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.