Last week I did this thing – this big thing, which I was anxious about, and had to psych myself up for – and it was hard. I hated it. When it was over, I felt a sense of accomplishment and relief. A few people congratulated me, or said they were proud or impressed. A friend asked me to write about it.
I didn’t do anything important or impressive.
I went without food or water for 15 hours. I participated in a one-day fast with other non-Muslim folks in order to experience what our Muslim friends do every day during the month of Ramadan. That part was cool. Joining others in a new experience, learning about Ramadan, taking another step towards human understanding (regardless of religion or culture) – those things are important, and it was a valuable experience for me.
But my one-day, voluntary fast? I can’t be proud of such a meager feat. I chose to go through my day without food or water, but I was surrounded by it. I could have poured myself a glass of filtered water in my air-conditioned office building at any time. My huge accomplishment boils down to skipping a few meals and resisting snacks from the staff table, for one day. During Ramadan, Muslims do this for 30 days. In a row. In some countries women do it wearing burkas in 100+ degree heat.
I’m not saying it was easy for me. The hardest part going without water; I have never been so thirsty. Physically, the biggest lesson I learned that day was I need water. I don’t need snacks, or the second breakfast I typically eat at my desk, or even (though I hate to say it) coffee, but I need water. By the afternoon I found it very difficult to concentrate. If I couldn’t drink or eat, then all I wanted to do was sleep. It was a hierarchy-of-needs experience. My husband called to see how I was doing and at the end of our conversation, he said, “I’m guessing Ramadan is not a real productive time.” (If my one-day experience is any indication, no, it’s not. However, I’ve heard that once your body adapts to fasting things go more smoothly.)
Intellectually and emotionally, the biggest lesson I learned that day was what real hunger and thirst feel like. When I say, “I have never been so thirsty” it’s not a figure of speech; it’s literal truth. Before last week, I had never, not once in 38 years, gone 15 waking hours without a beverage. Before last week I had never gone 15 waking hours without eating. On and off throughout the day I thought, “There are people who live like this every day.” At 2:00 PM when my brain was foggy, I thought about kids in school too hungry to learn and I almost cried. Now I have an inkling, just an inkling, of what that must be like. This is why schools in poor areas have free breakfast programs – or did, the last time I paid attention. Maybe they’ve been cut from the budget.
I’ve never been against school breakfast or free lunch programs, but I’ve never been actively for them, either. Suddenly now I want to make sure my taxes go to these programs. Please, take a little bit of my money and use it to feed children so that they can pay attention to math and reading.
For 15 hours last week my empathy muscles got a workout while my stomach took a break. At the end of the day, a good friend who had also fasted and I broke our fast in an Italian restaurant. We talked and laughed, drank and ate together until past closing time. She kindly drove me to my car so I wouldn’t have to walk five blocks alone in the dark.
On Twitter I’ll sometimes see the hashtag “#firstworldproblems.” It’s a joke; a self-deprecating nod to how good one has it tacked on to the end of a tweet complaining about the barista messing up one’s coffee order. That’s what having to walk five blocks alone in the dark after a restaurant meal with a friend is: a first-world problem. That’s what a self-imposed 15-hour fast is, too.