I was twenty-two and pregnant with my first child. We were attending a high school graduation. In the bleachers in front of me was a new mother who was probably even younger than me. I watched her, reflecting on the wonder that awaited me, when suddenly I saw her undress her baby and change him. Right there. Out in the open. I couldn’t believe it. But then, it got worse! I watched her wrap up the used diaper and throw it in her bag. Yes, it was only wet and not dirty, but still! That thing belonged in the trashcan immediately, right!? And then, finally, horror of horrors, she didn’t wash her hands. The girl must have noticed my watching because she turned around and laughed, just wait! I smiled, but interiorly decided that I would be different.
And then— my baby was born. And I find that I’m not really that different. Yes, I’m still a bit of a germ freak and, in a similar situation, would have taken my child to the car to be changed. But I’ve learned that wet diapers aren’t really dirty and that dirty diapers do not require throwing away the outfit they may have contaminated (something I shamefully admit to having done). The fact is, with children comes plenty of dirt and bacteria. And it’s not that you should stop caring about that dirt and bacteria, but you have to learn to choose your battles. Sometimes it’s okay to let the dirt and bacteria win— especially when it’s for the sake of something more important.
Modern medical experts actually support this occasional surrender to germs. They say that germs can be good for our bodies. What they don’t say is how germs can be good for our souls.
What I mean is, a sterile environment is a sad one. And where there is love, there are likely to be germs. I initially learned this when I started having babies. But my understanding has deepened since having a farm. A farm is full of life— which also means it is full of germs. When we first got farm animals I was horrified by the amount of flies those germs attracted. I HATE flies. If one fly lands on my food I don’t eat it. I will chase one all around the house to swat it.
And yet, like the dirt under my children’s fingernails, I have grown to be thankful for flies. Flies remind me of my connection with and dependence upon nature. They remind me of my lowliness. They make me more appreciative of my food and remind me to do simple things that express that appreciativeness— things like finishing everything that’s on my plate, washing dishes quickly, composting our food and not accumulating so much trash in the first place. Flies remind me that eating is not just a passive luxury to be enjoyed anywhere at any time. Because flies have landed on my food before, I am more grateful when they don’t!
Of course, this is only a drop in the bucket of the kind of wisdom that pre-industrial generations possessed. “Living in harmony with nature” is not simply tapping into nature occasionally at predetermined times, it means accepting the way that nature is inconvenient, messy, and unpredictable and allowing that to move us, surprise us, challenge us, and transform our habits. Up until the Industrial Revolution, most people had to work outside, every day, for their basic survival and sustenance. That meant a lot of one on one time with God’s creation and with each other. It also meant a lot of germs. And certainly, these germs sometimes caused tremendous pain and suffering, as they still can today. And yet, I think those pre-industrial people were generally less afraid of germs than we were. They were generally less afraid of getting sick and generally less afraid of dying. Because there is a natural kind of of awe, humility, and surrender that one has to have, wrestling with dirt and bacteria every day. We were made to wrestle nature. And doing so can bring about a deep sense of peace and purpose— not at every moment, certainly, but overall.
I feel that peace and purpose when I swat a fly that was about to contaminate the pan of meat I just cooked. I feel it when I see the tremendous amount of dirt and dust that accumulates in our dust pan in one day despite not wearing shoes in the house. I feel it when I change a diaper. I feel it when I wash clothes that are actually dirty, not just recently worn (as clothes used to be when we had less children and less animals). I feel it even when the children all come down with something one by one— I feel fulfillment, not in the sickness itself, but in the nursing back to health. I thank God for their immune systems, but I also remember that their immune systems are not perfect. And that germs can be dangerous. We cannot swat everything with a fly swatter. But we can keep wrestling, and in the midst of the wrestling, the winning and the losing, we are humbled— and thus better understand what it means to be human.