The "Hygiene Hypothesis" Blows Lent Wide Open

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Driving to work yesterday, I heard a story on NPR about scientists studying the "hygiene hypothesis." The thinking behind the hypothesis goes like this:
  • Developed countries have detergents, sanitizers, and machines to clean things in ways humans have never cleaned things before.
  • We also don't hang out around livestock like our ancestors did Back In The Day.
  • Children who grow up in these super-clean environments lose contact with good old-fashioned GERMS, tricking their bodies into thinking every microbe in town is hazardous.
  • Thus, their adorable little immune systems go berserk: #eczema #allergies # asthma

Are we too clean?

Swedish scientist Dr. Bill Hesselmar and his research team published new study results in the most recent edition of the journal Pediatrics. Their research looked specifically at automatic dishwashers. Over 1,000 seven and eight year olds in Sweden participated in the study, which compared families who wash dishes by hand to families with automatic dishwashers.

Intrigued? This is what the study discovered:
In families who said they mostly wash dishes by hand, significantly fewer children had eczema, and somewhat fewer had either asthma or hay fever, compared to kids from families who let machines wash their dishes.
Hyper-sanitizing our environment might actually make us weaker, more prone to disease. The print version of the article is here: Kids, Allergies And A Possible Downside To Squeaky Clean Dishes. Click on over to behold the disclaimers, qualifications, and other possible explanations for the study's findings, which are far from conclusive.

Although the study does not profess to be the final word on the matter, I'm glad scientists keep looking into this. At the moment, the hygiene hypothesis makes a whole lot of sense to me. It seems to confirm anecdotal evidence from my experience: an astonishing number of my children's friends have serious, even fatal allergies not to be trifled with. And most of these allergies were unheard of when I was in pigtails. A "peanut-free zone," though a strict requirement in schools now, would have sounded like a weird Judy Blume novel to me in grade school.

The hygiene hypothesis inspired me to wonder further: what if it's not just our physical world that's too clean? What if we're overly sanitized spiritually, as well? What happens to children who, for example, rarely encounter suffering?

If well-intentioned parents can over-sanitize toys and pacifiers, couldn't we also be making faith in Jesus too "safe"? Fewer and fewer toddlers spend time outdoors, furtively eating the occasional handful of grass and ants. Similarly, fewer children learn early on the humiliation of suffering. Humiliation comes from the Latin word humus, meaning dirt. We freak out when babies eat dirt; maybe we also over-protect our children from feeling as low as dirt, from suffering.

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Lent invites us to join Jesus on his journey to the Passion. Scripture tells us about his 40 days in the dessert, being tempted by Satan. Holy Week shows us Jesus sweating drops of blood, being beaten, spat on, and ridiculed. We watch Jesus fall on the dusty ground once, twice, three times. Cleanliness might be "next to Godliness," but God himself got awfully dirty for us.

We know Jesus suffered for us. He suffered terribly. We believe this, and we praise God. Yet we avoid our own suffering, and, to be honest, most of us parents absolutely want to help our children avoid suffering.

A mom I met told me how upset she was when her five-year-old son came home from school asking why Jesus had to die. The crucifix in his kindergarten classroom prompted the question. Seeing Jesus' lifeless body nailed to the cross distressed the boy, and his mother wasn't ready to discuss death with him. "He doesn't need to know about death yet," she told me. "He's only five."

I don't know what approach would have been most helpful for that particular child, but I'm willing to bet he already knew more about suffering and death than his mother expected. Life is full of challenges and disappointments, even for little children. Parents aren't really surprised when their toddlers have to battle a cold, but we can feel shocked, even horrified, when they suffer spiritually.

Ever since Adam and Eve bit into that apple, suffering has been part of the human condition. Lent helps us become more human, with its invitation to accept that suffering. Trying to control our environment to eliminate hardship rejects the crowning achievement of Jesus' humility.

Christians know the Resurrection comes next. Jesus shows us how suffering can lead to glory, if we accept it humbly. (There's no need, of course, to go searching for suffering or to put ourselves in abusive situations. Normal life brings humiliation enough.)

The hygiene hypothesis proposes that dirt can strengthen our immune systems; Lent proposes that suffering can make us stronger, more Christ-like. Marvelously, we draw closer to the Heart of Christ when we unite our suffering with his.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.
 -Hebrews 4:15-16