I was pulling into Macy’s yesterday afternoon when a story came on NPR about the food supply, or more accurately the lack thereof, in North Korea. When I think of North Korea, I think of world security, nuclear weapons and a hostile dictator–but I’ve never thought of starvation. Until now.
“I saw one family, a couple with two kids, who committed suicide. Life was too hard, and they had nothing to sell in their house. They made rice porridge, and added rat poison,” he recalls. “White rice is very precious, so the kids ate a lot. They died after 30 minutes. Then the parents ate. The whole family died.”
I sat in a parking place, preparing to go into Macy’s and buy a pricey gift for someone who doesn’t need it, and my stomach flipped over. I started thinking about the things I was worrying about. A missing cell phone that I hardly ever use. The noise the car was making.
Eating few enough calories to allow me to have gingerbread for dessert.
I don’t even know what hunger is.
When I was twenty weeks pregnant with Alex, I woke up on the floor of the bathtub, Christian bending over me. I had been on metformin (to treat polycystic ovaries) for two years, and it was a new enough treatment that there wasn’t an established protocol for how long into pregnancy to continue use. Well, now we knew. For the next six weeks, my body went crazy as it tried to return to regulating sugar on its own. I felt horrible all the time, and learned to dread low blood sugar to the point where I never allow myself to get very hungry–I grab a slice of cheese, or some carrots, or a cracker or two.
The process of slimming my caloric intake has made that more complicated, but I realize now I can’t tell the difference between “hungry” and “sugar imbalanced,” and I’m too scared of the second to risk the first.
So the voice coming out of the radio yesterday was like a mirror. I suddenly saw my family’s life, modest (even miserly) by cultural expectations, as wanton–our Thanksgiving feasts and Christmas cookies, the plethora of gifts growing under the tree, golf and scrapbooking. I thought of the five homeless men I’ve passed by lately because I was in the far lane, and the one to whom I gave a dollar. They’re all the face of Christ; how far does my responsibility extend? How do we strike a balance between enjoying the bounty we’ve been given and being wasteful, immorally profligate at the expense of others starving to death because we won’t simply give our excess to save them–because we think we need Thanksgiving feasts and new cars and acid-free scrapbooks?
The existence of poverty stretches so many fingers in so many directions, inserting uncertainty and questions into so many other issues. Half the population objects to genetically modified food, but the industry insists it’s necessary to increase yields to feed the world–that natural and organic is a path to world starvation. Is that true? Or is the real reason we need those kinds of high yields the fact that we’re a nation of gluttons? We ate at the Olive Garden on Sunday, and I scoured the menu for calorie counts ahead of time. You could easily–easily–consume 2500 calories in one meal, and not even be aware you’d done it. I ate half an entree, two fried zucchini medallions, one bowl of salad, and half a breadstick, and I consumed over 750. And was still hungry, mind you.
Last night, our Advent calendar activity was to take coffee and cereal to a local homeless shelter. It was the first really cold night of the year, and the place was full. The director invited us to stay and visit a while, but we were too uncomfortable. In the car on the way home, we talked about it. We need to do that, I said. We need to spend time with them, not just sail in like benevolent aristocrats and drop our tiny donation and escape. There were men in that room I recognize after three years of Advent visits.
What is the answer to these conundrums? I’m not claiming an answer–I’m only struggling with the questions. What is the Gospel-driven response to poverty, to hunger around the world? How far does my responsibility and yours extend? Are any of us meeting it, or are we all hoarding most of what was given to us to ease others’ suffering? Where is the line between saving to prepare a stable future for us and our children, and simply being greedy by not passing on what we aren’t using to those who have nothing?