When I first heard the song Hunger by Florence and the Machine, I was arrested by the opening lines:
At seventeen, I started to starve myself
I thought that love was a kind of emptiness
And at least I understood then the hunger I felt
And I didn’t have to call it loneliness
Florence Welch, not one to shy away from Christian imagery in her lyrics, juxtaposes these lyrics with a worn statue; the camera pauses briefly on stigmata-like wounds in its side and hands. As she sings, “we all have a hunger,” more and more people stare longingly at this statue. Some are confused, others curious, and a few even devotional. But all are entranced. They get close, they peer, they touch. We all have a hunger.
In his first sermon, the newly-enlightened Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life in this existence is characterized by duhkha. The Sanskrit word is usually translated as “suffering” or “sorrow”; however, my professor of Buddhism taught me that a better translation would be, “dissatisfaction.” That is to say, our lives will always be ones of dissatisfaction. Every single human being dies. Every person we love will eventually disappear from our lives, or we will from theirs. We all have a hunger.
I felt this keenly when I was working as a live-in assistant at an HIV/AIDS long-term care and hospice facility. One night, when I was on the overnight shift, one of the men kept calling me. He needed a pillow moved, a light turned off, a radio turned up, a light turned back on… again and again he called me back in. Eventually, I realized what was happening. I asked him if he would like me to stay, and he slowly nodded. So I grabbed a magazine and sat in a chair next to him. Throughout the night, when he woke, he turned, looked at me, then closed his eyes again, drifting back to sleep. We all have a hunger.
And we all try to satisfy this hunger in different ways. The Buddha first lived a prince’s life of luxury, but found that the thought of death soured every comfort in his life. He then turned to an extreme asceticism, but still could not abate the duhkha he experienced in the death of people he loved. Florence, on the other hand, “thought that love was in the drugs / but the more I took, the more it took away.” So she turned to the stage itself, when “you give yourself to strangers / you don’t have to be afraid”; but found this too dissipated when she went home alone.
Augustine, in his Confessions, famously wrote to God: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The image he conjures is of a wistful pilgrim, a seeker, one who wanders the earth in search of the great I AM. Not so with Florence. She begins with physical hunger, the emptiness one feels in the pit of the stomach. I think those of us raised with Christian imagery, especially Roman Catholics, have a way of valorizing suffering. We look to martyrs for inspiration. We build beautiful crosses and hang the bloodied body of a god on them. But I don’t think this is the hunger that Florence, the Buddha, and my friend experienced. There was no valor for them. Only the hunger.
Yes, our hunger can often inspire us. It can drive us onwards, upwards, to seek further shores. But, too often, our hunger can cripple us. George R.R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame, wrote a short story, “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” where he neatly described two types of loneliness:
A solemn, brooding, tragic loneliness that a man hates with a passion— and yet loves so much he craves for more.
And then there is the second kind of loneliness.
It’s the loneliness of people trapped within themselves. The loneliness of people who have said the wrong thing so often that they don’t have the courage to say anything anymore.
The loneliness, not of distance, but of fear.
The loneliness of people who sit alone in furnished rooms in crowded cities, because they’ve got nowhere to go and no one to talk to.
There’s no grandeur to that kind of loneliness. No purpose and no poetry. It’s loneliness without meaning.
And I think George is sharing what Florence is singing: hunger isn’t some beautiful thing. Ask the working mother who skips her own dinner so her children can eat. Ask the elderly man who begs on the street corner, invisible to the passing eye. Ask Jakelin Caal, the 7-year-old Guatemalan who died of dehydration in U.S. custody. Because while duhkha can be translated as “dissatisfaction,” it does also mean “suffering.” Our lives are inescapably filled with suffering. We all have a hunger.
And what, you may fairly ask, does this have to do with Christmas?
Jesus was born in a stable. We (myself included) like to pretty up the picture: there’s soft fresh hay, calm lovely sheep, choirs of angels, and a content Mary. But the reality? When Mary fed her child for the first time from her breast, did she know when her own next meal would be? How often did the Christ, the Messiah, the Word of God, go hungry? As a carpenter, did he, too, feel the dull ache of a body too poor for the lavish meals of Herod?
As the birth of God is a mysterious thing, it is perhaps no stranger than his death: when he looked at the world who loved him, who crucified him, and said, “I thirst.”
God entered into our world, into our hunger. I’ll admit that I, sometimes, demand as the disciples did: “take away this hunger!” I can expect God to wash away the suffering, the loneliness, with the wave of a divine wand. God, of course, listens, but doesn’t always give answers.
At the end of the song, Florence sings to a lover, “Oh, but you and all your vibrant youth… You make a fool of death with your beauty, and for a moment I forget to worry.” Because yes, we all hunger. Yes, we all ache, and yearn, and question the point of the struggle. But we can forget the pain, the ultimate dissatisfaction we feel in this life, even if only for a moment.
Christmas doesn’t mean that the hunger disappears. Christmas means that there’s still beauty in the world. Despite our suffering, our isolation, we still live in communities. Our love is the way we fight back against the darkness. It’s not perfect. Honestly, it usually only lasts for a moment. But I think it’s enough. Christ, crying in a manger, felt our hunger. He did not erase it, but let us know that we are not alone in this world. As the carol goes,“Long lay the world in sin and error pining / Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” We feel our worth not because God makes it all better. But because God was born into our world, even with its hunger.
Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user bkmcneal.