Friday, April 10, 2009

Learning from hunger

Dear readers,

Today I've been fasting for Good Friday. No food at all, and nothing but water, tea and lemon juice to drink.
I wanted to deepen my experience of the day by replicating some of the suffering of Christ, even though part of me thinks it silly to impose suffering to grow in faith. Part of me equates fasting with self-flagellation, vows of silence, celibacy and other restrictive disciplines we impose on ourselves to get closer to God. I have an instinctive resistance to that brand of religion. Jesus spent his life simply yes, but he enjoyed life amongst the sinners, doing good in the public square, not hiding away in asceticism burying his appetite for life.
Another part of my resistance to fasting is that I've seen it used to get attention. One weekend when I was in college in the late 90s, a student group set up shop outside the student center to protest the U.S. embargo against Iraq, citing the deaths of children.
Their form of protest was to sit out on the steps of the center for three days, fasting. There was singing and giving out information, but their biggest signs declared that it was a "Fast for Iraq." For some reason, I thought it ridiculous that their form of building awareness was to make themselves suffer.
I'd think anybody who didn't give a damn about the issue would just look at them and say, "Ha! Let 'em starve! Those self-righteous bozos!"
Looking back at it, it wasn't the fast itself I was opposed to, but the demonstrative nature of it. Perhaps the advocacy statements made sense, but the fact that they made their fasting so public got to me. Perhaps I have been affected by that old advice, "Do your good works in secret."
Initially today, I wasn't sure if my little fast would have any effect on me. I moved through the day a little grumpy, but clearheaded. Then came the evening and a test: forgetting my fast, my roommate invited me out to dinner with his friend. Should I deny myself the pleasure and stay home, or take it as a sign to go enjoy the company of friends and break bread? WWJD?
I decided to combine my two interests: I went to dinner but denied myself food, and this was when the fast got interesting. My roommate and friends got a prix fixe three-course meal, appetizers, entrees, beers and dessert. I sat there with a cup of green tea and watched.
First, I felt like an outsider, and that's when the fast first began to hurt. I was going through the day just fine in my own private discipline, but discipline becomes less enjoyable in the midst of those enjoying freedom. In the same way, I think it's easier to be poor when you're not right next to wealth: you may not be aware of how bad you've got it and see the little that you've got as enough.
But when you're poor and surrounded by the well-off, the same drive that could help you survive could turn to resentment, and perhaps then violence.
This came to mind, and other things popped up as they moved from appetizers to entrees. I began thinking about how hard it must be for somebody on a strict diet to be in group situations, the discipline to be out with people who can eat whatever they want, the control it must take. I imagine family and friends try to be considerate, but when a group goes to an Italian restaurant, I'm sure a dieter sees stuff going around the table that they ache to eat. No wonder so many fall off.
As they moved towards the end of the meal, I thought about that old weird piece of advice every mom used to give their kids to make them finish dinner, that guilt-laden news flash "There are children starving in Africa." What was the logic of that? I guess if children are starving in Africa, then I should shut up and be grateful I have any food at all, and should eat every bit?
I never got this: if I have extra food and there are children starving in Africa, then shouldn't they be the ones eating it? Why am I overfilling my belly while these kids starve? And furthermore, if you're really concerned about me understanding starvation in Africa, wouldn't it be better to DENY me an occasional meal, rather than guilt-trip me into eating more?
By that logic, it's like filling the belly is a salute to the fact that by the grace of God, I'm not like them. I guess for any family that's escaped poverty, that's a natural thing to enjoy. But it's also rather hedonistic and self-centered. "I'm going to eat up, because I thankfully am not in your shoes." If I heard that and was on the other side of the equation, I'd want to cut you open and enjoy my meal.
As I recall, Jesus rarely complained about being hungry. He got tired and angry, and even thirsty on the Cross. However, he didn't complain a lot about poverty and hunger. Sometimes, I almost think that that lack of complaints, combined with his love for the poor, has made it easier for us to excuse the existence of poverty.
We do charity like Jesus did, but I think fewer of us see starvation, especially when others are feasting, as the same intolerable hell as genocide or the AIDS epidemic.
I wonder if Jesus had talked more about the cruelty of poverty, maybe things would be different. But then again, we've selectively ignored and heeded Jesus' words for centuries.
The fast has clearly done me good, since it's got me thinking, but I don't quite feel like I've hit rock bottom yet. I wonder how far I should go. Should I take myself to the point of physical pain, or stop now that some awareness has come of it? Your opinions would be welcome.

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