3 Lessons from the Armenian People on rewriting your relationship history with food.

This blog post is the first installment of a special series on Reasons for Cultural Identity: How we can embrace our culture in our pursuit of healing.

“Finish the food on your plate, there are children starving in Africa.” We’ve all probably heard various versions of this admonishment from a parent or caregiver at some point in our childhood.

According to history, there once was a time, in 1930’s America, during the post-World War I era where the phrase replaced Africa with the tiny little country of Armenia in Eastern Europe. Although the U.S. was neutral during the early period of World War I, relief efforts from missionary organizations shed some light on the atrocities that were occurring in Armenia enough that a common phrase in a typical American household was: “Clean your plate, remember the starving Armenians” as mothers urged children to finish their food at dinnertime.

As I reflect on the history of my ancestors, I want to share with you some parallels from my experience as an Armenian-American, and some lessons learned from their story of survival in a way that perhaps can help you on your journey toward recovery from an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food.

Every spring as the commemoration of the Armenian genocide approaches, my heart is heavy yet hopeful. The stories of the devastation experienced are always juxtapositioned with the stories of strength, resilience hope and survival of my ancestors, which as a result of, I am alive today. It’s strange to think that at one point in time, there was a group of people who did not want me alive because I am Armenian and it’s an even more foreign concept to believe that my culture, one now marked by the enjoyment of food, friends and family, could ever have been labeled as a people that is known as “starving.”

Despite the atrocities committed against them, the Armenian people survived and have picked up the pieces of a broken history, going on to create a beautiful legacy.

As I think about the journey of my ancestors and my people, I can’t help but consider my work with eating disorders and the same potential for hope, renewal and reclaiming identity that exists for all those who feel that they are close to destruction… that your eating disorder, your anxiety, and your trauma wants you removed from the earth.

Just like the Armenian people transitioned from being known throughout the world for their lack of food, they have reclaimed their identity to one of abundance, to one of hope, and to one of life.

The same potential exists for you. You can reclaim your identity around food, around relationships, and around yourself.

Here are a few lessons I have learned from the journey and history of my people that I hope you can benefit from on your own journey towards healing:

1. Celebrate Differences

In elementary school, I will never forget the first day I brought my lunch to school. Like any typical loving Armenian mom, my mom packed my favorite food: one sandwich with pita bread & Armenian melted cheese and one peanut butter and jelly sandwich, also in pita bread. I remember pulling out my lunch and noticing that every single other person had their peanut butter jelly sandwiches on the typical, whole wheat, square sandwich bread and I thought: well, that’s different! I didn’t see it as bad, I wasn’t ashamed. Instead, when my friends asked why my sandwich was in pita bread I said “It’s great! Wanna try it?” Before I knew it, my friends were starting to ask my mom to make them food and that became my story: celebration of my differences throughout my entire school experience. I laugh about this story with some of my lifelong friends who still ask me to bring “Armenian pizza” when we get together and as I reflect I think, shouldn’t we be like this with all of our differences?

Shouldn’t we always notice them, enjoy them, embrace them?

Often differences create discontentment. They create a feeling of “less than.”

Let’s learn together to embrace our differences and recognize that they make the world worth exploring. Differences are what makes us learn, grow and develop. Whether it’s a difference in sandwich bread or clothing size; embrace and teach others about your differences and learn something new from someone who is different than you.

2. Soul Survival: Food as Fuel for Abundant Life

As I mentioned before, the Armenian people transitioned from being labeled for their lack of food to now being celebrated and well-known throughout the world for their exquisite cuisine. Food is no longer viewed as an item that is scarce, rather it is now seen as a fuel for the abundant life that has been gifted, that was not promised, and that could have been exterminated.

If you view your life as a gift, you can live in the fullness of this truth and focus on feeding your soul, and food becomes the physical fuel for you to live the life you want to rather than focus on food and forget the gift and your specific purpose for this life.

3. Rejoice in Relationships:

The Armenian people have reclaimed their identity around relationships through being a united community, woven together by the love and support of each other. Gatherings are filled with family who are friends and friends who are family. Abundant laughter, fellowship, friendship and yes, food are present as a reminder that this life is all about relationships, everything else is just an accessory. My family and culture have taught me to join together and rejoice in relationships. All other things come second.

In conclusion, despite the challenges Armenians have faced since they were first on the U.S. map in the 1930s and only known as “the starving Armenians”; the place of hope, completion and healing is a testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit and the drive to survive and reclaim what is rightfully ours, what is our true identity.

Scarcity of food is no longer our identity, the lack of it is no longer a label. It is a factor in our history that has affected us as a people but at the end of the day, it no longer defines us.

The same is true for you: your relationship with food, your dieting habits, and your eating disorder does not define you.

Leave it as part of your history. Leave the label behind. Join the Armenian people in redefining yourself. The lack of food or overabundance doesn’t define us, instead the food is now the fuel so that we as a people can define ourselves and leave a legacy that transcends a label that history tries to place upon us.

As the famous Armenian author, William Saroyan once said: “Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

Despite the most powerful attempts; Armenia was not destroyed. May the same be said of how you survive everything that attempts to destroy you. In your darkest moments, remember that every breath holds the hope that your home will once again be filled with laughter, your ears will one day soon enjoy sweet music, and your lips will one day speak thankful words in prayer. You will meet yourself again and again along this journey and create a new life, a new identity a new story. Your beauty will be made from these ashes. You will blossom from the soil of your history with a new song, a new life, and a new story.

As the Mexican Proverb says, “They tried to bury us, they did not know we were seeds.”

Let your legacy overcome your label. Reclaim the years of struggle and rewrite your history.