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The start of the spring semester show­cases a funny kind of social dance: Friends zeal­ously reunite after winter break but shy away from hugs and meals because — ope! — there’s a cold going around.

The attitude is under­standable, but living so gin­gerly is a waste of energy. Germa­phobic habits may not help your health as much as you think — and they can take a toll on your friend­ships.

San­i­ti­zation is a merit of the modern age, but it has its down­sides. The U.S. polio epi­demic in the early 1900s was in part pre­cip­i­tated by the increase in san­itary con­di­tions and clean water: Exposed to fewer low-grade infec­tions, people weren’t as often immu­nized to polio during childhood. Of course we’ll keep our clean water and public-health mea­sures, which do far more good than harm, but there is evi­dence to suggest that san­i­ti­zation keeps away bac­teria our bodies need.

The “hygiene hypothesis” posits just that: Living in very sterile envi­ron­ments limits our exposure to healthy bac­teria that’s important for physical devel­opment. We carry about a kidney-sized amount of nec­essary bac­teria, or microflora, in our bodies, much of which is good for us, says Assistant Pro­fessor of Biology Silas Johnson.

Hygienic habits are important, but need to be bal­anced. In sit­u­a­tions with a lot of people exposure, hand san­i­tizers are ben­e­ficial, says Pro­fessor of Biology Frank Steiner — but they need to be used “judi­ciously.”

More fun­da­men­tally, though, obsessing over san­i­tation — like any obsession — detracts from living fully; it’s a false and fearful view of reality. Some­times, it’s even self-cen­tered. Staying home from church or school for fear your kids will catch a cold, or habit­ually holding back from hugging and hosting and vol­un­teering because of a virus is a sorry pref­erence for pro­tection over people. Our attitude can become imper­sonal or even anti-person, as if humans are no more than germ fac­tories this time of year — and my health is of utmost impor­tance.

It’s a poignant demon­stration of faith and charity when you give up your health from your control (as if it ever were within it) to engage people who put your health at risk. Jesus, after all, spent time with the lepers.

Of course, every­thing requires balance, and it’s wise to follow certain health guide­lines. We wouldn’t want to return to the days before water-puri­fying methods and under­standing of san­i­tation. But san­i­tation should be a public concern more than a per­sonal one. Be smart about your health insofar as you’re being con­sid­erate of others: Take care of your hygiene, get your shots, and leave the flu at home. Be aware of your own and others’ tol­erance for sickness; for some, a common cold is worse than for others.

But don’t let worries of germs or sickness rule your life during the winter months. Keep vol­un­teering in the church nursery, babysit the runny-nosed toddler, and when you bring a meal to a sick friend, don’t hover in the doorway. Human touch, studies show (and don’t we know), is important — for extending com­passion and com­mu­ni­cating and bonding. It even has health ben­efits.

“We need balance,” Johnson says. “We need to acknowledge that there are pathogens that could make us sick, so practice good hygiene. But trying to pursue some com­pletely sterile envi­ronment is unnec­essary and unrea­sonable and in some ways a neg­ative.”

And on campus at Hillsdale, thanks to the main­te­nance staff, there’s not so much need to fret: Steiner’s biology stu­dents test the door­knobs every year, and they find “very little, if any, bac­teria at all,” Steiner says.

So pump the hand san­i­tizer if you feel so called, but don’t let its absence stop you from eating or shaking hands or living a full life. Wor­rying con­stantly about germs can be a sickness in itself.