First, it suggests that the biggest barrier to the eradication of hunger is not, as we often assume, lack of technological expertise or a shortage of funds and resources. Rather, it is moral and spiritual paralysis. It’s a well-established fact that we have the technologies needed to eradicate hunger. We have the funds and sufficient resources to produce enough food to feed everyone. Hunger persists for a different reason. It persists because we lack the will, the heart, and the collective imagination to end it.
The numbers of those who suffer from hunger are staggering. Close to a billion people are condemned to chronic hunger and malnutrition every day; another two billion subsist on inadequate diets; each year ten million people – 60% of them children – die from hunger and hunger-related illnesses. These figures boggle the mind and leave us grappling with questions that challenge our culture’s claim to decency. With our immense resources and powerful technologies, how can we let so many children go to bed hungry every night? How can we spend $500 billion on weapons of war yet tighten our purses when it comes to combating hunger? Should we be sending rockets to explore outer space at the same time that children are dying from lack of food?
While the statistics on hunger are mind-blowing, I’m reluctant to use them to argue the case for more effective action. I’m apprehensive that the use of statistics may be symptomatic of the very attitude that allows hunger to flourish, an attitude I characterize as “spiritual numbness.” Statistics actually contribute to this condition by reducing people to numbers, to lines on paper or blips on a screen that cannot know the pangs of hunger or feel relief when food arrives. When the numbers are so immense, we can only deal with them by closing our hearts to others’ pain and convincing ourselves that we’re helpless to change our collective destiny.
By replacing real people with numbers, we let ourselves off the hook. We file away disturbing facts in the cabinets of our minds and spare ourselves the trouble of comprehending what those numbers stand for. But the figures relating to global hunger are not abstract quantities in a mathematical formula. They represent real human beings; they quantify real human suffering. Behind them are people calling for help.
It’s often said that hatred is the most pernicious root of human suffering. There’s no doubt that acts of violence, driven by savage hate, can trigger tragedy and unleash massive floods of misery. However, in my view the more reprehensible root of suffering in today’s world is spiritual numbness, indifference to the fate of our fellow beings. Spiritual numbness stifles understanding and love. It begets inertia and stymies the effort to reach out to those who need a hand.
Spiritual numbness is all the more egregious because it does not immediately strike us as evil. To the contrary, we take it to be perfectly normal, standard operating procedure, square one in the scramble to get ahead. Indifference flourishes best under the cover of normalcy, under the guise of decency. Under that cover we can tolerate the violation of the most basic human rights, among them the right to food, which is nothing short of the right to life.
The stance of indifference serves a protective function. It lets us go about our daily business without feeling disturbed by events that should tug at the strings of our hearts. We can surf the TV for football games, crime dramas, and sitcoms while kids in Haiti eat mud pies and drink polluted water. We can flash bright smiles and crack clever jokes while financial vultures grab up land in Africa and South America. We can dream sweet dreams while hunger drives nameless millions into the arms of illness and death.
However, the same indifference that protects us also impoverishes us. We carve out a comfort zone to conduct our daily affairs, but in doing so we close doors to a greater freedom. We lock ourselves into a constricting cell: the narrow confines of ego, accompanied by its ever-present wards, grasping, worry, and anxiety.
This brings me to the second implication of Lorca’s statement. His words imply that what we need most to eradicate global hunger is a moral and spiritual transformation. Feats of technology and infusions of cash to boost sagging economies won’t do the trick on their own. Nothing less is demanded of us than a transformation of values and a commitment to transformative action.
The transformation starts when we see each person – whether man or woman, adult or child – as a subjective center of experience, someone separated from us by only the thinnest psychic membrane. This calls for an imaginative effort to extend the sense of identity from the tight boundaries of the self to all our fellow beings, to all who share our yearning for freedom, happiness, and security. By identifying with others, we expose ourselves to their suffering, but at the same time we give rise to an inconceivable joy, “a joy that will burst into the world.” We throw open a door that leads from the bottom of the heart to the great compassion connecting us to all humanity and all sentient beings in the limitless web of life. We open ourselves to the deepest, holiest, and most sacred wells of our own being, in which flow the waters of boundless love, hope, and generosity of spirit. What then takes place is nothing short of a revolution – an inner revolution that turns our normal relationship with the world on its head.
This inner revolution is the precondition for the outer revolution – Lorca’s “great revolution”--needed to abolish global hunger. The struggle to eradicate global hunger is driven by two major vectors. One is compassion, the other a commitment to social justice. When unified, the two constitute what I call “conscientious compassion.” This is compassion inspired not merely by a feeling of empathy with those who suffer but by the insight that much of this suffering is structural – produced, not by natural events, but by institutions, policies, and laws that favor the rich and powerful at the expense of the weak, voiceless, and vulnerable.
We put compassion into action by deeds of generosity, by giving to causes and organizations dedicated to the struggle against world hunger. Each time our efforts help a child shift from the fields or factories to the schoolhouse, we can experience a moment of joy. Each time we help a farmer grow more food to feed her family and sell her surplus in an equitable market, we can chalk up a victory for humanity.
But generosity is not enough. We must also heed the chimes of social justice. This entails learning about the issues vital to overcoming hunger and demanding equity and mercy for the poor. We can’t just sit on the sidelines. We must be ready to stand up for peasants left helpless when food prices spike beyond their meager incomes; for low-income families whose sustenance is threatened by cuts to social spending; for small-scale farmers whose land is being grabbed by giant agro-industrial firms to grow crops for biofuels. We must become the voice of the voiceless, the defenders of those who can’t defend themselves.
As Lorca foresaw, the effort to eradicate world hunger calls for nothing less than a spiritual revolution – the emergence of a new moral consciousness, an expansion of the imagination, a radical transformation of policies and priorities. The question whether hunger can ever be eradicated does not so much demand an answer as an effort to rise to our best potentials, rooted in the conviction – the courageous faith – that we can make a difference in the here and now. Our individual limitations are not insurmountable barriers. In our own small ways we can each become revolutionaries. We can each start paving the road toward the great revolution that will bring world hunger to an end.