Hunger reduces a soul to a body, and a body to an immobile necessity-seeking thing. It is one of the most ruinous desires we can have as humans.
So what does the hungry man become in this vertiginous existence? He is more than impoverished; he is a human apart from human things.
As a community, how do we not simply protect and care for him, but understand him?
In his study of tribal networks and modern communities, Sebastian Junger defines community as the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. And this benevolence is not for mere morality, but because we have always done such a thing as a species.1
Two of the behaviors that set early humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruistic group defense. Other primates did very little of either, but, increasingly, hominids did, and those behaviors helped set them on an evolutionary path that produced the modern world. The earliest and most basic definition of community – of tribe – would be the group of people that you would both help feed, and help defend. A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.
From Sebastian Junger’s Tribe
Junger’s identification of this communal connection based on physical nourishment and protection, is echoed by Erich Fromm’s sublime identification of the ways in which humans carry, express, and show love.
Of these many-splendored loves, the mutual admiration we share with our kin is imperative.
The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life.
From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving
Even Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius makes a case for communal cooperation against all odds. More than than 2,000 years ago the former Emperor and philosopher used remarkable similar language to Fromm:
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity.
Therefore, I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.
From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
When there is a strong community based on having one’s basic needs attended, then those outside of that relationship are not only hungry, but apart. (They are also unable to participate in the reciprocal action of resource sharing.)
Is there a more-poignant visual clarity for this concept than the last line in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a moment he called “the starving man and the last-scene”?
In these few lines, Rosasharn Joad, unable to feed her stillborn child, offers her full breast to a starving man. The novel concludes: “Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”
An ancient communication between mother and child, is here between person and person.
No one will forget the dramatic symbolism of this bereaved mother tending to the dying man. Steinbeck’s long-time editor and great friend, Pascal Corvici questioned the ending’s suddenness, claiming there was no preamble to the scene. Steinbeck, however, defended its inclusion, “it is a survival symbol not a love symbol” and the ending remains unadulterated.2
If we collect these findings in our arms and hold them aloft – we ought to share our food with those in our community and understand that this action is the most basic of all human actions – it means this action not only creates a feeling of brotherhood within its members, but it also isolates those who are not included.
Perhaps more deeply than those who are included can ever possibly imagine.
It would mean feeling not only hunger – and all its bodily implications, but feeling unseen, and ultimately, unknown.
Fromm identifies human separateness as our primary psychological necessity. Put simply, we have a need to be seen by others, to be recognized as part of the tribe. Even if we decide to leave the tribe, or live apart, or exist fully-unto ourselves as is possible with modern life, even if, we still need to belong to something.
Our sinews of self, stretched to some scaffolding that holds us up, some bone structure of being, cannot exist apart from that structure.
Imagine it might happen to you. Squeeze your sweet body cavity and imagine it hollow. The expanding chaos under the skin that only you can feel and cannot escape.
Imagine someone came to you in abundance with food for the body and soul.
I imagine someone sang your pain these lines from the indominable poet, activist, and mentor to many, Maya Angelou’s poem “Starvation”
Come through the keyhole.
Don’t mind the rotting
sashes, pass into the windows.
Come, good news.
I’m holding my apron to
catch your plumpness.
The largest pot shines
with happiness. The slack
walls of my purse, pulsing
pudenda, await you with
a new bride’s longing.
The bread bin gapes and
the oven holds its cold breath.
Hurry up! Hurry down!
Good tidings. Don’t wait
out my misery. Do not play
coy with my longing.
Hunger has grown old and
ugly with me. We hate from
too much knowing. Come. […]
From Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise
Imagine such fullness, warmth, connectedness.
Now let’s return to the initial question: As a community, how do we not simply protect and care for the indigent man, but understand him?
It is not a question of systems, or policy or measures and I claim no insight into such things. But to the question of action from one human to another. Actions compounded to a lifetime. Actions as simple as a few bucks – more than expected, a warm or cold drink depending, a hand to the arm if appropriate, and a resounding message: I see you.