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Wednesday, 21 November 2012 11:53

The Right to Fast and the Right to Eat

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Originally published June 2001.


We forget that we have a right to be hungry.

Exercising it is one of the prerogatives of inner sovereignty — to let ourselves hold out against the tantrums of habit, to change our relationship with food. To fast.

For several years, I fasted for two days just before Thanksgiving as part of an event called Hunger Week, which was organized by students and faculty at Chicago's Loyola University; its purpose was to raise, as the slogan went, cash and consciousness for world (and local) hunger. The fasters took pledges.

I wrote about the event as a reporter for a few years; eventually, I talked myself into becoming a participant. Here were young people taking a political stand that was more than talk. They were stepping out of the material culture and depriving themselves of food for 50 hours — an enormous chasm; I'd never taken such a leap and didn't know if I could. Still, then, as now, thousands of people were starving to death around the world every day. Voluntarily going without food for two days to be in solidarity with them seemed, in comparison, a small thing.

I learned a great deal the first time I did it, most paradoxically, how necessary hunger is to my spiritual mooring. By fasting, I was forced to resist the first symptoms of hunger, those sad pangs that signaled "deprivation alert — send pizza!" As I let them pass, I realized how inconsequential they were: false warning signs, ghosts. There was no real hunger in their wake; once I let them go, I wasn't hungry at all. I now call such mental spasms "grease hunger."

The meal I ate to end my first fast was a bowl of cream of broccoli soup and a hard roll. It was the best meal I'd ever eaten in my life. It satisfied a hunger I'd allowed to open all the way to my soul.

But the fast had been a one-time, publicly declared, publicly supported event; once it was over, I had a hard time sustaining its distinctions amid a sea of plenty. The unwritten motto of the American way is that hunger is for others, not for us. The "thanks" in Thanksgiving that year seemed to amount to: Thank God we don't live in Bangladesh. Thank God we don't live in Ethiopia. Pass the yams!

Prosperity is tough to resist; soon enough, I fell back into my old, flirtatious relationship with food, as taste-bud tease and stress-relief drug. I forgot how to eat only when I was hungry and began panicking again at every neurotic craving for a snack. I ceded my "right to be hungry" to temptation and habit.

But now, seven years after my last political, public, pledge-generating fast, I've decided to reclaim, privately, my right to be hungry — to find hunger's edge again, for my own sake and not the world's. I want to lower a few middle-age danger stats: weight, blood pressure, cholesterol. But I also hope, as poet Jane Hirshfield put it, "to practice choosing to make the unwanted wanted."

The unwanted is need. It's the "illegal alien" we fear most, and try hardest to keep from crossing our borders — a losing battle. Better to welcome it, get to know it. This is what a fast is. For two weeks now, I've set aside Sunday as fast day, and while it's been difficult, it has forced me to develop a sense of self that is bigger than the stirring of impulse. Such a self is spiritually grounded.

One more thing, which I'm reminded of as I read a story in today's paper about refugees in Afghanistan; as they run out of flour, they boil grass in water to make a foul green "stew." Only by exercising the right to be hungry can we begin to appreciate its obverse, which such a large segment of the world cannot claim. This is the right to eat.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.