Friday, September 18, 2009


originally posted as a comment on Digg:
So I'm an American white male, graduated from an ivy-league university with an engineering degree, and I would consider myself to be incredibly lucky.

This summer, for reasons too complicated (or too simple?) to get into here, I found myself broke and homeless, living on the street. It was the first time in my life I experienced being hungry and not being able to leave that state. I have fasted before (for only 24 hours - some people go much longer) but that was nothing compared to this sensation. I would say at no point did I go more than three days without eating, but that was enough to totally blow my fucking mind.

Why do I say blow my mind? Well because it made me realize that the whole model I've had pretty much all my life of the "relativeness" of happiness - hedonic treadmill, what-have-you - is only valid when your basic needs are covered. In other words, when you experience hunger everything changes. Here are some of the things I noticed:

1. Intense hunger feels like addiction, like withdrawal. If you've ever been addicted to cigarettes, or cocaine, or heroin, and then QUIT, you've felt withdrawal. There's a kind of pain that comes up by degree in your entire body, slowly and subtly but steadily rising in your body. There's a feeling of wrong-ness. I'm not saying it's SIMILAR. I'm saying it's EXACTLY THE SAME FEELING. Basically I realized that addictive substances are actually co-opting the natural sensation of intense hunger to motivate you to seek them out. Hunger is like withdrawal symptoms that never end. You cannot break your addiction to food.

2. Hunger MOTIVATES like crazy. I'm trying to say that word without the usual positive connotation of "movtiation". I've never been a violent person, but I can easily, VERY easily see how a person could commit violent crime in order to get fed. Here in America we have the image (planted in us by the news of the early 90s) of a junkie holding up a gas station to get drug money. I was ready and willing to do anything to get food. Luckily I discovered that I could sit on the street and meditate with a sign that says "food only please" and tons of people would give me food. That's because I'm in America, where there's plenty of food. But before I figured that out, I was ready to shoplift, scam people, pickpocket, whatever I could do to get food in my stomach. My whole life, I've been quite a lazy person, I've always had trouble with motivating myself to do things. Not so when hungry. You cannot ignore it. You cannot deny it. You cannot stop moving, struggling, searching, trying. I would sit and obsess over plans. If I failed at some trick to get food, I'd sit and figure EVERY mistake out and re-plan and try again. There was no definition of failure, only have-not-succeeded-yet. It feels horrible, but at the same time it's an incredibly activating thing.

3. It overruled my composure. At one point I was taken in by someone who (quite correctly) perceived that I was lacking protein and plopped a roasted chicken down in front of me. This was at the dinner table, with their family. I'm a very polite person, even to the point of being socially awkward by trying to ensure I've crossed every T and dotted every I of manners. Basically the thing to do here was to wait for everyone to sit down before I dug in. Wasn't happening. I literally could not control myself - I dove into that thing like I was going to die if I didn't fill my stomach in record time.

4. Do not fuck with a person who is hungry. I'm a pushover, I'll admit it. You know the type: make it moderately difficult for me to get what I deserve and I'll roll over instead of making a scene. NOT SO WHEN HUNGRY. I was sitting and meditating and I hadn't eaten for a little over a day, and some guy gave me a can of beef stew. (Oh yeah, did I mention I'm vegetarian? NOT SO WHEN HUNGRY). Bless his heart, it was nice of him, but who gives a homeless person canned goods? So I had a few bucks on me, like a total of $5 to my name. I went to a nearby convenience store and bought a can opener. The thing was, it sucked. It punctured a few small holes in the can's top and mangled and bent the can and I couldn't get it to open the can. Normally I would have been like "well, whatever" and thrown both the can and the opener away, taking it as a loss and a "lesson". Not this time. I walked back in to the convenience store (quite busy) and I said to the clerk: "You labeled this piece of shit as a can opener, but it won't open this can. I want my money back."
him: "where's the receipt?"
me: "I don't need a receipt. I just bought this, from you, not five minutes ago. If you choose to forget that I'll call the police and I can use the security camera to prove I bought it here."
Him: "where is the packaging? I can't let you return it without the packaging."
me: "it's right out front in a trash can. I'll go get it if I can return this." (don't want to lose my place in line until i get a promise from him)
him: (stonewalling, delaying) "Sir, I can't let you return that without the original packaging. Where is the packaging?"
me: "It's outside in a trash can. If I go get it will you let me return it?"
him: "I can't let you return it unless you have the packaging. Why do you not have the packaging?"
me: "I TOLD YOU, IT'S OUTSIDE IN THE TRASH CAN. I answered your question, now you answer mine!"
him: "what's your question?"
me: "IF I go get the packaging and come back here, WILL YOU let me return this?" (There was a line behind me of about ten people. I wasn't leaving until he said yes)
him: "yes, I will"

So I went and got the packaging and came back in. Waited in line, got back up to this guy. I handed him the packaging and the bullshit can opener and he started ringing up the return. He handed me a gift card.
me: "what is this?"
him: "I can only give you store credit, sir"
me: "no, you have to give me cash"
him: "that's not our policy"
me: "I don't give a fuck what your policy is. I need cash so I can go somewhere ELSE and buy a can opener. This food is in this can and not in my stomach and that sucks balls. Give me cash"
him: "Why you getting to excited?"
me: "because I'm HUNGRY motherfucker. You ever been HUNGRY before? It's VERY *exciting*"
We stared at each other for a few seconds. The poor guy was doing his best. Finally he opened the cash drawer and gave me the cash.

He short-changed me by a few cents, but I didn't realize that until I'd left. I didn't bother to push it, because I had the money to get the can opener I needed. I was going to eat, thank god.

Moral of the story is: don't under-estimate Hunger as a motivating force. In fact, having felt it, and how much more intense it is than "meaninglessness", "boredom", "sickness", "hatred", "guilt", "loneliness", "worry", "resentment" or any of the other "horrible" things we go through in this civilized nation, I have changed my worldview in the following way:

I now believe that hunger is the primary cause of basically ALL strife in the world. Somewhere, somehow, you are connected by less than 6 degrees of separation from someone who is desperately hungry, and who will do ANYTHING to fill their stomach. What they do to their neighbors is probably horrid, and what their well-fed neighbor does in response is only a reaction. It's difficult to get this image out. Basically Hunger creates the initial stress wave, and then that STRESS passes through the population in different forms. A hungry person steals your groceries, so you snap at your daughter. Your daughter gets snapped at, so she doesn't give her full attention to her friend who's going through a hard break-up. Her friend has a hard break-up with less than optimal support, so she doesn't sleep as well and doesn't get the grades to get into grad school, etc etc. Basically I think that hunger is one of the most massively-producing sources of pain and stress in the world. Our angst is merely a transformed reflection of their pain.

Let's solve hunger, people. Then we can worry about living "fulfilling" lives. My hypothesis: if we simply put food in everyone's stomachs, ALL our lives will improve because we won't be sharing mind-space with people who are in permanent withdrawal.

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