I am eating lunch with my daughter at a fast-food restaurant, where I’m having a hamburger. She is here for the advertised toy they have set like bait in a circle of French fries, orange soda, and meat. As I read the newspaper, I see a picture of a starving child. I know, because I have made it my business to know, what is happening inside that child’s body: The sugar in her blood, the starches in her liver, the fat deposits in her tissue have been used up, leaving her skin loose and her eyes sunken. Her brain needs glucose, the only source of which is now her body’s protein. Already, the digestive enzymes in her stomach and pancreas have been sacrificed. Soon will follow the muscles in her arms, legs, and heart. She is consuming herself.
In times of hunger, toddlers like this one are the first to die. They are the family’s most expendable members, denied the food or blanket that will be given instead to an adult. This girl is old enough to understand that she is dying. But she is not old enough to matter. This girl is probably already dead. A newspaper photograph of famine is like the light of stars extinguished many years ago.
From my table in the restaurant, I can see the colors of a playground: a giant green toad, a yellow bumblebee, a pink unicorn’s head. Small children bounce up and down on these impossible creatures. It is a lovely spring day, and I have a litany of blessings I often chant to myself: family, friends, good health. At this moment, my eyes start to burn. I want to snatch this little girl from the page and bring her home. I want to save this particular child, hold her, feed her, raise her as my own, send her to college. I imagine lifting food to her mouth. I can feel the weight of her body.
I do not burst out crying in the middle of a fast-food restaurant. I do not frighten my daughter. Instead, I assemble her cardboard prize and turn to another page of the newspaper. I feel tired, but only deep down, so far down I can barely feel it at all.
Most of us know this exhaustion. We know that life is cruel and, worse, people are cruel, far crueler than we were told when we were young. Right now, somewhere, someone is doing something unspeakably horrible to someone else. Right now, a child is starving.
I am “interested” in famine, in starving children.
“Why?” a friend asks bluntly.
I understand her confusion. Like me, she is afraid. A child dying from hunger fractures our world. Is our boss too critical? Are we paid too little? Do we feel lonely? Put these problems next to a starving child, and they shatter like glass. So do the good things — especially the good things: A beautiful view from the kitchen window. A favorite song on the radio. They fracture and implode. This child is dying because she has no food. It doesn’t make sense. It can’t be juxtaposed.
I am afraid that the pain of other people will suck the joy from my life. I am afraid this has already happened, that my joy is impossible next to their pain. I have not found a place where the two can coexist.
In his 1984 book Breakfast in Hell, Dr. Myles Harris describes being part of a Red Cross team sent to Ethiopia. He was angry at the Ethiopian government for blocking the flow of food to its own people. He was bitter about what he calls the “Aidgame” and those “Aidgamers” cowed by the venal rulers of postcolonial Africa. He examined himself without mercy. Why was he going to this sick, fearful, fly-ridden land?
Few people know their own motives, and apart from earning a living on a short-term contract I was unable to decipher my own. Perhaps it is like a mountaineer, a grown-up version of a boy on a ladder. “Look, Mummy, what I am doing now!” “Why, what a brave boy you are!” The corruption, dirt, and danger of the Third World is exciting, producing a dangerous craving for more. A world without evil, anarchy, oppression, and corruption would seem to be unbalanced. Perhaps I was going just to be reassured that it continued. If there is no evil, there is no good.
In Addis Ababa, Harris found that hunger can be political policy. People sometimes want other people to starve. During this famine, as in most, grain rotted in locked warehouses; bureaucrats hoarded medical supplies; wealthy farmers exported food.
As Harris and his colleagues approached a town on the outskirts of the famine area, they
were aware of rather than saw the ghostlike, gray, ragged figures everywhere, flitting in and out of groups of traders, holding thin, wasted hands up to men on horseback, crouching over uncontrollable diarrhea in corners, over ditches, even in the road. . . . On a pile of gray rags, a skeletal two-year-old child with a skull-like face held its hands out through a cloud of flies and screamed with pain. Two more lay prostrate in the mud, their feet almost touching a pile of oranges over which a turbaned man shouted a price.
Gray is the predominant color. Ghostlike gray. Gray rags.
