My first day of the Live Below The Line Challenge was surprisingly more difficult than I imagined it would be. When one fasts for a portion of a day for religious reasons ~ be it Lent, Ramadan or Yom Kippur ~ there is a certain sense of uplifting companionship one feels, alongside others within the community also willfully observing the fast. There are collective objectives to reach ~ spiritual goals, or just a basic quest for religious integrity. There is also the reassurance that abstaining from food or drink will end after a specific amount of time ~ with celebratory meals even being prepared during the day by the fasting individuals. During my first day of the Live Below The Line Challenge, actual hunger was less of an issue, when factored against the deep, sour feelings of imprisonment, limited choice and hopelessness that filled my empty gut.
Since my youth I have always marched to the beat of my own drum. While other kids played sports, I was in a cape trying to fly. While other preteen peers dug into fashion and flirting with each other, I found freedom in film-making and fascination with the politics and persona of director Charles Chaplin. In high school when I was exposed to the writings of Thoreau, Huxley and William Blake ~ and the histories of Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad ~ I began writing and challenging my teachers as to why we learn of these men’s powerful ideas but do not learn how to live by them in school or throughout life? We follow cultural rules of institutions founded on elements of their teachings, but are rarely brave enough to actually live as they lived. Even as an adult, my approaches to self-employment, economic and creative autonomy as an artist, and frugal living to remaining as free of debt as possible have all reflected my very non-conformist nature.
Experiencing what it would be like having to live on $1.75 of food per day has shaken the very cores of my free-spirit and my innate passion for the value of choice. As my daughters and wife ate a meal of broccoli, baked salmon and pasta with cream sauce ~ I sat next to them eating dry cooked beans with a glass of water . My desert: a cup of bitter tea made with a reused breakfast tea bag and 1 teaspoon of powdered milk, alongside a clementine. As I made oatmeal for my girls this morning, I poured full cream milk in their bowls with sprinkles of brown sugar, while pouring powdered milk mixed with water on mine. What was so hard about those two scenarios was dealing with the feeling resulting from thoughts like “I can’t have what they have. I’m right next to them, but I can’t eat what they are eating.”
Indeed, my choice to try this challenge was willful, but once within the challenge I quickly began realizing what it feels like to live without choice, without freedom and to be alone in one’s struggle. I felt undignified and embarrassed as my girls watched me eat my beans with looks of confusion on their faces.
My daughters, in their innocence, were concerned: “Why can’t Abba eat our food?” As my wife explained about the challenge, they came around to me and started to eat my beans with me. Ah, children! If only these sorts of campaigns could be arranged in schools! Children who see injustice recognize it immediately and so often eagerly jump at chances to show compassion or implementing fairness.
My wife, concerned for my food intake, urged them to stop nibbling out of my tiny bowl, saying, “Don’t eat Abba’s food! That’s all he has!”
As a parent, I did not have the heart to stop them from sharing with me and, through that, another lesson revealed itself: That a hungry parent eating the most basic of food will still allow their kids to eat before satisfying themselves.
In Ramadan, when co-workers eat during the day near a fasting muslim colleague, tantalizing smells from their meals may perhaps be curbed for the individual by remembrance of his or her spiritual purpose, or at the very least, just the imaginings of the iftar meal which will inevitable come at sunset. There will be no feeling of spiritual accomplishment when my week is up, there will be no festival or religious holiday. In fact, I know what is to come: Each time I do sprinkle brown sugar on my morning oatmeal, or drip honey into my tea I will be reminded that while I do so, somewhere, someone else cannot choose that luxury, for themselves or their children. They may not even be able to choose the necessity of the meal itself. It will be hard for me to return to my old lifestyle after this, I know it.
For the family who live in poverty everyday ~ imagine their loneliness, their feelings of imprisonment to their circumstance, their embarrassment. Imagine the insult to their human dignity when they live among others who eat lavishly nearby and know they cannot have even basic food of their own.
Imagine the hearts of those of us who know such poverty exists, but do not get up from our chairs to show solidarity or share what should rightfully be shared with others.