The Sensory Boundary

At the start of Chapter 5 of Unclean I lead off with this quote from Mary Douglas:
St. Catherine of Sienna, when she felt revulsion from the wounds that she was tending bitterly reproached herself. Sound hygiene was incompatible with charity, so she deliberately drank a bowl of puss.
I don't know about you, but that's pretty damn disgusting. But the bit that caught my attention in the quote was the phrase "sound hygiene was incompatible with charity."

The "uncleanliness" I mainly talk about in Unclean is moral. "Sound hygiene" in this sense is moral purity, spiritual righteousness.

But there is also the more literal, concrete and bodily forms of uncleanliness and hygiene. Instead of sins there is body odor. Instead of a "moral stain" there are tobacco stains on teeth or grimy stains on clothing.

What I'm speaking to here is less the moral boundary between saints and sinners than the sensory boundary between the rich and poor.

George Orwell, in his book The Road to Wigan Pier, has a powerful meditation on the sensory boundary. In this passage he concludes that "the real secret of class distinctions," the "impassable barrier" between us, can be "summed up in four frightful words":

"The lower classes smell."

Orwell writes:
...Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West--the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.

That was what we were taught--the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race-hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot. You can have an affection for a murderer...but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks--habitually stinks, I mean. However well you may wish him, however much you may admire his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your heart of hearts you will hate him.
When you welcome people from the margins you are going to have to cross a sensory boundary. There will be odors left on your person, in your house, in your car. You will enter places and encounter bodies where "sound hygiene" becomes thrown up against love and charity. So as with St. Catherine there will need to be a moment of self-overcoming, the disciplining of our senses so that we can become people of welcome and embrace.

Everyone will have different sensory triggers. For me it's a particular smell that pushes me to the edge. The best way I can describe this smell is a combination of feces and cigarette smoke. That particular smell, common where I'm choosing to be, is my sensory boundary.

That smell is a liminal space, a moral threshold where I, like St. Catherine, must make an intentional choice to move forward rather than backward.

The fate of my soul, my entire Christian walk, hangs in the balance at that threshold.

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14 thoughts on “The Sensory Boundary”

  1. That is great. One thing to add: I think we need to cultivate the capacity to cross that threshold again and again, faithfully, in love. Maybe fear or pride can get you over it a few times, and that might even be helpful, like throwing someone in a pool. But ultimately, if that crossing is consistently driven by fear, pride or some motivation other than love, it corrupts the crossing itself and turns it into something else. I think this crossing is the consummate act of Christian faith: it embodies the trust that we will find God in practically loving the poor, even if it seems unlikely, even if it doesn't quickly seem obvious that we are finding God there. If you are not willing to cross this boundary, again and again, more and more, then you simply don't have this faith. A lot of people who think they have Christian faith, or who have only the tiniest sliver of it, should be disabused of the notion that they have it. Overweening confidence in our own faithfulness, or even worse, the belief that faith is the lack of doubt or the refusal to question of something, is one of the great diseases in a lot of our churches. I think that real faith, like the kind in this post, is an essential antidote.

  2. Thank you.  My husband works daily in the midst of this and I struggle so.  It is so difficult to navigate.  I call it his superpower, to be able to be in such close quarters and yet so kind and helpful.  I am regularly grabbed by the impulse to whine and whinge when our car is messy, or smelly or damaged.  Even toleration is so un-Christlike, and sometimes that is all I seem able to muster.  I will seek to push my sensory boundaries for the sake of my soul.

  3. So we cross our own sensory boundary in order to engage 'the other,' to love them. Is it then "wrong" to introduce hygiene into the situation, even from a health point of view?
    On another note, I'm thinking again of my time taking care of my mom when she was (slowly) dying. We both had a goal of keeping her physically clean as best as we could. It was a struggle towards the end as her body weakened and her mobility declined, but we still attempted to keep a daily routine of hair combing, teeth brushing, face washing, etc. I remember vividly the last time I was able to give her a full shower and knowing that that would be the last one.... Looking back and reflecting on my time with my mom, I think what was going on in my thoughts was the idea that cleanliness equals dignity and respect - my way of showing "filial piety," (I spent some time in China), and somehow maintaining this daily routine/standard helped ME through the anguish of seeing my mom die (and I trust it help HER experience love). I'm not regretting any of this now, but, in light of what you've covered in Unclean, I'm wondering how much of my thought processes aren't more culturally driven?

  4. FWIW, it makes me think of dressing the wounds of Christ, or the care that Catholics show for the Eucharist. The point I take from this isn't that we should revel in filth. I think it is more like: you can't clean someone up unless you are willing to get your hands dirty. So get used to getting your hands dirty. It is the only way to get clean.

  5. This rings true big time.  Interesting that our olfactory system has evolved primarily to enable us to evade things that are dangerous, poisonous, and pathogenic to that Paul's "mortifying the flesh" might be thought to include exactly the boundary-crossing that you're describing here.  That very odor that serves as your threshold is incredibly potent; two minutes inside such a house yesterday dropping off some cookies, our middle son came back to the car and was exuding it from every thread of his clothes.  And yet...

