When I was a child, I remember asking my father why we (Muslims) fast during Ramadan.
“Because it evens everything out,” he said. “There are Muslims in third world countries that are starving. They don’t have a choice but to fast. When we fast, we’re reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to have access to food when others don’t.”
I didn’t fast much during Ramadan when I was young, maybe once or twice in the month. The fasting day always felt extremely long, and that last 20 minutes as the sun dipped down into clouds seemed to take forever… but it was an amazing exercise in understanding how hunger works.
Before I experienced fasting, hunger seemed additive to me. That is, the longer waited, the hungrier I would get. But on a fasting day, when hunger hit (during my usual breakfast time or lunch), it would hit hard… and then dissipate as the hours went on. It came roaring back at certain points and reduce to a whimper during other points.
I failed a few times on my way to completing a fast, but it felt like a huge accomplishment when I finally got through an entire day without eating.
The question came up recently: would I encourage my child to try fasting?
Well, in both of the traditions he inherits from my wife and me, fasting is something that people do on occasion. But if we stripped away all of the religious requirements, if we forgot about those that must fast in third world countries, we’re left with somewhat of an inner battle.
The urge to eat, when food is sitting in your pantry, is satisfied without much effort. If I’m working or doing something active and I forget to eat lunch because I’m engaged with my task, then my “fast” was accidental. But to know that food is in the pantry, and to say “I’m not eating that right now” even when every piece of your biology is saying that you should eat? That takes courage.
Fasting is a practice in delayed gratitude. It’s a practice in creating space between us and our addictions, our needs, our wants. It’s how we prevent entitlement, addiction, and chronic disease. And if you can do it with the most essential need that humans have, you can do it with social media, shopping, and hatred as well.