08/14/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Fast, Pray, Love: Achieving Balance Through Fasting And Empathy

It's a hot midsummer afternoon -- 4 p.m., 95 degrees -- and I'm starving and parched. No, I'm not lost in some canyon. In fact, I'm in my apartment in Philadelphia's University City, with plenty of accessible dining options for its bustling undergrad clientele. What gives? I'm fasting. A couple of days ago a close Jewish friend of mine and I broke our fasts for Tisha B'av and Ramadan. Our little cooking date made me wonder about what connects us all. I'm not talking here about the whole six degrees of separation idea but about something much deeper -- something more subtle, yet more intense; something less about separation, and more about connection, about our common humanity. For me, fasting is a strong reminder of this. For this reason, I invite non-Muslims to take one day out of this month of Ramadan to join their Muslim friends in fasting.

Fasting has fundamentally changed my worldview. As a spacey 12-year-old, the year I started my practice, it made me cognizant of the suffering of those less fortunate. Over the years, this sense of empathy translated into my growing support of state welfare programs. As a somewhat less spacey 22-year-old, it has encouraged me to strike up conversations with homeless people and find out about their lives, their struggles. And when those sneaky afternoon hunger pangs emerge, the message really hits home -- this year, stronger than ever. Growing up in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, I was surrounded by the pervasive signals of this holy month -- closed restaurants in the daytime, and of course, the rare spotting of those who dared eat in public. This is my first Ramadan in the US; these reminders have been replaced by ones of hyper-consumerism. Watching people circulate in and out of cafes and restaurants and eat around me has imparted a greater insight into how those in this country with limited access to food feel. As a result it has served as a potent reminder of why we need state welfare programs. According to a report titled The State of Homelessness in America 2012 by the National Alliance to End Homelessness there were over 636,017 Americans without homes in 2011. Although the homeless often rely on the generosity of the more fortunate, and non-profits, it is not enough. Those who criticize these welfare programs, and their recipients, frequently do so from a place of privilege. They do so because they have not probably experienced a day without food. With the upcoming presidential elections, where these programs will once again go on the political chopping block, there is no better time to experience such a day.

But it's more than about politics. Fasting has also introduced a healthy balance in my life, a balance which I hope we as a society can achieve. Consumers in North America waste about 209 to 253 pounds of food per person annually, as reported in the Institute for Food and Biotechnology's Global Food Losses and Food Waste. At the same time, in 2010, 14.5 percent of households in the US, were food insecure (Coleman-Jensen 2011, p. v.). In a society characterized by record levels of obesity, unnecessary food wastage and heart-breaking hunger, let's fast our way to a balance.
Maybe there is no better way to understand someone than to just put yourself in their shoes, even if it is only from sunrise to sunset, even if it's only for a day. For those of you who do not think they have the discipline or ability to do this I urge you to try, and to ask yourself how some go without a stable source of food every day. Seventeen hours of not eating and drinking can provide us with a taste of what it is like to be one of those people. Yet we still cannot fully understand their lives because even though we are fasting, we can find comfort in the fact that it is temporary. We know when we are getting our next meal, and we have a say in what the meal will consist of. Not everyone is that lucky.

So, take out one day to fast. Skip that five dollar iced mocha soy morning latte and buy a sandwich for the homeless lady you always walk by. Spend your lunch break reflecting. Break your fast with a Muslim family. Let us use fasting as a way to tap into the reservoirs of love and humanity that we carry deep within ourselves. Let our actions guided by love. Folks, I dare you to fast. I dare you to empathize. I dare you to love.