I have begun a ten-day fast from 21-30 September for many reasons.

After returning from the Middle East in mid-August, I realized that I would have to do some soul-searching to come to terms with the amount of destruction and suffering among Iraqis. During the Gulf War, the United States intentionally destroyed national infrastructure which provided clean water to civilians and which sanitized sewage. The United States bombed electrical plants, and thus during the 140-degree summer days in Basrah, the air conditioning for average, middle class citizens works in three-hour intervals. The United States bombed a shelter for women and children in Baghdad.

I lost nearly fifteen pounds during my three-week trip to the Middle East. When I returned and went grocery shopping for the first time, I cried in the produce department as I remembered the pitiful vegetables spread on various tables before me. So I began fasting today to remind me of the atrocious water conditions which made the vegetables inedible during my trip. I began fasting today to keep me mindful of the suffering of people who are in Iraq, who are victims of my country’s foreign policy.

Since my return, life has not been the same. Not usually an emotional person, I have found myself unusually moved by the thoughtful words and actions by my fellow activists and friends and conversely by the negative mail and often hateful responses by people who cannot understand the humanitarian crises ongoing in our world. I have felt that lump in my throat reading the AP reports of bombing in the Middle East. I have been more sensitive in tending to my own spirituality as well as my body’s responses to trauma. Things like socializing, keeping up with my laundry and correspondences have fallen aside in the last few weeks.

I am fasting as an expression of hopelessness at what can be done on a national level for peace and for the beautiful diverse lands which potentially will be destroyed by my country’s military. Even if the entire country, elected representatives included, were crying together for a peaceful solution to the problem, I am not certain that the outcome would change. The weapons manufacturers, the large corporations who devalue individual human life, and the political machinery which allows the level of militarism in our country have such a strong momentum that I cannot hope to change any aspect of U.S. policy through my decision to take only water for ten days. I can, however, remind myself that awareness of others’ suffering is a primary duty of peacemakers. I desire to be a peacemaker in my own life and to set a good example for my family, friends, co-workers and students.

Once in class last year, I had great difficulty in getting my students’ attention; they were talking and paying no attention to the fact that I was standing at the front of the class. They were so noisy that they could not hear my calls for them to quiet down. I had no resolve to yell at them and participate on their level. So I sat down. At first only a few people at the front of the classroom noticed. They all quieted down. Pretty soon I started hearing people at the back of the classroom wonder aloud where I had gone. Still I sat, not answering any questions, simply sitting. After a few more minutes, every eye in the classroom was on me and every mouth was silent. In a very quiet voice I announced I was ready to begin class and invited them to join me. It is for the same reason I sat down that I am fasting.

When everyone else is talking over each other, be still. When other voices are yelling to be heard, be still. When the violence reaches such egregious proportions that you feel the system will collapse under its own weight, be still. So I am fasting not to be heard but to be still, and quiet.

I am fasting to find some solace in the stillness and the quiet. It is so important to know where my heart is, to know where my soul is and to attend to the many emotions which might overtake my life if I did not take some time out to listen. I am fasting because I can do other things to promote peace in the world and in my life like writing a letter to my Congressperson, preparing a good lesson plan for school or praying during my lunch and dinner breaks. I am fasting because I do not know what else to do. Nothing in the world makes much sense right now, so I will take a break and be mindful and listen to the responses I hear in my conscience.

I seek clarity. I desire to be a patient and compassionate person. I am reflecting on the chaos of war and on the best way to tend to the needs of other people who are actively suffering. I hope that this ten-day break will keep me focused on what I hold important in my life and help me act in the ways of nonviolence in response to the violence in my country and my world.

*Leah C. Wells is Peace Education Coordinator at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.