This week, writing for the New York Times, Fares Akram unwittingly describes the root of the American obesity epidemic. Akram tells the story of the Gazan population choked off from the world outside its small perimeter. It is a living metaphor for what's happening in the U.S.
In an odyssey of determination born of demand and creativity, entrepreneurial Gazan smugglers dig deep, trafficking in something U.S. obesity experts might call "addictive" -- fried chicken. They're dealing KFC.
The rate of obesity in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1980. In that same time, the U.S. culture has been rewired in a way that over-rides the ability to live a fully human experience. The left brain has become the dominator of the right, co-opting the right brain's natural role as the genesis of the in-sync brain activity that lets us be fully human.
Using a new kind of research, I have found specific connections between people and the things they consume at specific moments in time. 30,000 people around the world have taught me what is not yet recognized: people now outsource their feelings to consumption. People have evolved to use consumption experiences -- from eating to technology and everything in between -- as proxies for their own feelings. Indeed, in my world we recruit research respondents who are "users." They are, however, not addicted.
The shrewd Gazan delivery man explains why: "It's our right to enjoy that taste the other people all over the world enjoy."
Saying, "I accepted this challenge to prove that Gazans can be resilient despite the restrictions..." the smuggler's posse uses cunning and savvy to get around checkpoints, navigating mazes of tunnels connected by elevators in the equivalent of mine-shafts. The booty they really carry is not just "fried chicken;" it's a bucket of feelings.
1980 is also significant as the beginning of a second phenomenon: income inequality. Americans now work more for less and have less time off than any other workers in the developed world. The economy, its demands and expectations, now govern life.
In his book The Master and His Emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world, Dr. Iain McGilchrist http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/, Oxford psychiatrist and scholar, refers to this as a "zombie life." The left brain's systems, numbers, and bottom lines have cut off the essentials of human being that are embedded in the right brain -- empathy, intimacy, the "self" and self in relation to others. The left brain has words on its side and easily drowns out the organically silent right brain where "feelings" are the lingua franca.
On its own, the right brain would be "peace." Promoted as it has been by the economy, the left brain is a take-no-prisoners warrior.
In this life there is a new reality. There is no time to be. With an American version of resilience-despite-restrictions, Americans have created an alternative way to be: "I feel, therefore I am." We've also developed a delivery system from which we derive feelings: consumption. Eating is an especially useful source; a model of efficiency. Killing two birds with one stone: eating to feel. Starved for feelings, overweight Americans paradoxically eat to live (even if it's killing us).
The Gazan fried-chicken dealer hit the nail on the head when he said "People have a right to enjoy that taste..." The feelings are embedded in the "secret recipe." Each "taste" has a feeling. Each taste is a feeling. Each feeling has its time, place and meaning.
Another underground scenario presents an unexpected example. Saddam Hussein, when discovered in his spider hole, was eating a Snickers.
It's a caricature of a moment when Snickers' eating experience can feel just right: when the eater is trapped.
Snickers tends to get eaten after a difficult time that shuts out the eater's own feelings, leaving deficits that are both physical and emotional -- a long morning, a difficult meeting. Often, this is when there is no time to listen to what the body or spirit need; no time to get in touch with the right brain; no time to be.
Enter Snickers: Its size matches the deficits. Its high bite telegraphs "food" to the mouth. Teeth sinking easily through the bar means no effort is required because there is no resistance; the perfect antidote when there has been too much resistance in real life. The bite is smooth, even with peanuts inside. They're designed to be "chewed up" and glued in so they give in easily when eaten.
The first nano-second of the bite is all glide -- smooth sailing. Then comes the meat of it, the tangle of caramel and peanuts and nougat. The chocolate "melts" -- victory without opposition -- as it mingles in a complex jumble of the caramel's high-hit of sweetness, the saltiness of the nuts and the nougat's mouth-filling substance. All together they signal "food." And that's before it lands heavy in the stomach as a validation: I ate. The soul has been soothed and the stomach filled in one fell swoop.
But KFC in Gaza?
American brands are first adopted around the world because they embody the feelings of America -- freedom, optimism, boundless opportunity -- to people who don't get to feel them. Every swallow of Coke, every mouthful of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese (a hot Snickers), and every bite of "Kentucky Fried Chicken" momentarily transports the eater to a different state of being.
Consider the heritage of fried chicken. Soul food. The crunch, the grease -- its "rich" ingredient -- the gnashing of teeth and the mess of it are the joy of it. Release, abandon and rich-ness.
Cut off from the outside world, Gazans access feelings from the outside world -- feelings they want to feel -- from American fast food.
If you lived in a perpetual blockade, imagine the lengths to which you would go for feelings of freedom, optimism, boundless opportunity.
Now put yourself in the shoes of Americans trapped in an economy of their own making. Can there be enough fried chicken?