Later, at a makeshift refugee camp: “The entire floor of the valley had been covered in a mass of gray, ragged shapes which, indistinguishable at a distance from the mud-gray sand, became a sea of skeletons draped in gray sacking, hideous caricatures so bereft of flesh they seemed mere collections of triangles shrouded in cloth.”
At times he felt he was “on Mars, that what was happening below was utterly without meaning, some ritual to a God incomprehensible to me.”
By that point, for Harris, evil no longer confirmed the existence of good (a statement, frankly, I had always doubted). Rather, to look on evil became a kind of desire in itself.
One of Harris’s colleagues was Sister Prudence, a nun highly praised for her work during the 1982 Phalangist massacres in Beirut. After the massacres, Sister Prudence had gone to the Palestinian camps. There, she’d seen men crucified. She’d seen mothers and babies skewered to the walls. “She had been tempted,” Harris said, “by the Gorgon-headed horror that lurks in all such places, the Conradian Heart of Darkness. . . . I think she knew there were no survivors, though she may have gone in case there were. Yet that is never the reason, not for us. We are compelled, driven, to ceaselessly grope for our own breaking points, like a man feeling for electrical wires in a dark, wet cellar.”
I also am tempted by the Heart of Darkness. I, too, want to see the worst. I want to find some answer to evil in the face of evil. Where else, I think, would the answer be?
Somewhere in a file I have a newspaper clipping: In 1993, in the former Yugoslavia, a woman named Svetlana Pancetovic struggles to survive. She is thirty-five years old, the mother of two small children, and a widow since her husband was killed by a sniper. Before the war, Svetlana had two homes, a car, money, and the leisure to practice on her piano. Now she cooks on a wood fire and hauls her water in a bucket. “I was used to a life filled with beauty and love,” she tells the reporter. “Now it is different, totally different. When I was younger, I was always hungry for life. I wanted to be in a situation where I was testing all my limits! This must be God’s revenge. If you want ridiculous things, you will get them.”
This is a cautionary tale. I have been forewarned.
In another file is another story about the former Yugoslavia. Here, an officer from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees describes a Bosnian town as it was being overrun by Bosnian Serbs: “I saw kids put under the treads of tanks, placed there by grown men, and then run over by other grown men. Everywhere, people were shooting. The fighters were moving through the town, systematically killing all the Muslims they could get their hands on. It was an intoxication.”
I try not to imagine that scene. Then I try to imagine it differently. Surely the soldiers were not putting children under the tanks. Not seven-year-olds. Not ten-year-olds. Maybe, I think, these were teenage boys whom the soldiers mistook for other soldiers. That would be horrible enough.
Clearly famine is not the worst thing I can think of. Putting children under the treads of tanks is worse. Torture is worse. And I have no desire to look more closely at these things.
No, I am compelled by the Gorgon-headed horror of famine because it is a horror to which I feel obscurely connected, in a way that I do not when children are beaten or stabbed, when they die of disease or by tidal wave. Famine is a personal dissonance. Famine hits too close to home.
I start with the knee-jerk, the naive. Like most (but certainly not all) Americans, I live in a parody of abundance. I wallow in such a surfeit of food that my daily existence is a mockery of that newspaper photograph. Food bulges from my cupboards. Food dominates the streets of my town: Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Korean food. The stores are huge; the stores overflow. I stretch out my hand for cheesecake, steak, salmon. If I’m feeling poor, I buy hamburgers, white bread, Oreos, canned corn, canned tomatoes, doughnuts, apples, milk, beer. Americans spend less of their income on food than almost any other people in the world. As consumers, we are spoiled. As producers, we are subsidized. My food is cheap, convenient, plentiful, rich, varied, and extravagantly wasted.
I never really knew about waste until I had children — until the bowls of cereal became too soggy to eat, until the sandwich in the lunch box was returned in a ball. I throw it all away, scraping enough food off the plates to feed another family. “Think of the starving children in India.” This admonition has become a joke. Yet India has over one-third of the world’s hungry, and as the disgusting mass of sandwich falls into the garbage can, I do think of those starving children.
I believe in ghosts, gray ghosts who live on the edge between what I know and what I do not want to know. I think of these ghosts when I drink my Diet Coke, when I walk the supermarket aisles in search of ice cream that is not really ice cream but pockets of air that have no calories. I would like to be thinner. My personal goal is to lose ten pounds. Repressed, condemned, and ridiculous is the thought that I would like to be very thin.
