Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Hungry Planet

Warning, dear Reader: this missive is one of stark global reality. If you do not wish to read about the ills of the planet and the despair of the many in the face of our relative abundance, you may choose to not read this entry today, the eve of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. For myself, in order to reconcile the act of giving thanks for my own innumerable blessings with the realities of life around the globe, I must also face my feelings of despair, hence this post.

At this time of celebration, as we give thanks for the harvest and the abundance that the earth has given us over the past growing season, it is always a stark reminder for me of those who are not so fortunate. While Americans are often especially generous during the holiday season and after traumatic events such as Hurricane Katrina, our busy, self-involved lives often preclude our thinking regularly about those in need throughout the year.

Astounding statistics abound: the USDA estimates that the number of Americans reporting actual physical hunger in a year rose 43 percent from 1999 to 2004, from 3.1 million to 4.5 million. The number of people reporting "food insecurity"-- times in the year when they weren't sure where their next meal was coming from -- went from 31 million to 38.2 million, including 14 million children. Worldwide, six million children die each year from preventable malnutrition, not to mention other diseases related to poverty: malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and measles. How do we reconcile our lives when faced with these frightening and demoralizing facts?

In the city where I work, there are several hundred homeless people in the shelters each night, and many others who are not counted since they live in sub-standard housing, often with two or three families living illegally in the same small apartment. Others are not counted simply because they refuse to go to the crowded, drug-infested shelters. Rural poverty and hunger is also on the rise, and outreach to such remote areas is difficult, even in this "First World" nation. Who ever said we were "First", anyway, and what makes the others "Third"? Who, then, lives in the "Second World", pray tell?

I recently heard about a new book called Hungry Planet. It's a photographic essay depicting families from around the world, surrounded by the food which they consume in the course of a normal week, including the cost of said food in local currency and American dollars. The family from Chad, for example, spends approximately $1.23 per week, while the family from North Carolina spends nearly $350, the fast food portion of which would alone finance the diets of multiple families in Chad or Guinea. Apparently, the authors met and ate a meal with each family, and the story of their journey is worth listening to. The overall point of the book is "to examine the globalization of the food supply, and how migration and rising affluence are affecting the diets of communities around the globe".

What does it mean when a family lives on $1 a day and suffers from malnutrition-related disease, while my family eats more than $150 worth of food each week without blinking an eye? What does it mean when my patients seek out soup kitchens and open pantries, filling their cupboards with canned and pre-packaged foods which are high in sodium and preservatives? How does one reconcile the abundance in one's life with the lack thereof in so many others'? How does one enjoy one's holiday meal when others lack even the basic ingredients for sustainable life? How can tens of thousands of children in our own country go to bed hungry at night, their parents fretting about the family's lack of health insurance? How can so many American senior citizens be forced to choose between food and medicine or heat? How can this be? How can we allow it? Why isn't the entire world rioting this instant?

I ask these questions rhetorically, of course, because I know how we go about our days. We listen to the stories on NPR, we see the specials on hunger and disease on TV, we hear the news and the reports, and then we continue to live our lives. We plan our parties, cook our meals, complain about the price of gas, consume more than our share of resources, and perhaps write a check when the Oxfam mailer lands in our mailbox each year. Some of us might volunteer, donate time or energy, write letters, lobby politicians, or attend benefit events. The fact is, consciousness and awareness exact a price, and it can be exhausting.

Considering the possiblity, if we were to actually feel---for even a second---an inkling of the suffering, hunger, disease, and trauma experienced around the world in any given moment of any given day, we would be psychically and emotionally destroyed for eternity. Think about it: the destruction of the rainforests, global warming, the recent earthquake in Asia, the hurricanes of the past season, the war in Iraq, the mudslides in Guatemala, the millions of landmines around the world, the slums of Rio de Janeiro, rural Jamaica, remote Appalachia, PCB's in our rivers, melting ice caps---the list is astronomically long and enormously stultifying in its breadth. Just the thought of one child breathing his or her last breath at this very moment is enough to send me into a swoon of despair. The pain and suffering in the world is nothing but overwhelming.

Many would rather not think about these things. Many would like to continue with their lives and consider the plight of the hungry a problem which they cannot endure to consider. Most of us do indeed consider these facts but still get caught up in the mundaneity and self-involvement of daily life. The world of suffering is vast---seemingly endless---as is the well of despair which it inspires. Working with the ill, the poor, the often disenfrachised, the dying, I am often reminded of my relative wealth and abundance. I experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance over what it means to be in the position that I am while others lack even the most basic of amenities. If I allow myself to feel too much, the resulting despair is paralyzing at best.

Where do we put these thoughts? How do they get compartmentalized and stored at a safe distance? How do we wall off the despairing and feeling part of our mind which could burst with desperate and helpless compassion at any moment? How do we even get anything done in the face of the realities of the wider world? I don't seek answers, I only wish to remind myself of the permanence and ubiquitousness of such questions and the emotional and moral paradox which they engender. One must continue, one must survive, one must shoulder one's own life and carry whatever other burden one is willing and able to bear. Each day presents a new opportunity, and we can all simply do our best to confront each day with compassion and respect.

Suffering is a given in this world, and our desire to escape it, assuage it, and simultaneously ignore it is strong. The escaping is not an altogether bad thing, the ignoring is not evil. One must focus on one's life at times so that one can accomplish one's best, actualize one's potential, move boldly in the world, make a difference, leave a mark. Where do those others---the hungry, the destitute, the dying---fit into that world? I guess we each make room for them in our consciousness when we are able, when there is space and energy to embrace them. Today I embrace them---in this moment---fully recognizing that in an hour or two, my own human self-centeredness and self-involvement may focus my vision to a pinpoint of self-interest and tunnel vision. Thus is the human condition, the human mind, the human conundrum of existence.

For now, I say this: May all beings be free. May all beings be free of suffering. May I be free of self-judgement and despair. May we all give thanks.
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