We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, the animal that thinks. However, the common characteristic of complex animal life is hunger, a primal force so powerful that it alone provides sufficient explanation for the development of human civilization.
If you’ve ever watched bird hatchlings you’ve seen the expression raw hunger: gaping mouths eagerly waiting to be stuffed with food. Upon birth all animals begin eating. In this sense, animals are mobile mouths, from the lowliest worm to the most sophisticated scholar. It’s no coincidence that one of the commonest pandemic complaints has been the impossibility of going out to a restaurant to eat.
People’s need to eat is not simply about hunger, of course. As we age, we are forced to accept alternatives to instant gratification; for almost all of us, the days of casual foraging for food in the grasslands or forest are over, replaced by adherence to the clock and the strictures placed upon us by industrialized society. This requires psychological adjustment: repression, distraction, and self-restraint. As is true for all such biological drives such as sex and thirst, relinquishing instant gratification comes with a cost.
Accordingly, coping with hunger is a major preoccupation among us, and has variously spawned a variety of psychological and physiological problems. From gluttony to bulimia, people are subject to eating disorders that have little to do with physical hunger but everything to do with psychology; we eat for want of love, security, and comfort or ironically starve ourselves as an expression of the very same desires. Whether to build an emotional fortress of fat or to attempt invisibility by becoming painfully thin, the ways we relate to food go far beyond the nutritional needs of the body. The physiological effects of our eating habits are just as significant. Metabolic disorders such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure constitute the major percentage of heath complaints, and all are closely associated with what and how much goes into our mouths.
Naturally, our oral fixation manifests as cultural developments, such as a variety of dieting systems and weight-loss schemes. Although we’re beginning to unravel the knot of confusion about food and our bodies, we have a long way to go. Body types differ, and the pressure to conform to conventional standards of attractiveness remains powerful; entire industries are founded on this premise. Subjected from an early age to a constant stream of advertising and messaging about the best way to look, it’s difficult to resist being enlisted into the ranks of self-hatred, the psychological trap in which so many of us have found ourselves. Stuck at the fat boys table at summer camp, I spent my youth stuck in that trap.
We can expect no mercy from the retail-industrial complex, which thrives on self-doubt and fear of rejection. From weight-loss plans to clothing styles, adoration of celebrity to disparagement of difference, our situation is complicated by civilization’s greatest fixation: accumulating money.
Money is the symbolic food of civilization, and frantically consuming our planet, we can’t seem to get enough of it. Accumulating money is a global phenomenon, even though the vast majority of people will acquire relatively little of it over a lifetime. Our industrialized society is based upon the mechanism of delayed gratification overall, and like hunger, constantly requires comparable psychological adjustments. Born hungry, we’ve created a complex civilization of consumption, but one ultimately unable to satisfy us.