In keeping with the clinical analogy, it makes sense to look next at symptoms. Physical starvation concretely affects the entire person: body (e.g., weight loss, anemia); mind (e.g., lethargy, difficulty concentrating); and emotions (e.g., agitation, depression). But what would then be the spiritual analogs to these symptoms? Is there such a thing as spiritual weight loss? Furthermore, the overlap between mental and emotional effects is confounding in and of itself. The overarching problem is that symptoms, by definition, are an individual’s personal experiences, and are as variable as the people facing them.
Perhaps we need first to look for a common denominator. Is there a point to which both physical and spiritual starvation may be reduced, which can then be compared as an analogy between the two?
Aha – we think we’ve got it. Something which should sound familiar: SELF-PRESERVATION.
In physical starvation mode, the body automatically turns to self-preservation by slowing down metabolism and cognitive functioning to minimize expenditure of energy. People show increased agitation and irritability as both a function of imbalanced chemistry and our instinctive survival behavior which draws attention to the fact that something is wrong.
In spiritual starvation mode, our thoughts tend to turn inward. We fortify ourselves to survive without connections by empowering self-statements:
Defensiveness and distrust build gradually if left unchecked. As we repeatedly assume the worst intentions from others, we prepare for (or even pre-empt) pain and rejection.
There is a noteworthy distinction between the physical and spiritual. Self-preservation in physical starvation is the body’s drastic, involuntary effort to prompt for help to remain alive. In spiritual starvation, however, the mechanism serves the opposite function: to push help away and to shut our connections down.
Is it drastic? Yes.
Is it involuntary?
(pause) In part.
In the measure that it is a function of habit, we believe, yes.
It is theoretically impossible to speak definitively for every person in every circumstance, and for our purposes, it is not necessary. We are fairly certain, though, that we can make a few general statements common to all human nature and stay within the limits of reason.
Let us simplify by saying that spiritual self-preservation is an act of deliberately withholding one’s self from connecting with others. We can speak both of isolated instances of last resort and long term self-preservation as a habit nurtured over many years. As with anything else, change is always possible, but ingrained behavior is quite nearly automatic – and much more difficult to root out.
Here’s another wrinkle: Spiritual self-preservation can occur without insult, injury or interference from others.
Take autism, for instance.
Someone with the best intentions may experience extreme anxiety in the presence of others. Ambient noise may jumble a person’s thoughts. Eye contact may be painfully difficult. Words may come out incorrectly, or slowly, or in choppy stutter. Social rules may be unclear. In any of these cases, the choice to isolate rather than interact seems more like survival than avoidance. Yet, the outcome remains the same: disconnection.
It is easy, in the case of physical starvation, to cleanly point from cause to effect. Such clarity does not exist in the spiritual realm.
What we do know is that disconnection from others is a sign of spiritual malnourishment… and is detrimental to spiritual health.
Very often, we will find someone – perhaps, even, ourselves – isolating from others, for one reason or another… once in awhile, or habitually. The outward signs are not always clear, or obvious, or even detectable.
What, then, do we do, if we do not know who amongst us is spiritually hungry, and who is spiritually well-nourished?
The answer is simple: Nourish everyone. Those who have plenty will appreciate the nourishment. And, those who have none… will appreciate the nourishment. There is no such thing as too much generosity when it comes to spiritual nourishment.
Starting with ourselves.
Pray: Heavenly Father, we pray that You reveal our innermost habits to us, so that we may recognize the symptoms of our own spiritual hunger before it turns to starvation.
Contemplate: What habits of spiritual self-preservation do we nurture? Before this exercise, were we aware of these habits?
Relate: Spiritual self-preservation pushes people away in our moments of need. If we catch ourselves doing this, pause and consider the outcome… and, if at all possible, try a different route. What happens?
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak