Treat the Pain; Relieve the Hunger

In hospice and palliative care, we know that the major causes of suffering are usually issues of the mind and heart, not symptoms of the body. But we also know that in order for people to find resolution or relief of that deep distress, they need time and energy, but physical symptoms, with their potency and urgency, sap energy and steal time. It is impossible for someone to forgive an old grudge, reconcile with an estranged relative, or find peace with their higher power while they are writing in pain or retching into the toilet. My first priority in their care, then, must be palliating the symptoms, relieving the pain.

          I recently read Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’O’s remarkable book, The Perfect Nine, a retelling of the origins myth of the Gĩkũyũ, one of the peoples that make up the nation of Kenya. In the story, the ten capable and beautiful daughters of Gĩikũyũ and Mũmbi are wooed by ninety-nine men drawn by their hopes to marry one of the beautiful women they have seen in their dreams. The 99 arrive, tired and famished after their individual journeys through bush and forest, ready to make their claim, fight each other, if necessary, for the right to the woman from their dreams. But Mũmbi, the matriarch, makes it clear that there will be plenty of time to sort out the issues, determine who will win their desire; the priority now is rest and nutrition. As Wanjirũ, the oldest daughter puts it, “Don’t ask hunger questions. First give it food.” Making decisions about status, ability, and desirability can wait; worthiness has nothing to do with the need to be fed.

         The August 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine reports that during 2020, some 45 million people in the United States lacked sufficient food and that right now one in nine Americans lives in a household without secure access to nutrition. Yes, I know we have all heard these kinds of numbers many times, but before you click to close this post, think about the hospice patient’s priorities, about Wanjirũ’s advice: if we want to address the multitude of problems and uncertainties in our nation, we have to start here. Pundits and politicians and, let’s be honest, most of us try to put qualifications into the equation: Is the person a legal resident of the United States? Do they have a job? Are their children hungry too? Do they use drugs or have a criminal record? Are they evening trying? When Jesus established the criteria used to judge the nations (Matthew 25), he said, “I was hungry, and you fed (or did not feed) me.” He said nothing about determining who was most deserving of help.

          Like many of you, as needs grew exponentially in the face of the COVID lockdowns and ongoing precarious phases of the pandemic, we increased our charitable giving, focusing on local food and social support agencies. That level of support is not really feasible for us on an ongoing basis, and you may be in the same situation. I have discovered fun and meaning having volunteered a few times at the mobile food pantry at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland. As with any volunteer activity, we receive much more than we give.

          I wish we lived in a society in which food banks and pantries were not required. The fact that in the United States, the richest nation ever, one in nine does not have enough to eat does not speak well of us. May it not always be so.