Overheard between my vegan friend and another non-vegan friend at a restaurant dinner:
non-vegan friend (NVF): Oh, so you can't eat meat
vegan friend (VF): No, I won't eat meat
NVF: but...you...CAN'T, right?
VF: No, of course I can, but I WON'T.
NVF: (puzzled)...I don't get it.
Many times I hear people's lifestyles (religion/diet/exercise) talked about in terms of what they "can" or "can't" do. For example, people look at a vegetarian/vegan's lifestyle and say "Oh, you can't eat meat." They may even comment "I could never do that." Even the Christian bible interprests the Ten Commandments as "thou shalt not", suggesting that properly practicing Christians "can't" do those things.
This type of determinism is often enforced through fear or guilt. In the case of religion, particularly (but not limited to) Christianity, fear of Hell or the wrath of God or even social ostracism has served for thousands of years to reinforce the beliefs of things that Christians can't do. For vegetarians/vegans, the idea is that eating meat or other animal products causes such health problems that practicioners "CAN'T" eat them for fear of risking their health.
I would argue that all belief systems that are grounded in neagtivity (fear/guilt) miss the real value of the beliefs --- the empowerment of the believer through his/her freedom of choice.
This manifests in two principal ways:
1) lack of guilt/punishment associated with the choices
2) lack of negative terminology associated with the choices
I personally think it is of critical importance that believers actively CHOOSE to follow the beliefs, rather than be manipulated into doing so through fear of repercussion or guilt and loss of self-esteem for not doing so. To be empowered it is important that choices be framed in POSITIVE TERMS which express the benefits of making good choices, rather than the downside of making bad choices (or failing to make the expected good choices). All of this should be underpinned by an emphasis on the will of the individual to be in control and determine his/her own path. In doing so, each person gets the benefit of developing their personal discipline and self-control.
For vegetarians, it is not that they can't eat animal products --- it is that they won't eat animal products. They certainly could. It's just that they make an active, concious, informed decision not to. THEY are in control, not the belief system. They could easily renounce their beliefs if they chose to do so. It is through their willpower and commitment alone that they follow their chosen way and reap the benefits of it.
This extends to many many other things in life. People say to a married man "you can't sleep with another woman". Not true, he most certainly could. However (we hope) he chooses not to out of love and respect for his wife and her feelings. He gets the benefit of a fuller and deeper realtionship, as well as confidence in his own discipline and self-control.
If a belief system is rooted in negativity and focused on what followers "can't" do, the overwhelming tendency is for either punishment avoidance or escapism to creep in. Punishment avoidance refers to behaviors where people act without commitment to the belief itself, instead simply out of fear of the punishment itself. Once the punishment disappears, compliance also disappears. This explains why many young people renounce religion as soon as they move out from home or otherwise are not at risk of being punished for not going to church.
Escapism refers to those rebellious behaviors which occur from a desire to express free will by doing the exact opposite of what the belief system practices. This is often a reaction to strict discipline, especially when it is forced upon an unwilling believer. The often-cited promiscuous preacher's daughter or the binge-drinking and partying of freshman college students who are newly living away from home and their parents' oversight.
If their belief systems were based on their own freedom of choice rather than fear or negativity imposed by others, then the urge to rebel would no longer exist.
Although the language difference between "I can't" and "I won't" seems merely semantic, the implication is very important. "I can't" absolves us of any responsibility for the choices, ascribing responsibility to be due to some factor beyond our control. For example "I can't lift a ten-story building" or "I can't breathe under water for ten minutes". Most of the time, the "can't" part is conditional. You could lift a 10-story building if you had the right equipment and training. Likewise you could breathe under water for ten minutes if you had an air supply.
Most of our life is not about what we can or can't do.
It is about what we will or won't do.
We must take responsibility for our choices, good and bad.
Learn from our mistakes and celebrate our successes.
Find 5 things you think you can't do.
Think about them. Is it really that you CAN'T? Or simply that you WON'T??
Think about how different those two states of mind are.