It’s day one of my four-day writing/prayer retreat. As I walk along the beach, I find myself obsessively circling back to one detail: I forgot to pack chocolate and chips.
Chocolate and chips have dismantled many writer’s blocks for me. In the middle of a difficult section of my second book, I posted a somewhat facetious SOS for chocolate and a generous friend over-nighted a box of my favorite brand. I finished the chapter by the end of the week.
I could probably let go of my fixation if there didn’t happen to be a store within five miles that not only has a good variety of chocolate and chips but my favorite coconut ice cream. After debating the merits of going immediately after my walk, it occurs to me that I sound like an addict planning my next fix.
Nearly all of us have felt a profound need for comfort in the past sixteen months. We’ve experienced loneliness, grief, boredom, disorientation, anxiety, sleep issues, and job insecurity. To name a few. During the same time, we’ve lost access to many of the things that normally help us to cope and manage stress. Sporting events, concerts, exercise classes, hanging out with friends, and even just going to the office have all been off limits.
Though sharing food communally largely was not happening in 2020, most of us kept eating.* Perhaps in excess.
It wasn’t a coincidence that during the height of the pandemic, half the country started making sourdough bread (and kombucha), growing their own vegetables and herbs, and buying cookbooks. (General cookbook sales increased 127% in 2020.) We all needed a dependable fix and food fits the bill. After all, food is accessible, predictable, and doesn’t ask for anything in return.
The need for comfort is universal. It begins immediately after we emerge from the self-contained storage unit that is our mother’s wombs. Obviously, a baby’s needs for comfort are vastly different from the needs of a thirty- or eighty-year old. But the truth is, we don’t stop needing comfort as we age. We just stop feeling comfortable asking for it. Few of us enjoy being needy. Regardless of our ambivalence, during the past year, all of us were undeniably needy. The massive disruptions in our day-to-day existence and the ongoing losses exponentially increased our desire for comfort.
First interlude during which I find myself making dinner, even though it’s quite early and I’m not hungry, simply because I’m not sure where this essay is taking me. FYI: I did not go to the store after my walk so chips and chocolate are not on tonight’s menu.
I think we are meant to receive comfort from food. A perfectly-paired glass of wine alongside a succulent burger or airy pancakes made with fresh blueberries and a side of bacon do much more than nourish our bodies. Food feeds our souls especially when it’s beautifully prepared and consumed alongside those we love.
But sometimes, we expect too much from food. We eat as a means of self-soothing. We eat because it’s far easier and less vulnerable to consume ice cream, chips, chocolate, or insert your favorite comfort food here than it is to ask for what we truly need. If we eat to fill our emotional, relational, or spiritual voids, food will fail to satisfy.
Second interlude during which I slice a musk melon, squeeze fresh lime juice on it (try it!), and absentmindedly eat it. I once again berate myself for forgetting the chocolate and chips. While having a second slice, I realize that it’s actually a perfect melon. I then savor each bite and let go of the chips and chocolate. For now. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.
In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4) At first blush, it might be hard to imagine that mourning could lead us into comfort. But if Jesus is right—and he usually is—there’s something to this.
Mourning or grieving pulls us fully and completely into reality, whatever that reality might be. Chronic pain. An unfulfilling job. Loneliness. A rebellious child. We can’t mourn unless we get in touch with our hearts. Avoidance and denial are easier, at least short term, but lack any long-term payoff. When we stop circling the pain and instead listen to it, we can begin to learn from it and find healing.
Though I had not anticipated this, I mourned quite a bit during my four-day retreat. Perhaps that was to be expected given that it was the first time I had slowed down since the pandemic hit. I grieved the friends lost to Covid, the relationships fractured by politics, and the many, many disappointments of 2020. As I wept, I sensed God’s presence, his care, and yes, his comfort. That satisfies like nothing else. It leaves no residue of guilt or shame. It is genuine and good.
In Paul’s second book to the Corinthians, he writes:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Cor. 1: 3-7)
May you enjoy and feel grateful for each meal set before you. May God’s unfailing love comfort you, now and always. (Ps. 119: 76)
Post Script. On the third day, I went to the store, ostensibly for another melon. But I had to walk past the chips/chocolate aisles to get to the produce section. (I’m sure the stores are intentionally designed this way.) Five minutes later, I paid for my two bars of chocolate, one pint of coconut ice cream, and three (!!) bags of chips (that’s correct, no melon). Two weeks later, I’ve only eaten one of the chocolate bars and one bag of chips. I’m celebrating this small victory.
*I am aware that during the past year, food insecurity has been an issue for approximately 45 million Americans. Please consider donating fresh, high quality food to your local food banks.
Header photo by Stefan Johnson, Unsplash.
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