Running on Empty
An outsider's perspective on Ramadan.
This year, from the sixth of June until the fifth of July, I chose to abstain from food and drink between the hours of nine AM and nine PM, and to abstain from alcohol entirely.
I am not a practicing or believing Muslim, but my girlfriend is - and, in solidarity with her and with 1.6 billion other Muslims worldwide, I decided to observe Ramadan... or, at least, to observe my own cobbled-together arbitrary heathen version of it. What follows is the entirety of what I learned from this experience.
I had fasted before, of course. In fact, on a typical workday, I'll usually skip breakfast and lunch, so the hunger pangs really weren't that strong or unusual for me. I'll admit, the thirst was a challenge -I had never deprived myself of water before- but it was just one more physical twinge, and didn't do much to my mind or my attitude that I noticed.
I remember seeing a quote saying that someone who finishes Ramadan the same person he was when he started has failed, and, by that standard, I certainly failed at Ramadan, regardless of my adherence to my own little version of the rules. Perhaps it might have been different if I'd been more traditional in my timekeeping - using actual sunup and sundown, instead of an arbitrary twelve hour period - but I doubt it.
I think the real failure was the fact that I focused solely on the physical acts of eating and drinking, and not on anything mental or spiritual. In theory, practicing Muslims also refrain from things like using foul language during Ramadan, and I certainly didn't do that. In retrospect, I realize I was approaching the holy month as a physical challenge like a marathon or a hotdog eating contest, and not as a learning or growing experience.
I never told my family or my coworkers what I was doing. If anyone at the call center noticed I didn't have my usual water bottle at my desk, they certainly didn't mention it. My wife was fasting along with me, and a few of our friends knew - and, to their credit, they respected our decision and didn't wave food under our noses. I complained about the experience on Twitter, so at least there's a permanent record somewhere. Perhaps it would have been a different experience if I'd been more vocal about it.
Of course, I certainly wasn't the worst person at observing Ramadan.
As I starved myself, I saw news stories of an airport suicide bombing in Turkey that killed 41, a nightclub shooting in Orlando that killed 49, a bombing in Medina that killed 4, as well as... well, all the usual tragedies the news shows us. I was saddened and baffled that both the news media and my social media feed were claiming these attacks were somehow Islamic in nature. Didn't they know it was Ramadan? Blowing up Medina during Ramadan is like blowing up the Vatican during Easter - you couldn't do something like that and then turn around and credibly refer to yourself as the "Catholic State".
And yet, that was the narrative being spun by both ISIS and by the xenophobic wings of the American right - that this violence was somehow rooted in the same religion my girlfriend follows, the same religion that had me and 1.6 billion other people around the world abstaining from things.
I suppose next year, I'll have to do something different.
Maybe Ramadan is about more than not eating, in the same way that Easter is about more than painting eggs.
Maybe I need to quit being proud of arbitrary, meaningless milestones.
Maybe I need to let Ramadan change me, and maybe I need to find a way to change the world.
Maybe I need to practice a conscious, disciplined, and mindful peace in my day-to-day life.
I guess I've got eleven months to figure it out.