Hunger and Life

My hands are shaking as I poke the microwave buttons. 1 minute defrost? 1 minute on high?

I pull out the paper towel packet. Unfold it, licking the heat from my fingers.

There it is — a slice of grilled tri-tip, sizzling and juicy. Some olives, a heaping spoonful of fruit trifle. The leftovers from my husband’s birthday party are like a miniature banquet. But I notice there’s a strange ravenousness in the way I fix up the plate, take it to our little breakfast table with its cheery oilcloth, and sit down. Is it my shaking hands? Or is it this strange hunger inside, a kind of primal force, to eat?

With one part of me watching from a distance, I am amazed at the elemental nature of the body: a few minutes ago, I finished nursing my son. In a couple hours, the eating session will begin again, and then again and again before the day is over.

And the interior milk factory is churning all the time. I might have thought I was hungry during pregnancy, but I was wrong — utterly and naively wrong. That was nothing compared to this intense drive, almost blinding, to get sustenance inside me. I have never experienced so deeply how life uses hunger to ensure more life.

Hunger and life . . .

In the last year, another experience of hunger has been churning. It’s been the painful experience of not walking in the reality of certain long-standing, long-suffering hopes.

For me, these hopes are entwined with my work of writing. But this is a hunger of the heart we all know about — to live the life we get in glimpses, and these glimpses show us what we lack, what we can long for and work toward. This might even be called glimpses of the kingdom of God. We know, by the way we hunger, to desire warm friendships, invigorating jobs, a new place to call home, a faraway adventure, our work to be seen and enjoyed by others, our work to truly connect us with another.

I am familiar with this ache of the heart; I have come to know it well these past ten years. What I am surprised with now — maybe shocked? — is its intensity. For this ache is becoming more than longing, more even than hope. At the corners of days — while I hang up clothes in the bedroom closet, or open window slats early in the morning, or ease into bed with night prayers being said — as daily tasks and familiar interactions ebb, these deep pangs of hunger have risen with raw, overwhelming force. I have doubled-over, fist in mouth, with the strength of this hunger, and the pain of it.

In the wake of these moments, I think surely just pulling the plug on these dreams would be easier. Cut them at the root, or dig up the whole messy root system — anything to dull the ache. There is so much to be grateful for, comes the common refrain. A sweet family, a fun neighborhood, good friends, a soft bed in a cozy apartment. Who am I to want more? What if these dreams are just illusions of grandeur — what if all the work I’ve put in is just a big, metaphysical, joke? Why do this to myself?

In order to get some salve on the burn, I usually turn to a remedy of contentment: sure, it’s okay to desire more, but let’s face it, it’s best to be content with what I have. If these dreams are causing anxiety, then somehow my priorities have gotten wonky. I need to hold a meeting and issue an Aristotelian re-ordering of desires. In the past, this remedy has helped me. If contentment does not push dismissal or denial, such a remedy can be good.

But with these new, deeper, more painful stirrings, I am looking for another narrative. In my more clear-minded moments, I wonder if, like in any good journey story, I’m in a chapter where the forces are becoming more real, the character more hard-pressed.

Awhile ago, I felt incredibly guilty that such desires could keep me from a place of contentment. I asked an older woman — someone I respected for her vibrancy and passion — to meet with me. I remember blurting out, unsure of how to even phrase it, “Are dreams supposed to be this painful?” I was expecting the answer that I had been giving myself: surrender to God’s plans, find contentment in His timing. Count carefully all He has already given you.

But no. This wise woman paused, almost startled, and gave a slow, knowing smile. “Yes. They are.”

I walked away from the conversation stunned, reeling inside with the implications of her answer. It means moving to a different kind of surrender — surrender to the pain of fully living in the present reality while hungering, thirsting, for more.

One day this summer, I thought I would try charming my little son with the rhythm of old poems. As I flipped through a worn-out copy of A Puffin Book of Verse, the section “Homely Things” caught my eye. So I found “The Shepherd Boy’s Song” from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and, within it, these lines,

I am content with what I have,
Little be it or much:
And, Lord, contentment still I crave,
Because thou savest such.

Fulness to such a burden is
That go on pilgrimage . . .

Fullness to such a burden is that go on a pilgrimage. Fullness — hunger sated — is a burden to those on a journey? While I sat on the comfy reading chair, the lines surprised me. They pressed upon me. I let them do their work.

If indeed I am on a pilgrimage, is fullness a burden? How and why?

