This week marks one year of plant-based, whole-food eating. Vegan. No meat. No animal-derived foods. Yes, that means no hamburgers, no bacon, no fried-oyster poboys, and…here’s the tough one…no cheese! I prefer, though, to emphasize not what I’m giving up but what I’m gaining, and that’s why I’m more apt to describe my choice as “plant-based, whole-food” because it opens up a world of larger possibilities. Admittedly, I freely and frequently give in to my weakness for peanut M&Ms, and during Girl Scout cookie season I’m OK with being 98% whole-food, plant-based. Nevertheless, for 365 days, I’ve almost exclusively eaten plants.
Many omnivores are politely suspicious of (or mildly offended by) my herbivorous habit, and I’ve grown used to helping friends understand that my food choices aren’t a judgment of their food choices. This decision was purely about my health—a decision to lower my cholesterol without medication, lose weight without dieting, and improve the odds of long-term heart fitness.
And it’s long-term heart fitness that’s on my mind. Our world suffers from a lack of heart fitness. Our communities suffer from a lack of heart fitness. Our families suffer from a lack of heart fitness. Our spiritual institutions even suffer at times from a lack of heart fitness. The symptoms are harmful words spoken in anger or fear, a lack of empathy for others, an unwillingness to understand the perspectives and circumstances of others, apathy toward suffering and injustice, loving things more than people, rushing to judgement rather than to compassion…and the list goes on. What symptoms of heart disease have you noticed? What have you noticed in you?
We can, though, make a radical choice to move from being hard hearted to being open hearted. If we think that spiritual heart health might make a difference to our quality of life, we can adopt habits that might lead to heart health. Signs of heart health are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These, you might recognize, are traditional indicators of spiritual fitness (Galatians 5:22-26), and they are one way of thinking about the heart of what it means to know Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Habits that lead to heart health might include intentionally seeking understanding and practicing compassion in circumstances where you are presently feeling offended or frustrated. Or maybe you need to consider the hard road of forgiveness in a situation where you feel you have been wronged. Or perhaps you need to make amends and seek to be forgiven by someone because of something you did or something you failed to do. Maybe the spiritual equivalent of whole-food, plant-based eating is committing to practices that create life-giving relationships with people rather than defaulting to behaviors that push people away or put people down. This kind of decision is rarely easy, usually takes help and support, and is always worth it.
So I’ve been vegan for a year, and I’ll gladly stick with it. At first, it was hard. But when I adopted new practices, I learned to think about food differently. And that new thinking led to new priorities. Those new priorities then formed new habits, and new habits became my normal way of life. And I have found my health transformed.
I think the same thing can happen when we commit to practices of compassion. New practices can lead to new thinking about people and situations. And new thinking can lead us to discover new priorities when it comes to how we relate to people and how we respond to situations. Those new priorities can then form new habits. Those new habits can, in turn, become a normal way of life. And when the normal way of life is living with a heart of love, we have the opportunity to transform our families, our social networks, our communities, and even our world.