Empathy

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.

Categories: Current Affairs, Life

9 comments

  • Bri

    I followed your tweets and the fasting feed that day. What a great way to develop empathy. Thank you for writing about it. How did you and your fellow fasters come up with the idea?

  • Holly

    Jennifer Jones (@jenztweets) mentioned to Amanda Quraishi (@ImTheQ) that after reading her tweets during Ramadan, she had been considering trying fasting. I admitted that I’d thought about trying it too, we picked a date, and Amanda (as she does) ran with it.

  • Sarah

    I was following the #tryfasting hashtag on Twitter on the day you guys decided to give this a go, and I think it really is quite a feat, considering that it was completely voluntary on your part. Your experience sounds a lot like the first day of Ramadan for most of us. That day is no fun. My first day of fasting this year greeted me with a huge headache and a pathological bout of lethargy. It didn’t feel very spiritual, to be honest. But in almost all cases, with each subsequent day of fasting, it’s all downhill from there. I like to think that the physical discomfort increases as the spiritual contentment increases.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this as I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Cheers!

  • Holly

    Thanks for reading it, Sarah! The best part of #TryFasting has got to be all the wonderful new people I’ve met (and keep meeting) online. 🙂

  • Alanna Coca

    9 years ago, I was on a liquid diet for 24 hours. I still remember every horrible hour of those 24. I cannot imagine going 15 hours without something to drink. It’s making me thirsty just thinking about it.

    So tell me, what was the first thing you drank/ate when the time was up?

  • Holly

    A glass of water! Then my friend and I split a gourmet pizza. I can’t remember what it was called, but it had cashews on it. It was wonderful. 🙂 I had three glasses of water with dinner.

  • Sharon

    I am grateful that you wrote about this experience. All throughout the day, you obviously gained several new insights and perspectives. I love the title of Empathy, too, it tells it all. Great job!

  • Emmett

    “but I’ve never been actively for them, either.”
    I’ve gotten on the bandwagon myself from a strange source.

    The television show I frequently watch “Chopped” had an episode featuring school lunch ladies.

    Of the many surprises I got watching the program two stood out:
    – the lunch ladies were almost bowled over at being recognized as ‘chefs’, to the point of tears
    – more than one lunch lady emphasizes not only serving breakfast, but loads the kids up with pasta for lunch; because many will not eat again until breakfast

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