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remembering hunger; feeling empathy

June 8, 2011

One morning a couple of weeks ago I experienced a sudden realisation that I had forgotten what it was to be hungry, what hunger felt like.

So I stopped eating. Just for a day and then had a minimal amount of food the following day.

On the evening of the first day I felt the first pang of emptiness. By the following evening fecklessness was thriving. I was tired and lacked motivation to do anything much. This after just two days and having consumed a minimal amount of, but at least some, food.

How can we possibly truly empathise with those who have so much less than we do? When we can easily forget what hunger feels like. When we have never starved and when we have never lived without hope?

Empathy is such a slippery and complex conundrum. Even when we feel, or others see us, as being very empathetic, how can this truly be the case? The memory of previous experience, the daily occurrences that affect how we arrive at decisions, the nature and nurture of our lives coalescing to a point of singularity at the moment of contact combine to make a sense of true empathy next to impossible to achieve.

When it is so easy to forget what a basic feeling such as hunger is like, surely all we can manage is a best guess. Some maybe better guessers than others but unless you have experienced the same conditions, in the same environments we stand no chance.

(I could go on about the proposed ring fencing of 0.7% of GDP being allocated to international aid, but frankly, after the above if you still don’t get it you never will.)

The second experience of the same week struck me even harder. The main item on the news that day was an(other) escalation in the NATO engagements in Libya. Another startling self realisation that I was actually starting to empathise with this regime.

I am more than a little fearful that it’s just me that felt this way for however a fleeting moment it turned out to be.

Perhaps this is/ was war fatigue and our country’s continued selective engagement policy – for every intervention in the Balkans to prevent mass genocide there exists an abstinence and apathy of equal or greater magnitude: Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Myanmar. Leaving aside for the moment Iraq and Afghanistan.

How can I empathise with such an oppressive regime? Is it because not that long ago our Prime Minister brought said same regime “in from the cold”? Could it be that the questions around oil and the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi are still unresolved? The rights and wrongs of that decision aside, the deliberate opaqueness of the process is more than a little concerning.

Doesn’t Gaddafi have a point when he labels the West as having double standards? Don’t we have a serious difficulty in taking a higher moral ground given our schizophrenic foreign policy and where, when and who we choose to care about?

And therein lays the heart of the matter. I can much more easily put myself in the position and empathise, no matter how superficially or incompletely, of the hard done by than I can the oppressed.  

To feel hard done by, slighted, conspired against is something that is easy to for us to understand as we have all experienced it. Justly or not we know what that feels like. We have context within which we can frame a similar experience. 

Hunger is to starvation what duplicity is to oppressed.

And then I turned the news off, made some toast and went back to my life.

How easy was that.

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One Comment
  1. Ian Frampton permalink

    Hi Chris. It’s interesting that you choose to pair hunger with empathy. It turns out that the part of the brain that’s centrally involved in monitoring hunger (the insula cortex) is also implicated in empathy (and even more beguilingly in alexithymia – the condition of having no words for feelings).

    There’s good evidence that prolonged starvation reduces capacity to empathise (think about characteristic behaviours in famine and concentration camps); what motivated you to start thinking about hunger?

    For more around this theme I would recommend Hunger by Knut Hamsun, which neatly combines your most recent two topics… An alternative would be Down and Out in Paris and London….

    Lots of love


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