Sunday, February 10, 2013

Life without germs is not much of a life

Last week in Australia came the news that the government had created stricter hygiene and sanitary regulations for childcare centres. These new standards included children not being allowed to blow out candles on a communal birthday cake and having to use hand-sanitiser before and after playing in the sandpit.

Later on came the news that a study by Stanford University revealed that actually exposing children to some germs may be good for them, as it builds up their immune system. Out of all the mothers I have spoken to about it, not one was shocked by this news.

So why do we have such stringent requirements when it comes to sanitation and hygiene? And what is that doing to us?

The emphasis on germs really began in the post-war period. This was a period when women were forced back into the home after doing work during the war. It was also a period when a new wave of household appliances supposedly freed up house-wives' time. It was also a time when consumerism really took off.

Having more stricter cleanliness requirements not only meant that women were kept busier, but that there was a ready market for more products particularly aimed at house-wives.

Things have changed a bit since that time, but I can't kept thinking that at least some of our ideas about cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation come from the very companies that are trying to sell us products.

We've all seen the ads where a women cleans the bathroom, but (shock, horror) doesn't get all the germs. No, if she wants the germs, she has to buy this particular brand of product that is guaranteed to pick up germs that the other products leave behind.

I remember when I was a new mother, receiving a free magazine and pack. The pack contained lots of samples of things I might need for my new baby. The magazine was filled with ads for more products. And looking back, I would say that many of those ads really capitalise on the fears that a new mother has. Many a new mother would have looked at those ads and thought they immediately needed to go out and buy a million and one things just to keep their baby safe, healthy and free from germs.

And this is probably a good time to say that an emphasis on hygiene and safety can be a good thing. The discovery that it was important to wash hands in hospital actually saved lives. And I for one am pleased that someone created products to keep cupboards locked so that little fingers (and mouths) could not get into them.

But have we gone too far?

The rules about birthday cakes are only for childcare centres. Parents can still choose to have a communal birthday cake at their own party if they wish. And I'm sure that many parents will. But will some parents see these new laws and suddenly worry that their child should not eat any cake where another child has blowed out the candles. I can all too easily imagine a scenario where little Tommy has a birthday party and little Jane's mother says Jane can't have any birthday cake if Tommy blows out the candles - spoiling the moment for both Tommy and Jane.

Birthdays are special, magical, joyful times for children. And one of the best things about birthdays (besides the presents, of course) is blowing out the candles. Children have been doing it for years. And I don't think we've suffered too much for it. And if any of us did catch someone else's cold, it's a small price to pay for sharing this moment together.

And that's one thing about strict sanitary regulations. It keeps people apart. Yes, when we share things, we may share germs. But we also share special moments. We are together as a family, a group or a community. The occasional cold is a small price to pay for that.

Some churches have now stopped allowing parishioners to share from the same cup during communion. Again, this is an attempt to stop the spreading of germs. And while I can see times when this might be a good practice (for example, when deadly viruses are widespread), it kind of ruins the meaning of sharing communion. In communion, we all come together. We partake in the one bread and the one wine. We share in the one faith. That's symbolic and it's special. And yes, we can still have that drinking from separate communion glasses. But something is lost if we do.  

At some point we need to ask ourselves if the price we're paying to keep ourselves free from germs is actually worth what we are losing. And part of what we are losing is our sense of belonging to the one community. We focus on the individual rather than the shared sense of being together.

We are not only isolating ourselves from each other. We are isolating ourselves from nature. The hand-sanitising before and after sandpit use is an example of how we wish to protect ourselves from dirt (and often nature).

Nature can make us dirty. Nature can expose us to germs. Nature can make us cold and wet and lower our immune system. Nature can bite and sting and hurt us.

So what do we do in our super-safe, super-sanitised (and super-comfortable) world we have created? It's telling that many eco-holidays are now held in very clean, very comfortable and very safe resort type settings. People get to experience nature without being exposed to any of the risk. But it kind of seems that that super-safe, super-sanitised and super-comfortable experience of nature is missing at least some of what nature has to offer.

And what about the backyard? Or the park? Or general everyday places where kids get to experience nature? Do we keep our kids far from any of that because they might get hurt or they might catch germs? I personally think that a childhood where we don't experience nature is far worse than a childhood where we might get sick or get stung now and then.

My son got stung by a bee just recently. I asked him whether he thought it would have been better to not play outside, because therefore he wouldn't have got stung by a bee. His answer was no. When asked why he said, 'Because then I wouldn't get any exercise or any sun and I wouldn't have fun.' When I said, 'What if you knew you would get stung by a bee again if you played outside, would you still play outside?' His answer, 'yes' and he didn't really need to think about it too much.

There's one way to keep children safe. Keep them isolated in sterilised rooms, with nothing dangerous and no contact with anyone or barely anything. But that's not living.

We're not meant to live highly sterilised, highly safe, highly comfortable lives. Whether we like it or not, we are connected to each other and we are connected to nature. And that involves some risk. But the risk is worth it. Because a life that's connected to other people and connected to nature also contains much joy. And anyone who has experience that joy would say that it was worth the risk to get it.  

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