I pictured a man on a pilgrimage. Hat on his head. Bundle on his back. Walking stick in hand. Behind him, a forest. Before him, a narrow path through valleys and mountains. If he had everything he needed for the journey, could he even carry it? For that matter, if he had everything he needed, why go on the journey at all?

Perhaps for me right now, a misuse of holy contentment would be conjuring up such fullness, choosing to be placated for the sake of comfort. For the force of hunger is a movement toward life, a movement of life. These pangs of hunger are evidence of hope, a sign to keep looking for things not yet seen, not yet at hand. If I were full, would I need to keep traveling? The pilgrimage might come to an early end.

So if it’s not fullness I’m after, what is it?

I turn, as I often do when I get into a wrestling match with the real nature of faith, to Emily Dickinson’s “This World is not conclusion.” This poem counters insipid notions of faith, and for me during this time, its ending punches with subversive wisdom. The final lines go like this:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul

There is the Tooth that does not relent. If there is life, hunger persists, nibbling — or gnawing — at the soul. Do I really want some temporary relief in spiritual guise, a feel-good narcotic that takes away the pain of hunger? Or can I, somehow, have a turn at cultivating a heart that endures the discomfort of hunger with the spirit of wisdom?

For wisdom knows the real nature of contentment — a dynamic gratitude never meant to dull or nullify our deep, life-giving desires. Wisdom too knows the folly of dismissing hunger in order to not feel guilty about it: my inner critic often demands, Who are you to want more, when others do not have . . . ? But wisdom knows the cruelty of using another’s hardship as a barometer to keep me comparatively happy.

Wisdom does not suffer the foolishness of self-pity, but neither does it placate by dismissing hunger or trying to satisfy it through meager means. If a man desires to climb a tall mountain, and trains hard to do so, why should he settle for the grassy hills in his backyard? But if he must for the season stay among those hills, he would never be so foolish as to ask the hills to satisfy his desire for that high, snowy ridge. No, he would let the hills be what they are, and his hunger for the mountain peak be what it is, and the presence of this hunger would be his companion.

Wisdom helps us carry our hungers — undisguised, undiluted — honestly.

Wisdom too distinguishes between the narratives of hunger and starvation. Starvation is the depletion of life, the inability to participate any longer. Starvation is wasting away, voiceless. But the value of hunger remains. Hunger opens our bodies so that we can know to seek what we need — be it warm milk or grilled meat. So too the hunger of the heart. It carves within us a space that compels us to ask, to seek, to keep going, though there is pain and long deferral.

Though there is pain and long deferral — that makes the experience sound so compact, so comprehensible! In truth, I know that hunger slides into starvation at the merest whiff of fear. What if God has forgotten — what if the hunger remains for years more — what if my work isn’t worth it? Like that man longing for mountains, I deny myself even the hills: their meager shape hurts too much, I would rather close the windows and doors. Or like that man with his walking stick, I’ll get frightened that my meager supply will run out, and start grasping at anything — poisonous berries, bad water. I’ll swallow falsehoods about God, myself, my work. In my anger, the length of the journey becomes a cruel, mocking maze. Here’s me, a fool duped by first-world, church-perpetuated promises. I feel cornered, get confused about what I can really wrest from life, am exhausted and worn. Is this another movement of surrender?

What amazes me is that even during movements of surrender is this resilience of hunger. My soul’s desire to work, to write, to see this writing through — it outlasts.

In the prayer Christ taught us to pray, nestled between the need for God’s kingdom and the need for forgiveness, is the acknowledgement of hunger: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Inherent in this prayer is the fact of hunger; for what good is this daily portion if we are not hungry enough to eat it? We can spiritualize the bread, to be sure, and we can certainly spiritualize the hunger — or we can stand in the middle of the prayer, hungers realized for what they are within us, and press into the reality that we are meant to ask, to knock, to hunger, to thirst. I don’t want to truncate the experience of hunger to feel better about myself, or feel better about my faith in claiming that the Bread of Life is enough. But I will beseech the Bread of Life, will draw near its sweet warmth, full-faced, honestly, with all the sorrowful pain of hopes deferred, with all my pangs of hunger.

Ah, there it is again. Life using hunger to ensure more life.

For hunger triggers a form of life that cannot be static, a form of life that moves. Fullness to such a burden is that go on a pilgrimage. O, that may I bear the want of such a burden well.

Photo by Brendan Brown

Jessica Brown lives in Culver City in Los Angeles with her husband, Simon, and five-month-old son Calder. She's lived in Texas, Boston, New York, Indiana, New Zealand, Ireland, and San Francisco — all the while, writing novels. She loves the crossroads of literature and theology, and has published essays on Jane Austen and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

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