15 February 2010


It's easy to think about food when we have so much of it.  It’s easy to indulge our interests when we’re encouraged to do so.  Food is, after all, central to our existence.  Although we’re emotionally removed from the burden of finding our food, we still spend huge amounts of our time surviving.  But we never think of it that way.  It’s just stopping at the coffee shop before work, having a doughnut with co-workers, bringing leftovers to work, thinking about lunch, eating and digesting it, wondering what to have for a snack, talking about dinner plans, stopping at the grocery store for milk and fruit, shopping, canning, freezing, gardening, and everything else that makes up a significant amount of our day, yet we never think of food as a survival issue.  Just like how we drive 75 miles an hour on the highway and never think about crashing until we see one, and we instinctively slow down: we’re hurtling along in a box of steel and plastic and it’s dangerous!  And food is still needed for survival, even when we dress it up in a restaurant and pay insane prices for a bellyful of nutrition.  So even though we don’t think about it in terms of survival, we’re still fulfilling that function every time we eat.  We’re mammals wandering the face of the earth, hoping not to starve, willing to do almost anything to survive.

And because our immediate survival isn’t usually on our minds when we eat our meat-and-three, it’s not surprising that the tradition of fasting has been abandoned by most Americans.  While it still plays a mostly-symbolic role for a few Americans, fasting is still actively practiced in other parts of the world and by adherents to many faiths.  But why fast?  Why go without food and cause discomfort?  What’s the point of it?  Did fasting arise out of necessity?  Why have people across time and continents willingly denied themselves food?  One could probably stand a short distance from fasting and judge it as an unnecessary and perhaps bizarre ritual.  From my perspective it seems like fasting is still relevant to people, but the farther we go from a sense of kinship – whether literal or spiritual – with poverty, the more remote the idea of fasting seems.  Fasting might seem like an extreme sacrifice to well (or over)-fed people, but a more common exercise or discipline for the spiritually-minded and those for whom hunger isn’t a distant memory. 

By fasting we recognize the primal role that food plays in our lives, that our attention to nourishing or simply filling our bodies is so dominant that we are aware of it only when we temporarily reject it.  And when we do that we can ask what other questions need to be answered.  Maybe fasting makes us more empathetic, more in sympathy with those who suffer the oppression of real hunger.  Fasting can humble us, too, because we quickly feel that very little separates the rich from the poor, the successful from the downtrodden, when the pangs of hunger begin to gnaw.  Fasting can give us strength, too, because we learn that our will, our spirit, our perseverance, can overcome limitations of the body.  Food keeps us from starving, but I think of fasting as something more than mock-hunger.  Are we, as living beings, our bodies alone?  Or is there a part of us that hunger cannot starve, which is nourished in emptiness?

Hunger is something completely different, and its devastating impact is felt by more than 1 billion people worldwide.  That number is so big it’s difficult to comprehend.  How can that many people be hungry?  And what can individuals do about it?  It’s a global issue that is affected by the highest levels of politics, bureaucracy, climate, war, and distribution.  Should we support any of the innumerable organizations that combat hunger, or urge our legislators to address hunger at a macro level?  When we support our local food shelf are we ignoring the larger problems of poverty and public health?  The ubiquity of fast food in the United States is directly related to our obesity epidemic, but it’s harder to sort through all the processed, prepared, and packaged food that sits on every grocery store shelf.  From packaged lasagna to sweetened snack bars, the gap between food that we eat directly from the earth and that which goes through significant processing continues to grow.  We are overrun by Kraft, Pepsico, and all the intermediaries who change our food.  How are we to understand global hunger when we’re overfed and preserved by endless food additives?

With so many hungry people in this world, and with so much food wasted in the United States, should Americans make an effort to better understand hunger?  Should we fast, not only for spiritual reasons, but to better know what hunger feels like?  Maybe if we experience hunger we’ll begin to get an inkling of its corrosive effect on societies around the world.  How many desperate acts begin with hunger?  And how much indifference is exhibited by us with the full stomachs?


  1. Beautiful. Thank you for an important perspective.

  2. Patrick, Great thoughts on this topic. Fasting has been a regular part of our lives for almost 30 years. It is such a multi-dimensional discipline. One of our favorite resources: http://tiny.cc/6sgZW