  6. "Everyone
    will have different sensory triggers. For me it's a particular smell
    that pushes me to the edge. The best way I can describe this smell is a
    combination of feces and cigarette smoke. That particular smell, common
    where I'm choosing to be, is my sensory boundary."

    That's exactly the rank odor I had in mind when reading your post today.

    It's hard for me to forgive that smell, Richard. It's the smell of a flunked-out hick, generally in terrible physical condition, that has an extremely "dirty job", and doesn't bother to clean up after it. It offends me. Anybody with a place to live has access to bathing, so it's with great difficulty that I get past that awful smell; it's easily remedied, and it brings great misery of everyone around the person.

  7. Loved, loved, loved this post! Not only are these boundaries found among the classess, but also among the wounded of all classes. As a hospital chaplain I daily encounter these boundaries, because our bodies, when sick, naked, unbathed and wounded, often stink. The choice to remain present in the presence of vomit, blood, shit, and many other disgusting sights, sounds, and odors is indeed a comittment to move forward and I find the fate of my soul, my entire Christian walk, hangs in the balance at those moments too. While I can't explain it, I've noticed that as I cultivate greater compassion, I seem to become more immune to a smell, sight, or sound, and only see the wounded person in need of pastoral care, love and attention.

  8. So true. I think my sensory boundaries would include even the slightest hint of mildew. And though I have never taken the time to think about it, I think these sensory boundaries have kept me from putting my actions where my words are. Charity above sound hygiene. I can get on board with that.

  9. perhaps on a somewhat related note, my unscientific personal observation is, you can take the most squeemish woman, make her a mom for a year or so, and much of that squeemishness, at least re: her own child, goes away.  eg, that same squeemish woman can be sitting the fanciest restaurant eating chocolate mousse, and talking about a poopie diaper blowout, without batting an eye. 

    but i'd be curious if anyone had studied this scientifically to see whether my hunch is true.  not sure if that lack of squeemishness translates onto other people also. 

  10. an example of overcoming this sensory boundary, from a young lady, Maggie Doyne, just 25, who's founded an orphanage and school in nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world:
    found a little boy completely unconscious on the road yesterday and
    carried him to the hospital. When I got to the emergency room, the
    filthiest room I’ve ever seen in my life, there was no doctor and there
    were 10 idiot nurses/students who stared at me and didn’t even take the
    child from my arms. [....]
    boy is okay now and I’ll be trying to contact a school in Nepal Ganj
    for mentally disabled children as soon as I get word that they’ll accept
    him. Yesterday I gave him the first bath he’s probably had in a year.
    He had thousands of lice. His body was filled staph infections, scabies,
    open wounds, and bruises. He’s been sleeping in his own excrement,
    eating and drinking from the open sewer.

    and one of the rewards:
    I love to watch the children
    transform as they come into our home. They all come filthy, with nothing
    but the clothes on their back. Their hair and body are strewn with
    lice, scabies, boils. They usually have some form of illness. It takes
    me an hour to bathe them to get the dirt off. Their physical appearances
    change instantly. But something deeper happens too. Their faces change.
    Their eyes change. Their entire little being changes, sometimes within
    minutes. There’s this moment, I’ve noticed in all of them. There’s a
    moment where they suddenly let go of all their fear. It’s a moment of
    acceptance. They feel safe. Sometimes with a smile, a giggle, a deep
    sigh. I don’t know how to explain this in words. But from this moment,
    from this split second, they begin to transform.
    Bindu has spent the past 5 years of her life living and
    begging at the local bus station. She’s actually pretty famous around
    here. Yesterday we went out to the market and at least 10 people stopped
    me and asked, “hey isn’t that the girl from the bus station?”

    Welcome to your new home!!! We’re happy to see you smiling.

    for the inspiring story of the young lady doing this, you can read:
    or watch the 3 min video:

  11. I like Dan Heck's comment about "embodying"; I think this is an excellent post exactly because faith, like grace and love, must be embodied. We are embodied. I am becoming more aware that in all learning, anything that is not acted upon is not actually learned: a language must be spoken, a math technique must be applied to solving problems, bicycles must be ridden. Too often our theological concepts remain just that, but this post gives a very clear example of a situation where faith-practisers have the opportunity to diverge from our natural, reason-based inclinations.

  12. Thanks for sharing this, sgl! I work with college students and currently have several who are "bored" and frustrated with "just taking classes." I've been trying to get them to just dig in their heels and get through school, and then they can go out and "see/change the world." But it's never a "one package fits all," us it? I'm going to share this story with a few of them with the hope of inspiring them. A little off the subject here, but that's OK! :)

  13. Yep, I have the ickiness boundary, too. I find it's not just class, but some part psychological (paging Dr. Freud), some discomfort with my own creatureliness. Having kids helps at least in confronting some of the immediate aspects, but spiritually? I have found that is where Ash Wednesday really comes to play. No matter my revulsion, the ashes name me as neighbor while summoning me to repent, because after all, most of the time I am not a neighbor at all. Last Friday's reflections on humility also come to mind here, particularly those last steps of renunciation of the self and our own narratives.

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