Fasting is a Middle Class Luxury

By | September 8, 2011

Very few of us in the developed world know hunger. Sure, we might say, “I’m hungry,” as the next meal approaches, but what do we mean by that? Odds are we just had a good meal a few hours before that, and maybe a snack in between. Yet we declare that we’re hungry.

For most of us, missing a meal is unthinkable. In fact, some of us have never missed a meal in our entire lives (other than in sickness). We usually have a choice of foods, and we can eat as much as we like. Even on short trips across town, many of us unconsciously grab snacks for the road. The practice of eating and drinking while driving has become so much a part of our culture that food and beverage trays are designed into virtually all of our vehicles (though not in all opulent countries, and Japan is an example).

Many people I know go on fasts in order to experience hunger. Some do it to cleanse, some for spiritual reasons, and others as a response to excess. But do they experience hunger? If we define it simply as food longing, then perhaps they do. However, for a good share of humankind, hunger is so much more.

For the latter, hunger is not a matter of choice. It has a survival component—families are forced to ration food and children wake up and go to bed hungry. In times of famine and political turmoil, people die. There is not the luxury of choice, there are no aspirations for spiritual enlightenment, and our guilt around overconsumption is to them only a bitter joke. Watch them and they’ll act out their definition of hunger: the gnawing anxiety that fuels an endless, desperate quest for something—anything—to quell the cavernous feeling within.

A student in my yearlong wilderness survival course recently told me that one reason he enrolled was to experience real hunger. He said that he fasted about twice a year, but he knew there was something missing because he could quit at his convenience, and he could elect to do a juice or fruit fast rather than a complete one. He said it was a relaxed way to fast—he was in total control and there was little stress. From former students he had heard about the hunger moons: the period from late spring to mid-summer when stores of food from the autumn harvest and winter hunt have run out and there are only low-calorie fresh greens and lean meat to eat.

This student and his campmates have just come through the hunger moons, as it is now late summer, nuts and berries are abundant, and the animals are putting on fat. Last night I joined them around the campfire while they were reflecting on their hunger experience. They talked about greed and mistrust, guilt and secrets. And they talked about sacrifice and uncommon kindness—putting your campmates first, not because of some grandiose philosophy about circle consciousness, but as a matter of survival. Oh yeah, and food was also a topic, but it was not mentioned until last, and with not near the passion as the rest of the sharing. They now know hunger.

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