Any chance I had of maintaining American standards of hygiene were destroyed in the first living arrangement I occupied in South Asia. At first, I shuddered when I watched my South Asian family cut up the raw chicken for the chicken curry and then turn – same knife, no rinsing – to chop the fresh vegetables for the raw salad that would accompany dinner.
Slowly, though, when I didn’t develop salmonella from shared-knife chopping, nor from the eggs and milk that were kept out and never refrigerated, my standards began slipping. Soon I was eating street food that was less-than-sanitary and forgetting to wash my hands before plunging them into a big plate of rice and lentils.
I’m only reminded of how weird I’ve become when I hang out with foreigners new to South Asia. I’m disconcerted by their mixed glances of pity and horror when I turn down their offered hand-sanitizer. I try not to make my astonishment and amusement too evident when newcomers wipe down our table in a restaurant with sanitizer. I’m never quite sure what to say when they ask me, “Is it clean?”
The interesting thing I’ve observed about these cleanliness-conscious newcomers is that at the highest peak of their attachment to hand-sanitizer, they reach a low of complaint. It’s too hot/crowded/noisy. Everything goes wrong/nothing goes right. Everything was better in [fill-in-blank-with-home-country-or-previous-overseas-stop]. Nothing in South Asia is worthy of praise or respect. They grow testy with each other and irritated with local people.
As I watch the phenomenon in them, I cannot deny a similar phenomenon in myself. I focus on exercise, on using the right skin-care products, on getting enough sleep, on choosing the right outfit. I try to be more productive/work harder/work smarter in order to get where I want to be. I watch what I eat and research how to eat a balanced diet. Meanwhile, I let my mouth run rampant – either in complaint or boast. Often both.
Jesus said that it’s not what goes into your mouth, but what comes out of it that makes you unclean. For all of the care you take when you travel to drink the right water and avoid the wrong foods – ultimately (if your concern is cleanliness) your focus is on the wrong thing. I wonder how our speech would be different if we took even half the care with what we say that we take with what we put into our bodies.
James said that no matter how big and successful your life gets, it is still controlled by the amazingly small tongue. Like a large ship turns with a rudder or a forest burns with a small spark – so too the intricate web you define as “your life” is driven by your words. The tongue, he said, “sets the whole course of [a person’s] life on fire” (James 3:6)
It’s easier to scrub down with sanitizer than to curb my complaining tongue. It’s simpler to enact a routine of productive work and restorative rest than to harness the words that fall from my lips. It’s much more intuitive to read a book on success than to ensure my mouth is steering me in the direction my life should take.
But in the end, maybe what’s easier, simpler, and even intuitive isn’t what’s actually true.