Hunger

I had never given much thought to my stomach’s precise capacity. I suppose I considered it more or less bottomless. I put stuff in whenever I wanted. Every so often, I registered its being full as pain, and then I stopped putting stuff in for a while.

Now with Ramadan, I became extremely mindful of each item that entered and what purpose it served. With food vying for space with water, I learned through trial and error. One night early on I wolfed an enormous bowl of pasta and discovered, while gut-busting, its substance petered out too quickly. I came to see my stomach as valuable real estate; I had to select and pace wisely.

I was forced to acknowledge the wisdom of guidelines nutritional experts cram down our throats. I still daydreamed about downing an entire batch of cookie dough or a huge stack of pancakes dripping with syrup. But when the time came to eat, those options were no longer appealing. Perhaps I would have gone in for a bite or two, but filling up would have been reckless. I couldn’t afford to live out my Willy Wonka fantasies.

I needed a small amount of carbohydrates in conjunction with protein. I found that eggs and high-quality yogurt provided long-lasting hunger suppression. My body craved nutritional powerhouses. Black beans, walnuts, and spinach were good, as was whole grain toast smeared with peanut butter. I read that dates, which are rich source of vitamins and natural sugars, are a popular Ramadan treat. I began to eat them nightly, craving their compact goodness first thing after a long day of fasting.

I became familiar with the nuances of hunger. There’s the superficial discomfort when your belly growls. Most of us in the course of our normal lives will never get far beyond this feeling. But past it, await ever-intensifying shades of hunger. Eventually the burning want dulls and radiates out. Your limbs grow heavy and less adept. Several hours in, it reaches your brain and your thinking slows. In the late afternoon, putting my body in a horizontal position seemed like a good option; in fact, most days, it felt like the only option. I thought how difficult it must be for Muslims who had to work throughout Ramadan, especially those with manual labor jobs. I was fortunate to have the freedom to rest.

Muslims are known to spend extra time reading their Qurans during Ramadan. Religious leaders also emphasize that time spent in reflection and prayer can be particularly fruitful during this time of year. But on practical terms alone, I can see why these particular tasks are favored. There came a time in the late afternoon when reading was about as physically demanding an activity as I felt I could manage. I studied passages from the Quran and made my way through books about Muhammad’s life, the history of Islam, the political narratives of predominantly Muslim countries, and the significance of religious practices such as Ramadan. But eventually even reading felt too challenging. My eyes didn’t have the energy to track the lines; my brain didn’t want to process the words. I would fall asleep or just lay there lethargically, my thoughts meandering.

Ramadan showed me the complexity of hunger. It seems counterintuitive, but the more time that elapsed since the last time I ate, the easier it became to not eat. At some point each day, my belly ceased signaling it even wanted to be fed. It must be some sort of protective mechanism: your stomach stops bothering you. It’s pleasant to be free of the nagging, but this is when the mind/body connection starts playing tricks on you because you don’t realize how in need of nourishment your body is becoming. Of course, when hunger stops hurting the potential for real damage begins.

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7 thoughts on “Hunger

  1. My husband tells me of how, when he was in the military and going through a divorce, he had just enough money for one meal a day….til about the last week of the month. Then, he had no money at all and found out how you go without food. He recommends it as an exercise that is good for everyone. And yes, what you say about the less you put in, the less it hurts, (eventually) mirrors his comments.

    I have had experience with hunger myself, on a very small scale, and I can recommend it as absolutely the quickest way to understanding and valuing the act of being able to give to places like Second Harvest and any of the local food ministries in your own area. Someone who has never experienced hunger does not truly understand.

    The going without water – not so much good, as I can see, as it is pretty detrimental to general health. But the whole emphasis on hunger and thirst in Ramadan is something most non-Muslims have somewhat lost touch with, and would be a good for everyone to experience at least once in life. I know you will find the experience valuable.

    Good for you for hanging in there! You are a braver woman than I…I am having enough trouble staying on my diet (Weight Watchers).

    Take care. Yours in Christ,

  2. When I have fasted for a day, two, or three, once or twice, I also noticed that the feeling of hunger went away after a while. I would add that it is a common practice in some varieties of Buddhism for monks who practice for years to eat nothing after the noon meal each day (only breakfast and lunch). It does put you more in touch with your whole being, including your body, which seems a little paradoxical in the light of religious practices which justify fasting and general denial of bodily appetites by saying that they separate the soul from the body. It always seem to have the opposite effect for me.

    • Hi Zenner, Interesting observation about the body/soul connection that you observe during your own fasting. For me, I felt like it made me very aware of the requirements of my body and how meeting those demands are usually automatic for me. My body says, “Jump” and I say “How high?!” so to speak. So denying its demands for a time was a real shift in perspective. I don’t think it “separated” the body and soul so much as made me more aware of their relationship.

  3. Once early in my marriage my husband heard about an Esther fast on the radio. It was a three day fast from food AND water. We were taking a trip (one of our first) while he was fasting. It was really hard — for me! The second night he began groaning in his sleep. It was awful. I thought I had married a crazy man! Finally I told him that I couldn’t take any more, that I was sure he would die if he went three days without water, and he conceded on the last day and drank water. The other day I was telling him about your fasts and asked him about his fast. He doesn’t even remember what it was for! Needless to say, he’s never fasted like that again.

  4. I have lots of experience with dieting and fasting. From my experiences (just mine; your mileage may vary) I can say that not eating is a distraction from a goal, rather than a tool to help me get to a goal. Our bodies were designed to need fuel in the form of food and drink. When we deny ourselves this fuel, our bodies speak up loudly and clearly. Many times I fasted with the goal being to deny my physical needs so as to focus on my spiritual needs — sometimes this need was for myself, and sometimes I was praying for others. It just didn’t work for me. It made me MORE self-centered rather than less.

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