Last week in Washington D.C. we met a man on the street named Start Loving. His mantra, and assumed name, was written on his face (literally, it was tattooed) but more importantly, in his actions. Start was camped outside the Canadian embassy on day 21 of an indefinite hunger strike protesting CO2 emissions. We walked past him on the way to the Capitol building and noticed his make-shift teepee of assorted clothes, sheets, and suitcases. In all honesty it was kind of hard to miss him. His scraggly beard and wrinkly tattooed face stood in stark contrast to the clean cut, suit wearing D.C employees, and polos-tucked-into-their-socks tourists. On our first pass we simply glanced, took note, and continued on our way, but as we walked past him a second time later that afternoon we decided to stop and see what he was doing. Start had a straightforward demeanor; his hunger-strike rationale was well-rehearsed and he delivered it with a mix of scientific fact and passionate cursing. About half way through our conversation he paused and sat down on the ground, his energy sapped after ten minutes of talking and 21 days without food. Moving slowly, he finally settled in cross-legged on the sidewalk; I knelt down beside him so I could hear what he was saying (by this point he’d begun to speak quite softly, the rest of the team could barely hear him even though they weren’t more than three feet away from the two of us.) It was easily 80 degrees and Start was wearing a vest over top of a thick flannel shirt, and as he was talking he began to roll up his sleeves. Sweat was dripping down the creases in his face and into his beard, and his arms were so thin I probably could have wrapped my hand around his forearm and touched my thumb to the tip of my index finger. That’s when I realized that this man was literally starving.
Start and I wrapped up our conversation and as we left I wished him luck, and told him I hoped the weather would cool off for him. He looked me straight in the face and said what happened to him didn’t matter, that the cause was bigger than him, that his life meant less than the lives he believed we’re destroying with our environmental irresponsibility. I don’t doubt for one second that he absolutely believes that, and it made me wonder if there’s anything I care about enough to actually sacrifice my life for it.
In 1924 German writer Franz Kafka published a short story called A Hunger Artist. The tale revolves around a street performer who would lock himself in a cage and fast for forty days at a time as a public spectacle. People would come and watch him fast, impressed with his self-discipline. But as the story progresses the people abruptly lose interest in the art of professional fasting and the hunger artist is reduced to working for a circus as a side attraction where he eventually fasts so long that he dies of starvation. Though there are many interpretations of the story, one theme that can be drawn out is our tendency to be amazed by the spectacular, but only for a short amount of time. This is especially true in the world of social justice (just look at the Kony 2012 phenomenon for example, the number of people who’ve watched the follow up video pales in comparison to the number that watched the one that launched the campaign). It’s easy to get caught up in the “hot topics”, and what worries me is the fact that combating human trafficking seems to be one of the hot topics right now. What’s hard is being dedicated to an issue and pursuing a solution over an extended period of time. Last February a couple of us attended the Justice Conference in Portland, OR and the President of World Relief Stephan Bauman made one simple but difficult request: hold the line on one thing, no matter what, just pick something and hold the line.
The truth is, Start Loving may never change the world through his hunger strike, but then again, he might.