Learning to suffer just a little bit

Crossing a culvert to enter the slumWe had been in our home stay nearly a week before Peregrine let me know that most of the family was only eating two small meals a day.

It was 2011 and we were doing our first “test run” as a married couple in a slum. A kind-hearted family allowed us to enjoy a couple weeks with them in the middle of summer before we moved into the slum for real. We didn’t speak the language, had enough trouble just remembering which hand to use where to do what, and the constant array of new sounds, smells, sights, and experiences made it tough to track seventeen extended family members from three nuclear families in a two-story home.

Their culture (in this matter common to all religious backgrounds in the area) was to treat guests like gods, and thus the family was giving us three good meals every day. There were always some family members eating with us. But when Peregrine used a bit of broken language and gestures to talk to one of the daughters about her daily eating habits, she came to realize that part of the reason they shuffled us around the house for meals was because there wasn’t enough food for the others to eat more than twice.

And every bite of chicken I gnawed off the bone was one less bite for the family.

Now, it’s true that we had given them some money up front to cover our food expenses, and the money was adequate for the amount of food they were giving us. But when you’re filling your mouth with roti while a teenage girl stands off to the side because this isn’t one of the meals where she gets to eat, “where the money came from” doesn’t hold much meaning anymore.

skinnyThis thought affected me a lot, and I started eating less every meal so there would be more left over (though making sure to compliment the food a ton so they wouldn’t think I didn’t like it!).  This left me hungry long before the next meal came around, and by the end of the second week I had dropped in weight. Honestly, though, it wasn’t a meaningful burden. I experienced a modicum of the daily hunger that great numbers of people experience every day.

Including those girls we were living with right there in that home.

Before that trip I had rarely suffered for others. Service was usually a joy where I got more out of it than the people I was helping, and my giving had always come from a relative excess, as no matter how much I gave, my basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter were always met. I fasted regularly, but for my own spiritual growth or as a shared discipline.

What would it mean to go hungry sometimes not because I lacked the money, but because I desired to give it to someone who was hungrier than myself? What would it mean to stop buying all the extra food I don’t need – desserts, bottled drinks, soft drinks, coffees, fast food, restaurant food, anything else expensive – and use the savings to help those who don’t get their basic nutrition? I think that giving up most of these things is not really suffering, since I’ll probably feel better without them, but wouldn’t it still be worth it even if I did it to the point of just a tiny bit of suffering?

What does it feel like to not eat every time I am hungry, not out of obedience to a fast, but with the realization that there really is only so much to go around? I had only begun to experience the feeling, and only in little bits and pieces. But I think it’s an important experience to have, and my experience in the slums here makes me want to stretch it further. When families who only eat two small meals a day take you into their homes and keep generously feeding you three, it makes you think twice about all the stuff you don’t need.

p.s. – I found out later that an Australian friend of mine in the slum had already made the decision to fast for 24 hours each week himself, in solidarity with those he knew who did not have enough to eat. He was 14 years old. He also had become a vegetarian several years earlier in part due to concerns over world poverty and the amount of land use/grain feed it takes to support animal consumption. Once at the age of 10 he inspired his family to live an entire month on the same $110 monthly budget as their poor neighbors. This is the different perspective on life that growing up among the “Majority World” can give you. How many kids his age could be engulfed in the constant corporate Western messages of “Eat eat eat! Drink drink drink! Consume consume consume!” and hold on to enough perspective to make the same sacrifices?

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