I saw the setup the first time forty years ago. Dr. Herbert Shelton, a pioneer in the holistic health movement, was in his eighties and wracked with Parkinson’s. People tried hard to explain it. He’d been very stressed, they said. He’d suffered years of harassment from the medical establishment. This was why he was no longer in good health. There was no other explanation.
Then, in 2000, American Vegan Society founder Jay Dinshah died of a sudden heart attack at the age of sixty-seven. People were as shocked as they were saddened. Vegans weren’t supposed to die in their sixties — or seventies, for that matter. Dying at 90+ in good health was the plan, as Dinshah’s father had done, falling from an apple tree at, if memory serves me, ninety-four. In Jay’s case, stress was again deemed the culprit. Then some people said that he hadn’t been on an oil-free diet. I thought that was mean and they should have kept their opinions to themselves.
Two years ago, we lost Rynn Berry, the great historian of the vegetarian movement, at sixty-eight. The longtime vegan and (mostly) raw-foodist was out running (good; running is good) when he collapsed with an asthma attack on a January day in a Brooklyn park (he was so healthy that most of us didn’t know he had asthma – again: good). We consoled ourselves that the underlying asthma, so well controlled for years by his great diet, was to blame. Some even conjectured that since he’d been running with no ID and days passed before he was identified as a retired professor with good insurance, perhaps his care at the hospital had been substandard.
These are stories of three remarkable men who did the unthinkable: they died. No one knows when he or she will leave this life, but somehow when we’re vegan, we start to think that this universal truth no longer applies. It is inconvenient for the vegan/plant-based/natural health movement when one of us passes before ninety, or gets sick at any age. We think it makes us look bad. But there are worse things than looking bad — doing harm, for instance.
Think how difficult it is to be sick, especially with some chronic, painful or, heaven forbid, fatal disease. Maybe the person “caused it” with their habits, but there are plenty of nonsmokers who get lung cancer and emphysema, a goodly number of type 2 diabetics who are fit and trim, and people who have heart attacks while running fast enough to leave the rest of us in the dust. Like our beloved companion animals and our non-vegan fellows, we sometimes get sick, and at some point, we’ll all leave the physical world. Nobody knows when. And oftentimes no one knows why, either.
It is a terrible thing to add the burden of guilt to the fear, uncertainty, and discomfort of sickness, but that’s what we do when we whisper, “How could that happen? I thought he was raw,” or “Gosh, do you think she cheated?” or “It was the oil [or sugar or processed food or whatever we disapprove of].”
Eating an animal-free diet of mostly whole foods is apparently the nutritional gold standard. If you read Dr. Michael Greger’s new bestseller, How Not to Die, you’ll be blown away by the scientific approbation of this choice we’ve made, whether we did it for health or animal rights or the environment — or because we fell in love with a vegan and, gosh, what’s a change in diet when “happily ever after” is staring you in the face? Yay for vegans! We’re changing the world for the better. But, uh, as Dr. Greger admits in the early pages of his book, we’re all going to die. We don’t want to do it prematurely or unnecessarily. We don’t want to spend our last years in “morbidity,” the medical term for chronically ill, impaired, or unable function normally. Heck, we don’t want to get sick at all if it can be helped, but let’s not make the lack “perfect health” the next new way to screw up. (Being a few pounds overweight was the first way. Then came being “skinny fat” – you look thin but you’re fat on the inside.)
I am vegan for the animals, but I’m also kind of a health nut. I eat really well (in my opinion. My doctor is an Atkins guy who leaves me alone about food, but I know in his heart he thinks I’m crazy). Even so, I sometimes get sick. One day I’m apt to get really sick. And at some point – long from now, I hope, but I don’t know for certain – I’ll move from life in this body and on to the next adventure. May I ask you a favor, and ask it for every other vegan who’s just trying to do the best he or she can to make this world a little less awful for animals and the rest of us? If we get sick, and when we die, please don’t try to figure out what we did wrong. And please don’t second-guess every weird kind of possible cause for why a vegan left this world without winning the Longevity Olympics. We’re all leaving. If it’s our “fault,” it’s essentially our fault that at some soul level that we opted to sign on for a human experience. That requires a round-trip ticket. Even if you eat plants.
Victoria Moran is the author of Main Street Vegan and eleven other books. She is the founder and director of Main Street Vegan Academy, where Matt Rusigno, RD, teaches a dynamite class on not overpromising the health benefits of a vegan diet, stellar though they may be.