This essay concerns the phycology of food and our approach to it.
| This essay could be called an introduction to a foolish thought. I will, however, settle for “A Frame of Mind”. In regards to that particular title, I should begin by saying that in the last couple of years I have taken to calling myself an amateur Historian. I have indeed heard that there are amateur Historians. I have, therefore – and hopefully not audaciously – assumed the moniker. My particular field of research has been what seems like a lifetime of study, as well as a five-year period of immersive study of the twelve-year Nazi regime. As a result, I have read many hundreds of cases which chronical human deprivation and starvation. There is seemingly no end of Historians who have expended no small amount of laborious effort in detailing the bestial treatment of those inmates who resided within the orbit of the Nazi concentration camps, and how those bedraggled souls existed on starvation subsistence. But, now, let us consider not so much the condition of the camps themselves, but rather, the existential nature of starvation and its workings in the society of men.
Starvation, as it has always existed, has ever been a phenomenon of many facets. In extreme cases, it was and is – as some would definitely assert – purely the result of the machinations of men. At other times it has worn the threadbare habiliment of extremely poor personal choices. Even Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you”, leaving the impression that, no matter what you do, the element of starvation will always exist because of the hackneyed human condition. But, still, though this observation has not the slightest chance of being successfully debunked, I would go further in considering the contiguous circumstances of food scarcity. First, why is there no food? Second, what is the psychological state of those who are starving? Thirdly, what will happen when there is no food forthcoming and starvation becomes a set realization? But, now, do we really wish to seriously address those questions? These questions provoke much thought and are worthy of studied answers, but I will choose to leave them as they are for the time being. What I really wish to consider is our cultural and personal approach to food
Just think about it. We live in a country overladen with every food imaginable. America is a land of food. It has often been observed that visitors from countries lacking such plenteous fare are overwhelmed when encountering the abundance America enjoys. They find it hard to believe that so much food is so easily accessible. Many have never seen a supermarket. Americans enjoy the supermarket as a fait accompli, as they seem to spring from the earth overnight without permission. We can just imagine Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim exclaiming, “and the food, oh, the food.” And so we will ask again, what shall we who are so food self-secure do when the food is no longer there? Do we food secure Americans have any idea of what it means to starve? Have any of us ever gone hungry in the truest sense of the term? I wholeheartedly doubt it. But would a man choose to starve?
It would seem that starvation is a difficult process. Food and the enjoyment of eating are some of a human’s greatest desires. We even love the sight of food because of its aesthetic beauty. We love to eat because eating brings us pleasure, and there are many things that happen to us when we cease doing what brings us pleasure? Consider how often we say that we are starving. Of course, we realize when we say it that we are not actually starving. The saying is just a habit of the tongue. However true that may be, at that particular moment our brains are telling us that we want to eat. And there are many things that may trigger our eating response – not the greatest of which is genuine hunger. We know very well that we will eat because we are bored, nervous, depressed, happy, celebratory, and a host of other reasons besides. Human beings are complex creatures. Our responses to the world around us often make no sense to the logical mind. Say what you will, but humans can be very compulsive creatures, and our instincts are very often a driving force. We have heard time and time again of people doing things to survive that they would not have believed themselves capable of, including cannibalism. In such horrific cases, the instinct to survive was more compelling than any moral restraints or emotional connections. With every wit forward to the preservation of every limb, men will murder, let others be murdered, and sink into the realm of nightmares in order to survive. A famous scientist was quoted, saying, “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Such is man’s willingness to obliterate ten thousand lives in an instant to preserve the beating of his own heart. And, if this is a truth, would a man not protect, to the end, his meager crust of bread? His instincts would demand that he protect it, for he must survive.
And now I ask you again, would a man choose to starve? Believe it or not, many have made a conscious choice to do so. During World War II a group of young men chose to do their part on the home front by volunteering to be part of an experiment studying the effects of starvation. It was the hope of the researchers that any success garnered by their study would aid civilians and combat troops alike. Starvation had always been a foregone expectation of war but little was known about it at the time. As the study progressed it became most evident that starvation was a most difficult process for the human body to endure. Every part of the body turns its attention to the priority of survival. And, as it turned out, several of the men did not survive – the experiment that is. It simply became too much for them to bear. For those who did endure, the long months proved fraught with often excruciating difficulty and not a few small failures. In the end, however, they made it through and what was learned from their suffering still bears fruit to this day.
The above example is simply one exemplary reason why one might choose to starve. Indeed, it is in no way the place where the average person might find themselves. Under everyday normal conditions, people may not set out to actually starve themselves, but rather, restrict their eating in order to control their weight. There are also those, who, for political, religious, or altruistic reasons determine to embark upon restrictive fast. Political fast may be considered the most radical sort such as those practiced by Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle for Indian independence. He fasted often, sometimes for twenty days or more on nothing more than bread and water. Religious fasts, for the most part, are usually not nearly as restrictive. People may fast for twenty-four to seventy-two hours while in meditation and prayer. Altruistic fasts are practiced, in the main, as a genuinely noble attempt for the betterment of humanity, or as a sympathetic link to the understanding of another’s suffering. In my personal opinion, the altruistic fast is the highest order of food restriction. The suffering of those in the world who lack their necessary food is on-going and tragic. Never will I forget the riveting photograph of a young child in Africa dying of starvation while a vulture waited yards away for the end to come. It seems more than obvious that the crisis of hunger in this world – and even this bountiful nation – will never be abated. But who is it that even cares to understand the suffering of the hungry? Would we deny ourselves our daily bread in order to provide theirs? Or, would we restrict our diets in order experience and understand their feelings. The fact of the matter is, we would not only experience their feelings but we would most surely learn something about ourselves. And is it not wholly true that all of life should be lived in the pursuit of self-knowledge and improvement? Surely we are more than slaves to our basic instincts, desires, and passions.
So, will we do more than give lip service to the plight of those who hunger for but a simple crust of bread or daily rifle through garbage dumps for that bread? We could reach out to them through an in common experience, that of hunger. We can eat less, and possibly get a little closer to an understanding of those who have so little to eat. Such a personal experiment certainly wouldn't hurt us, seeing that our country is the most obese in the world. And, as we have said, it may teach us some important things that we need to know about ourselves. And maybe, just maybe, the world will look different after meals are set aside, and we begin to learn what so much of the world - and even our own city - already knows.