One-fifth of the human race is malnourished. Half of these people experience continuous hunger. (The rest, according to the World Hunger Program, live “in households too poor to obtain the calories needed for an active work life.”) Yet the world produces enough food to feed every one of us. India has large surpluses of wheat. Brazil is a major exporter of agricultural products. In Somalia, children died not for a lack of food but because food was kept from them.
In our own country, some thirty million people are undernourished. One out of every eight children suffers from hunger. Incredibly, the famine-relief organization Oxfam has turned its attention here, to the land of plenty, where hunger has increased by 50 percent since 1985. We are clearly abandoning our poor. Each year we accept higher levels of violence, hopelessness, and despair.
My son’s wasted sandwich is not the problem. Scarcity is not the problem. An inability to distribute food is not the problem. Inefficient agriculture is not the problem. Drought is not the problem. Floods are not the problem. Overpopulation is not the problem. Environmental degradation is not the problem. War is not the problem.
The problem is a lack of human will.
It is Christmas in Scottsdale, Arizona, where winter is defined by the presence of tourists and the absence of heat. I am visiting an organization called Food for the Hungry. Because my mother lives in Scottsdale, I am familiar with these landscaped neighborhoods and green highway medians in the middle of the dry Sonoran Desert. Scottsdale has elevated consumerism to a gaudy decadence: swimming pools, tennis courts, gushing fountains, Arabian horses, red-tiled roofs. There is a sense of frenzy, especially in the shopping malls, with their fairyland decor and cornucopia of goods. I feel judgmental here. I do not approve. One could trace this, I suppose, to my childhood in the lower-middle-class apartments of Phoenix, or to the zeitgeist of the 1960s, or to my mother, who is not wealthy but wishes she were.
That Food for the Hungry is based in Scottsdale is mildly ironic. The organization promotes health care and community development in poor countries like Bangladesh and Bolivia. Founded on the words of Matthew — “I was hungry and you fed Me. Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto Me” — Food for the Hungry is also Christian and evangelical, with an avowed intent to “witness for Christ in all of our efforts around the world.”
I have an appointment with Steve. In one Mexican village, he and his wife ran a meals program, built latrines, lined village wells, and started gardens. In another, they administered small-business loans for families willing to invest in chickens. This may not seem very dramatic. Still, three-quarters of Mexico’s people are malnourished. Although many such people may look healthy, they usually suffer from parasites and disease. A rural Mexican village is not a famine camp, but the economic vulnerability of its people can be the beginning of one. Almost everyone in relief work agrees on this: only the elimination of chronic poverty will eliminate hunger.
Steve and I, of course, are talking across a vast chasm. Instead of this intimate conversation, it would be more appropriate if we had to shout and fling our hands in wild gestures. The distance between us is wide and deep: Steve believes in God, and I do not.
At one point, I find myself stammering, “But why does your God . . .” I can’t finish the accusation: Why does your God allow children to starve to death? “How does God,” I say, amending the thought, “enter into this?”
Steve is puzzled. “Well, I began this kind of work because I wanted to follow God . . . ” Then he catches on. “Are you asking me why people suffer? From the Christian perspective, it’s because man rebelled against what God established: a world where there was no death and no suffering. Our world is abnormal. It’s not what God intended. Could God snap his fingers and say, ‘No more suffering’? Absolutely. In fact, one day he will do that. That’s the Christian belief, and that produces a lot of hope. But it won’t be everybody . . . ”
Steve pauses. We both know it won’t be me. Delicately, he shifts the subject. “I see God actively seeking to end the pain. I think God’s heart is broken, and it’s been broken for a long time. But he has been faithful in using his people to redeem his world.”
Steve does not expect me to understand, but I do, on my own terms. Although I dislike a God who won’t snap his fingers to rescue a child, I suspect that our evolution demands we learn to do this ourselves. Our gods can encourage us, but in the end we must be the ones to save our children.
When Steve pulls down a world map and points to “a belt of poverty in Africa and Asia linked to non-Christian traditions,” I’m more envious than angry: this man has an answer to the world’s suffering. Of course, I believe his answer is completely wrong. Still, it makes more emotional sense than mine: Life is a matter of luck. Children starve because nature is brutal, and we allow it because we are part of nature. In the world’s richest country, we tolerate homelessness. During a famine, we lock up the grain.
