Originally published June 23, 2016
I was born in the time of famine. The crops had withered and died, and soon the animals followed. We might have left to seek better circumstances but we were trapped geographically, surrounded by water and inhospitable terrain on three sides, On the fourth, in the distance, were soldiers stationed at the edge of a war.
As I child, I knew nothing but deprivation. There was barely water or food to survive. Starvation — along with all its related miseries — were a permanent condition. Few lived to see full adulthood.
Such a life doesn’t offer many opportunities for spiritual lessons. To think about anything except the next scrap of food or the next drop of water was more effort than I or anyone else could spare. Philosophy was a luxury we could not afford. There was no time to contemplate life; not a moment to wonder if one was on the right path; no opportunity to weigh one’s options. The choice was to blindly follow the trail of others, one step at a time, or lay down and die. But in my short life, I found another way, all because of one specific day, which I recall even now with the same amazement, longing, and wonder.
We lived in a remote place which rarely saw outsiders. One day, some foreign workers passed through our village. They saw how we were starving and took pity on us. They gave us whatever food they could spare. It wasn’t much and we had to share among all of us. The women cooked it all into a weak soup to make it go further. It did not have much flavor but it had more nutritional value than anything I had ever eaten. It was the first time in my entire life that I was able to eat until satisfied. It was I feeling that I could never forget.
If I considered the outside world at all, it was to wonder if there were people who filled their bellies every day. Were there some, like those strangers, who never went hungry? After the visitors, I began to have a sort of recurring dream. There was always a big welcoming pot of soup on the fire. I’d lean in to smell and taste, and I could see all kinds of wondrous things floating in the broth. The imagined meats and vegetables were completely fantastical because I had never seen much of either in reality, and had no point of reference. Mostly, they were just larger and more interesting versions of the few foods I’d actually encountered. A thick stew overflowing with beans and roots. Once, I dreamed a hawk dropped a goat into the pot from the sky.
I knew nothing of the world outside my village. My people were too poor and weak to travel; too close to death every day to worry about what was happening elsewhere.
Finally, driven by the fantasy that there existed a place where people ate until sated, I set out from my village in the only direction I could – towards the war. If I died on the way, or if they ultimately killed me, it would hardly be a fate worse that the one I had in store remaining where I was. But perhaps they would feed me! Perhaps I could experience that wonderful feeling of satisfaction again.
So I walked, surviving the route much the same way I survived in my village –foraging, digging, perhaps catching a small animal or bird.
Arriving at the encampment, I collapsed at the gate in utter depletion of all my physical and mental resources. In that condition, I was no danger to them; that much was obvious. They nursed me back to some strength, and when I was able, I worked for them doing small tasks to earn my keep. I would do the jobs that nobody else wanted to do, just to be fed.
Despite their kindness, I didn’t live very much longer. All those years of deprivation had exacted their toll on my body. But I died with my belly full, and so I died happy.