When was the last time you went hungry? One of the profoundly physical feelings we all share, an empty stomach tends to focus the mind on one thing: food.
This universal constant of hunger—the most basic instinct common to every sentient being, and the feelings that go with it—all come down to survival.
Unfortunately, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 815 million people of the 7.6 billion on the planet suffered from chronic undernourishment in 2016. In simpler terms, they went hungry, and their hunger threatened their survival. Almost half (45%) of the world’s childhood deaths happen as a result of hunger.
The world currently produces enough food to feed everyone on it, but the main causes of hunger—poverty and war—keep that food out of the mouths that most desperately need it.
Everyone understands that poverty leads to hunger—but few understand that hunger also causes poverty. If you’re chronically hungry it inevitably results in poor health, small body size, low levels of energy and reductions in mental functioning. Hunger can generate even greater poverty by reducing a person’s ability to work and learn, which leads to the vicious cycle of more hunger.
Whatever you want to call it—food insecurity, malnutrition, a life-threatening lack of sustenance—we know that about one-tenth of the world’s population feels the daily pangs of chronic hunger, and suffers the consequences.
Perhaps that ongoing human misery explains why so many Faiths and spiritual practices recommend fasting, so we can remind ourselves—especially those of us sufficiently privileged to have enough to eat every day—what it means to go hungry.
Baha’is around the world fast once a year for that exact purpose. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote:
All praise be unto God, Who hath revealed the law of obligatory prayer as a reminder to His servants, and enjoined on them the Fast that those possessed of means may become apprised of the woes and sufferings of the destitute. – Baha’u’llah, quoted in The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, # II.
Do you feel like you’re “apprised of the woes and sufferings of the destitute?” In today’s world, that seems less and less common or even possible for most people who live in developed, industrialized nations. Why? Because the “wealth gap” between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the destitute, has widened considerably, according to the 2018 World Inequality Report:
The global top 1% earners has captured twice as much of that growth as the 50% poorest individuals. – World Inequality Report 2018
The richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and … the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. The bottom half of the world adult population owned 1% of global wealth. – World Institute for Development Economics Research
What, if anything, can one individual do about these sobering statistics on wealth inequality? How can we each start to accomplish something significant towards alleviating global hunger and poverty?
The Baha’i teachings address this inequality in many different ways, including a set of macroeconomic principles designed to reduce the extremes of wealth and poverty—but they first say that yearly fasting can give us all some of the empathy and the impetus we need to understand what it’s like to go hungry:
These are the days of the Fast. Blessed is the one who through the heat generated by the Fast increaseth his love, and who, with joy and radiance, ariseth to perform worthy deeds. Verily, He guideth whomsoever He willeth to the straight path. – Baha’u’llah, quoted in The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, # XV.
Verily, I say, fasting is the supreme remedy and the most great healing for the disease of self and passion. – Ibid., # XVII.
… prayer and fasting produce awareness and awakening in man, and are conducive to his protection and preservation from tests. – Ibid., # VII.
The awareness, awakening and dawning selflessness produced by fasting can give us a window into what it’s like to go hungry—and help arouse the inner spiritual altruism necessary to act. The Baha’i teachings say that this kind of voluntary altruism can best be awakened by cultivating “a compassionate intelligence,” which fasting does much better than any set of statistics:
A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity. When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny. Men must bestir themselves in this matter, and no longer delay in altering conditions which bring the misery of grinding poverty to a very large number of the people. The rich must give of their abundance, they must soften their hearts and cultivate a compassionate intelligence, taking thought for those sad ones who are suffering from lack of the very necessities of life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 153.