There is only one strategy in my worldview: Keep a low profile. Duck down. Hope it doesn’t happen to you. I believe this until I can’t stand it anymore. Then I put my faith in ignorance. I am part of a larger whole; how can the part know the sum? What do I know of realities beyond my comprehension?
Myles Harris wrote, “If there is no evil, there is no good.” Similarly, for theologian Matthew Fox, we are “both divine and demonic, both positive and negative, both glory and shadow.” Writer Joanna Macy believes “all is registered in the ‘boundless heart’ of the bodhisattva. Through our deepest and innermost responses to our world — to hunger and torture and the threat of annihilation — we touch that boundless heart. It is the web we have woven as interconnected systems — or synapses in the mind of God.”
Suffering, then, is the darkness that defines light, a ritual incomprehensible. I wonder what this means to that starving two-year-old. I always come back to that.
To discuss these ideas, even briefly, is horrible. In my interview with Steve, I take refuge in a safer journalistic approach. “How did your experiences in Mexico affect you?” I ask.
“My life was so drastically changed!” Steve says. “I saw the reality of how people have to struggle day in and day out just to survive. Our first child was born in the field, in Mexico, and I saw what my wife went through, and then I saw these other women — the workload, the diseases. These poor people became real to me. They became friends. When family and friends are in need, most of us respond. These people were living in incredibly hard circumstances. Unless you have a heart of stone, that changes you.”
“But how do you balance the two worlds?” I wonder. “How do you feel when you come back here to Scottsdale?”
Steve sucks in his breath. “The key emotion you have to deal with is anger. You come back and see the waste and lack of caring. You see people deeply trapped in consumerism. You hear people moan and groan about how they are hardly making it. Fortunately, I had some wise people around me who had already gone through that anger. Also, I have seen people in my church rally around and respond and give. I have confidence that the Lord will work in people’s lives. I have seen it happen! It’s very encouraging.”
I am not encouraged. “Still,” I insist, “isn’t there a depth of sadness in your life now? Aren’t you overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem?”
I am wildly projecting.
As though to oblige me, Steve looks sad. “It’s a constant tension,” he admits, “an incredible burden. It’s hard to be free of that.”
We sit silent in this small white room, with its long conference table, eight chairs, two blackboards, and map of the world.
“But that’s not bad,” Steve says suddenly. “I’m glad I’m burdened. The burden keeps me active. I live in the excitement of seeing change. Solutions are being found. We’re not solving all the problems. But next week there will be another family that was suffering but is not suffering now. There will be children who are not going to cry all night. Seeing that I am part of the solution allows me to live in the balance between these worlds. If I just lived in the burden, then it would produce tremendous despondency.”
I like Steve. I admire his dedication. Across the chasm, we fling our goodbyes. It has been a quiet talk, nothing dramatic. But after this meeting, I will do something I have always wanted to do: I will respond, twice, to those pictures of hungry children in national magazines. I will help support a little girl in Brazil and another in India, and these children will send me drawings of flowers, snatches of Brazilian songs, a red heart with an arrow. I will imagine their lives. I will imagine sending them to college. For a few years, as I continue raising my son and daughter, this will help. The physics are not predictable. The smallest of actions can help lift the burden.
Sometimes — not obsessively, but sometimes — I cut out stories from the newspaper. I have never cut out the photograph of a starving child. Perhaps I believe that would be like cutting into flesh. What is that picture to me? A piece of paper, a pattern of ink? An icon of all the pain in the world, the injustice, the evil? A picture of my own child, perhaps. (What is she doing there? How did she get so far away?) A picture of me when I was a child.
Like Steve, I can feel hopeful. Hunger has a long history, but it is not something we need take for granted. For thousands of years, slavery was a part of human society. Nearly every race and culture once defended the idea that one person could own another. Slavery still exists in isolated pockets of the world, often in disguise, but it is no longer considered natural or acceptable. We are redefining what it means to be a human being. We are still negotiating.
I do not want to be responsible for starving children. (When did I become responsible, anyway — when I stopped believing in God? I recognize the irony in that!) I do not believe my own children will ever see a world free of greed or violence. But they could see a world in which every human being had enough to eat. This would increase by one-fifth our available resources of creativity, art, love, and work. Hunger is solvable, and that is the cause of my hope and my grief.