Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hurt People and Good Hygiene

I live with a lot of hurt people — both prisoners and staff. I know they’re hurt because they become hurters themselves and go through life inflicting pain and harm of one kind or another on everyone around them.
Some of them are sadistic about it and inflict their pain with relish. Others just don’t know how not to be harmful. They’re like broken bottles trying to live in the world of flesh with all their jagged edges.
Prison is a concentration of these wounded hurters but outside it’s the same story. Everywhere we look in our culture we see these two types of wounded people: those who like hurting others and those who just don’t know how not to. I’m talking about the angry, the addicted, the emotionally shut down, the empty, the greedy, the lost.
The word “whole” means of be free of wound or injury or to be healed and restored.
Wholeness ethics, then, is both the ethics of healing a hurt world and of creating a culture in which we don’t hurt each other so much in the first place. A culture in which people are loved, encouraged and supported as they struggle to find meaning in this short life.
Your first reaction to this might well be that it’s an admirable pipe dream but it will never happen. We’re told this over and over in various ways: People will never change. But before you accept that blindly consider some recent historical evidence to the contrary.
Not long ago people in Western culture universally behaved in ways that caused untold suffering to themselves and others. This behavior was deeply rooted in the norms and mores of their culture and the first people who talked about changing it were laughed at, mocked and ignored.
I’m talking about the appalling lack of physical hygiene and the first people who talked about changing it. Our very recent ancestors not only didn’t bathe more than once or twice a year, they considered it harmful or possibly even evil to do so more often. They had no concept of germs and thought that all the diseases they were spreading around with almost everything they did were being caused by “evil forces.”
This is what the first hygiene advocates were up against. I’m sure they told themselves at times: People are never going to change. Yet, I’m betting that when you woke up this morning you either washed up or took a shower. After you used the toilet you washed your hands before going into the kitchen and handling food and (hopefully) you didn’t fling your feces and urine out an upstairs window into the street below.
The question is why? Did you suddenly conclude on your own that this was a better way of living? Of course not. Someone taught you that it was and both the information about and the attitude toward good hygiene goes all the way back to those few people living in a world that thought they were crazy.
By studying in order to understand the mechanics of their vision, then turning this understanding into arguments and social campaigns, by refusing to give up or give in to fatalism or cynicism, they slowly turned the tide and now when you go to the doctor she doesn’t pull her hands out of another infected patient’s wound and put them into yours and then blame witches or the devil when you get sick and die. Aren’t you thankful for the people who brought us that? I sure am.
Now it’s our turn. The comparison between this “cleanliness ethics” and wholeness ethics is quite accurate. We’re acting today in ways that spread hurt around and destroy lives and potential; it’s built into our cultural norms and mores so we pass these behaviors on to each new generation and, not understanding that we’re creating it ourselves, we credit it to “evil forces.”
Wholists are the hygiene advocates of our time. Only we’re advocating whole-life hygiene rather than just physical hygiene.
Indeed, though we think of hygiene today as just physical cleanliness, the word actually has a broader meaning. It comes from “Hygeia,” the goddess of health in Greek mythology, and it refers to the science of the establishment and maintenance of health and the conditions or practices conducive to health.
Where “hygiene” as we understand the word today is an ethics of physical health, wholism is an ethics of whole-life health. It’s the science of the establishment and maintenance of whole-life health and the conditions and practices conducive to that.
It’s about figuring out how to stop spreading germs like violence, fear and other pathogens through our culture and our world so we can move beyond the diseased and under-realized lives too many of us are leading.
We got where we are today in terms of physical hygiene due to a lot of hard work, dedication and creativity. People took the initiative to educate themselves then committed time and personal energy to educate others. They taught children, food handlers, and the medical profession. They convinced young parents to teach their own kids about it. As a result we have almost eradicated dreaded diseases like small pox and polio in our society and I’m sure we smell a lot better.
Now we’re dealing with different kinds of “germs,” but the social challenge is the same: convincing people that there’s a better way that’s worth figuring out and adopting. With all our technology we ought to be able to at least match the success of our forefathers and mothers in cleaning up our act.


  1. Thank you for this Troy. It makes so much sense, but so difficult to achieve on a broad scale. I'm going to try and just heed your good words in my own life with my husband and daughter and sisters and brother and friends. Not always easy!!!

    You are such a treasure.


  2. This is a great analogy. Doing my small part in "washing up" might clear a space for someone else.

    Very best,

    Judy, in Maine