributing to our full potential, to recognizing all that we have to offer and all that the world needs from us. At the same time I know from my own experience that creating a set of expectations – of rules – whether around food or a practice of generosity or, yes, religion causes me to take actions I wouldn’t otherwise take, actions that expose me to different experiences and different people and different behaviors….not each one exactly what I hope it will be, but more often than not I’m discovering wisdom and connection and a sense of place and belonging along the way.
How much do I really know what is best for me and how I carry myself in the world? And how much are we all giving up when we give up our obligations?
* “(sorta) vegan” is what I’m able to pull off without embracing meat/cheese substitutes and/or avoiding nearly all foods and restaurants. It essentially equates to low dairy.