DIABETES AND THANKSGIVING: FEAST OR FAST?
My grandfather used to say, “Neelys will never have anything. They’ll eat it all up.” My grandfather was a wise man. He was also a Neely.
One of our treasured family stories is about the first time my mother shared a meal at my grandparents’ home. Though the event occurred about two years before my birth, I’ve heard the tale and repeated it so often that I feel I was actually there. The woman who would become my mother was the sweetheart of the man who would become my dad. He took her to a Sunday meal at the family home, the very home in which Clare and I now reside, the home in which we reared our own five children.
The dining room table was large enough to accommodate the entire family. My dad was one of nine children. My grandfather, whom I called Pappy, asked the blessing and picked up a bottle of Tabasco Sauce. Pappy shook the contents all over his salad, a lettuce leaf topped with a pear half, filled with a dollop of mayonnaise and garnished with grated cheese. My mother, seated next to my grandfather, was stunned when she saw her future father-in-law putting Tabasco Sauce on his pear salad. Noticing her surprise, Pappy quipped, “Louise, if you get a hold of something you don’t like, change it to something you do like.” The point is, Neelys can find a way to eat just about anything.
During the Christmas holiday season of 1987, I did not feel well. Clare and I had the usual heavy schedule of Christmas parties and holiday dinners. On January 1, 1988, at my parent’s home, we enjoyed our traditional New Year’s Day meal of pork chops, barbecue, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and a variety of desserts. In the South, we have a superstition that if a person eats a meal of turnip greens and black-eyed peas on the first day of the year, the year ahead will be prosperous. I had eaten my share and more on that day, just as I had done throughout my life.
While watching the college football bowl games later that afternoon, I drank water almost constantly. My brother-in-law, a Family Practice physician, noticed and said, “I want you to be at my office first thing in the morning. Come fasting. Don’t eat anything.”
The next morning I went to his office, fasting as he had instructed. A Glucose Tolerance Test revealed the truth of my condition. I was and am a diabetic, a fact I discovered during the holiday season.
The Great Commandment taught by Jesus has been of great help to me in learning to cope with diabetes. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30 NIV). To love God in these four ways is to love God emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically. The diabetic must develop disciplines in each of the four areas.
Physically, a diabetic learns to pay attention to his or her own body. Eating, sleeping, and exercise need to become functions of bodily awareness.
Mentally, a diabetic needs to become a student of the metabolic process. Understanding the way carbohydrates become sugar and are transported to the cells by insulin provides the conceptual key to making sense of our medications. The careful diabetic is committed to an ongoing process of measuring weight, glucose levels, and food amounts.
Emotionally, diabetics and those who love them learn to expect marked mood swings. Sadly, the pun that diabetics are just too sweet is not reality. Diabetics are prone either to deny the seriousness of their disease or to allow the disease to become the defining factor in their lives. A diabetic is responsible for managing this disease effectively without becoming a nuisance to others or indulging in self-pity
When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, I had difficulty when others were enjoying desserts but I could not. My problem is that in my life, as in many cafeteria lines, the desserts came first. I had all of my dessert in the first forty-three years of life. Adjusting to my illness required major physical, mental, and emotional changes. Much more could be written, and has been elsewhere, about lifestyle adjustments in those areas.
I want to focus on a spiritual discipline that will help all of us, especially those who struggle with diabetes. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, there is a way of coping that will enhance our health and also the spiritual significance of the holiday that is intended, not for over consumption, but for gratitude. The spiritual discipline of fasting has been helpful to me. “Wait a minute!” you may protest. “I thought diabetics were not supposed to skip meals.” That is right. Diabetics should eat on a regular schedule. Stay with me.
Fasting has not been a part of the spiritual discipline in the life of faith for most believers. According to the traditions of the Church, there are seven deadly sins. Pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, and sloth are sins that are regarded as severe. We seem, however, to encourage the seventh deadly sin, the sin of gluttony. Christian churches are among the worst offenders in a calorie and caffeine culture. Church suppers and fellowships reflect conformity to our overeating society. The management of diabetes requires abstinence from refined sugar, white flour, and other empty carbohydrates found in processed foods. Many diabetics call these fake foods.
The discipline of fasting does not necessarily mean not eating anything. It can mean simply not eating certain items. The consumption of foods as close to their natural state as possible is the wisest policy, not only for diabetics, but also for everyone else. Fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and other natural foods are best. On January 1, 1988, my physician brother-in-law asked me to come to his office. “Come fasting,” he said. Neither of us could have known it that was a lifetime invitation.
As we enjoy this Thanksgiving season, I invite you to fast, not from all foods, but from junk foods. I invite you to abstain, not from delicious nutritious food, but from sugar-laden fare that will damage your health. This kind of fast should serve to strengthen our bodies, renew our minds, and calm our emotions. Coupled with prayer, the decision to feast and fast in moderation will nourish our spirits.
As we sit down to our Thanksgiving meal, we may allow our gratitude to extend far beyond our holiday table. Our sense of appreciation should focus on relationships rather than recipes. As we enjoy our meal, eating what we need, we can resolve to find ways to help those who are hungry and malnourished. The blessings bestowed upon us afford the opportunity to become a blessing to others. Thanksgiving can become both a feast for the soul and fast for the body. This least commercialized of all holidays is far more than a day for parades and football, turkey and dressing. Thanksgiving is not what is on our table. Thanksgiving is what is in our hearts.