First of all, I’d like to say that I greatly admire the spiritual dedication of the Muslims who keep the fast throughout the month of Ramadan. It isn’t easy, especially during the long, hot days of summer, that’s for sure.
I have to publicly, and somewhat shamefully, admit that I failed to complete my fasting project in its entirety. I made it through two full days, and half of the day today. To be totally honest, I could have finished the project. Physically, my body was handling the fast pretty well. So what gives?
I am not spiritually motivated. That is the bottom line — I do not get anything out of this project spiritually. That’s not to say it isn’t incredibly important for practicing Muslims! It just doesn’t do anything for me spiritually, even though I was able to get an idea of what it is like.
There are also some important lessons I learned through this short process. I’m sure the lessons would have been much more profound if I had continued. So, here are the things I took away from the experience.
1. Most people would not do this by choice. Muslims do this because it is what they call an obligation, or one of the five pillars of Islam. Therefore, they are highly spiritually motivated, and are prepared from a young age to understand the spiritual significance of the fast. That is not to say it is physically any easier, especially during these long days. I am simply saying that emotionally and spiritually, the preparation and even joy that comes from participating in the fast is welcome and encouraged within the community. There is also the obvious point that there are people in the world struggling with hunger on a daily basis, and I’m certain most of them would not choose that life willingly either.
2. Community support is essential. There is nothing saying you couldn’t do this on your own. However, having friends and family, Mosque members, and even coworkers who are also participating in the fast would be incredibly motivating. We all feel challenged in our personal endeavors at times, and it’s always helpful to have someone there to encourage and motivate us. The sense of community that many Muslims experience regularly, but particularly during Ramadan, is something I did not have easy access to because I fall outside of the folds of the Muslim religious community.
That is not to say I couldn’t have ventured out to visit a Mosque. In fact, a contact offered to put me in touch with a Mosque, and while I did make that call and left a message, I am not sure I’m prepared yet to step into that situation. It is silly I’m sure, but I am not exactly a good fit for any religious space, and I am certain I would stand out like a sore thumb in a Mosque — I would worry about what to wear, what to do, where to go, etc, etc. This part, of course, could be made much easier if I knew someone in this area who would be able to attend with me. Perhaps I’ll make that a goal for next year.
3. The human body is amazingly resilient and flexible. I was surprised at how fast my body adapted to the lack of food or drink for such a long day. Yes, it was slightly uncomfortable. The most difficult part for me was not actually the physical discomfort — it was having the presence of mind to avoid behaviors that have become second nature to me. It was a constant reminder that no, I could not just sample that meal to see if it’s done, and no, I could not take a swig of water from the drinking fountain on my way back from the bathroom.
I can imagine the physical challenges are far worse for someone who is used to, or even addicted to, multiple cups of coffee in the morning. I imagine it is equally as challenging for someone who consumes a lot of refined sugars on a daily basis. I did not experience any kind of crash, either from lack of caffeine or from the sudden drop in blood sugar as the refined sugars burn through the body. Mostly, I just felt the rumbly stomach sensation, and occasionally had to apologize for the sounds coming from my belly. This would be far more challenging physiologically if your body depended on caffeine or sugar throughout the day.
4. Giving up technology will not kill us! No, really. Not having the Internet at my fingertips, not being constantly plugged in to the Facebook community, and not being able to text all day was actually rather liberating. I am going to try to reduce the amount of time in a day I spend doing non-essential things on my phone or online. You know what I did for the first time in quite a while? I read a book. That’s right. And I discovered that I forgot how much I actually enjoy reading. My husband and I took a casual evening stroll to help take my mind off of the lack of food, and I don’t have any idea why we don’t do that more often. These things are not difficult things to work into our daily lives, and yet, most evenings we each spend the majority of the night so absorbed in our various pieces of technology that we barely even know or care that the other is there. That must change, and even though the fast has ended for me, I need to make that a permanent goal. Perhaps not giving it up entirely, but my life does not depend on Facebook or my cell phone. In fact, my life demands my full attention in the here and now.
5. I am incredibly fortunate. If there is one extremely significant point for me to carry with me throughout my life from this point forward, this would be it. No matter how hard things seem to me personally, they could always be worse. I have a roof over my head, and I never wonder where my next meal will come from. If I happen to run out of food, I can go to the store and get some more. I can even afford to eat out on occasion. I often don’t even appreciate the feeling of mild discomfort associated with hunger anymore, because more often than not I eat before I even recognize that I’m hungry.
Not everyone on this planet, or even in this country, has that luxury. There are people who regularly go without food or clean water for days, and suffer through the hunger pains on a daily basis. There are people in this country who cannot always afford to feed their children. Those of us who have the luxury of knowing we will always have access to food when we need it often judge those who may not, possibly without even knowing it. We complain about the system(s) in place in this country that are meant to assist those who struggle to get enough to eat, or the proper nutrition. I have never been on the other side of the argument — I have personally never had to shop for groceries while watching the price of each and every item I put into the cart, making sure that I can get enough to feed myself while also spending as little as possible. But there are people right here who do have to worry about those things.
I used to work at a grocery store, and many of the people I worked with (and probably me, too) complained regularly about the patrons who would purchase items with their food stamps that we felt they shouldn’t be purchasing. But after reading Christian Piatt’s blog posts last year about the SNAP Food Stamp Challenge, and after evaluating my own experiences of pinching pennies at the grocery store, I believe those of us who do not struggle with hunger have no idea what it’s like. Sure, maybe we don’t think food stamps should help someone buy a pizza, soda, and an energy drink. But, we have no idea what life like is like for that person. Possibly, a pizza is the best way to feed four mouths, and soda can be made to last longer than other beverages. Maybe that energy drink is the only way that person will make it through their second shift that day, and a pizza is all they have time or energy to throw in the oven before they leave. Or maybe, their kids need something they can make themselves while mom or dad is working a double shift for the 4th night in a row.
Going without food gave me a lot of time to think about my life, my circumstances, and my inability to place blame on or judge anyone else’s circumstances. While some may abuse the system, most people struggling with hunger are simply trying to survive. While my husband and I were at the grocery store a couple weeks ago, we stepped into the Express Lane behind a woman who had a full cart of groceries. Aside from the fact that this kind of thing wouldn’t generally annoy me anyway, I was especially humbled because this woman’s cart was loaded with only discounted items. She had blocks of cheese, pizza rolls, yogurt, milk, produce, pasta, macaroni and cheese, and cookies. Everything was 50% off. There’s only one reason perishable items are discounted at this store, and it’s because they are about to expire. This woman was not buying these things by choice. So while other people behind us made no effort at all to keep their annoyance and frustration down, my husband and I waited patiently even while the cashier apologized profusely because we had to wait. We had no idea what this woman and her family were dealing with at home, and she was clearly just trying to survive in whatever way she could. Who am I to say she shouldn’t be buying cookies or pizza with her limited resources? If that’s what it took to survive, by all means.
So, with that, I want to thank Dilshad Ali, blogger at Muslimah Next Door and Patheos Muslim Channel editor for setting up this project and being so supportive and encouraging. I would also like to thank Rabia Chaudry from the Altmuslim blog for being my mentor before and during my fast. I wish Justin Whitaker over at American Buddhist Perspective and Erik Campano at Stories Untold the best during their Ramadan fasts.