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Hungry for Community

July 6, 2015

We should talk about nourishment, you and I. We should talk about food and health, about nutrition and physiology, about how what we take in becomes us, in the most literal of ways. And we will, whether in our first few sessions together, or somewhere later down the line. We will work together to understand how your diet shapes your health – I will have recommendations, and I will ask you for your ideas. But here I want to engage with a broader sense of how we sustain ourselves, about what we need from our lives to be truly nourished, certainly as this relates to food, but also as it extends beyond the bounds of nutrients and flavors.

I was recently on a trip with my family, a visit over the Fourth of July, during which time we celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday. There were four generations together, from my grandmother down through my four-year-old nephew. There was in attendance a wide array of family, extended family, friends and acquaintances, many of whom, if I had ever met at all, I had not seen in a decade or more. Friends and family came in, and once they’d been led to chairs and tables, the question was always, often before they’d sat down – a refrain you will hear like a mantra all over the South – “dj’y’all get sumpthin’ to eat?” It wouldn’t have mattered if they had plates in their hands, because I’ve been asked that question before while putting an actual fork-full of food in my mouth, perhaps modified to be a question of whether I’d gotten enough to eat. But the invitation is always the same: “we are showing you that we care for you, or that we recognize the social necessity of hospitality, by offering this food, so please come share what we have.” Now with many relatives (including some of my own), this invitation has some strings of guilty pressure attached, the push to eat more so they can feel they’ve done their job to provide. And we always know that simultaneously there’s going to be some background judgement of anyone eating too much, or who – to their eyes – is carrying too much weight and shouldn’t be eating any more. But those are the little awkward pieces that make it human and real, the back and forth of sustenance and its intersections with guilt or shame, not at all uncommon around food, perhaps especially food and family. But between the bustle of half-known relatives and unknown family friends, the rumble of conversation and the wiping off of fingers on paper napkins to shake the hand of someone you know you don’t know but a relation swears up and down that you’ve met before and just must remember, I recognized, not for the first time, that there is a specific kind of nourishment we are deriving from these kind of gatherings, from these often awkward if always intriguing intersections with family, friends, and these wider circles of people who are for all intents and purposes unknown to us. Or, if perhaps not a specific kind of nourishment, then at least of a different, and for me a welcomely unexpected, sort, a kind that may have as its focus the food on the paper plate with the napkin held in place beneath it, but as its purpose, the sating of a very real socio-spiritual need.

Certainly, as the axiom notes, humans are social animals. But what is perhaps less commonly reflected on by those of us in post-industrial consumer societies – tending toward dangerous degrees of self-absorption and isolation – is that we require sociality as a kind of nourishment, that we are literally hungry for community, if not biochemically, then certainly with many other aspects of our being. The term psycho-spiritual tends to orient itself to the individual experience of spirituality and cognitive-emotional phenomena, but there is a real opening to recognize that we are socio-spiritual beings as well, and that our need of nourishment has a very real and powerful social component. The idea that this social nourishment would be regularly bound up with physiological nourishment from food makes perfect sense – to break bread together is one of the most fundamental social acts, a critical component in the generation and ordering of community itself, as a human experience.

Go to virtually any party at someone’s home, and the kitchen will be a central hub of lively activity, conversation, and engagement. It may spill out from there to other rooms, but we return back there over and over again, deep within us the sense that kitchen-and-hearth are the real beating heart of home. There is a warmth, a sense of safety, the promise of sustenance, the joy of sharing plenty, the camaraderie of making do with less than plenty, that centers around the kitchen, around food, in its making and its being shared. Holidays may help us to recognize this more easily, but it is a daily reality. I, frankly, did not know, and in some cases did not even necessarily like, each and every one of the family and friends of the family that I interacted with at this party for my grandmother’s birthday. Conflicting personalities and religious or political viewpoints – the inescapable bane of all family gatherings – generate situations that have no small share of awkwardness and discomfort. But beneath that, the subtext that underlies even the most uncomfortable disharmonies in any particular conversation, runs a profound current that vivifies each of us by the simple fact of community, of communication, of our acknowledgement of one another, human to human.

And so while we need to talk about particular foods, about ways of approaching diet ideas and how these impact your health, before any of this, I would recommend one thing: eat with others. Given the pace of our lives, the small time we can sometimes find to eat, the need to finish a meal to get back to other work, it can be difficult find time, to make space in our schedules, to eat at all, much less to eat with others. But it is vital. Without one another, we are still hungry. Without one another we are starving in a way that we will not be able to fill, whatever the quality of the food, however nutritious, however pleasurable. Find someone to eat with, or go somewhere where others are, if you can. Certainly a simple meal with friends can be powerfully nourishing, but even just a meal out sitting surrounded by other people, even strangers, has the possibility of nourishing us in the socio-spiritual ways we need. It is easy, and I do it all the time, to put something quickly together and eat it quietly and alone, to get back to the work that is always waiting. But as often as you can, make it a priority to find others to eat with. We build the communities we need to survive by becoming active participants in those communities, forging through our own efforts the interconnections of sociality that make us who we are, and give us the resources to become who and what we need to be. Breaking bread together is a perfect place to start.

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