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No Accounting for Taste – 9/22/2013

Lima beans. Haggis – the Scottish specialty of organ meat, oatmeal, and suet, encased in a sheep’s stomach. Animals with more than four arms and legs. Used Band-Aids. The word ‘moist’. Mud spattered onto clean, white shoes. The sound of nails on a chalkboard. The smell of old milk. Anchovies and ice cream.

I know what you’re thinking: yuck. At least, the chances are good that you are. I can’t be certain, because there’s no accounting for taste, but in all likelihood, we each found something in that list makes our skin crawl just from thinking about it. Some sight or taste or smell or sound or idea that makes you pull back out of instinct, that makes you say, “Yuck!” – that disgusts you. It is not a pleasant feeling; by definition it’s the sort of feeling you want to avoid or get away from as quickly as possible. But I want you to have that example, or one of your own, in mind as we talk this morning. You don’t have to focus on it, but keep it handy.

Some time ago, I preached four sermons on what I think of as the most basic set of human emotions: Sorrow, Fear, Anger, and Joy. In each of those addresses, I looked at how one particular wavelength of our emotional lives connects to our spiritual lives. I offered my sense of the place of each feeling in a life grounded in the values of love and reason that our faith calls us to. But, it may not surprise you to hear that there is no great agreement about exactly how many emotions there are, basic or otherwise. There are a number of competing theories and schemes, from those who think about this professionally. One of the more influential comes from Prof. Robert Plutchik, who sees all human feelings as being composed of eight primary emotions. Four of these are the four I have already covered on previous Sundays, so today and for the rest of the fall I will be working through the remaining four. As you might have guessed from the opening list of offensive foods and smells, today’s emotion is disgust.

Disgust has to be learned. As infants, we don’t have any natural aversions to stop us from putting anything and everything we can grab in our mouths. But over time, we pick up on what sorts of things are kept away or taken away from us, and those that we see others being repulsed by. I’ve observed this in my own son, recently, as he has learned to hold his nose around bad smells – not so much because he is offended by them, but because he can see that someone else is. Disgust repulses us away from things that are, well, the best single word for them is ‘icky’. Often these are things that could be dangerous to us: rotten food, blood, potentially poisonous animals. Our disgust can serve a purpose, the reason for which it is thought to have developed in both humans and other animals: to keep us safe.

Many of the most universally disgusting things are associated with death and decay, such as worms and flies and the breaking down of once living things into soil. There is an obvious evolutionary logic to this – everything that dies dies for a reason – but it carries other consequences. Human beings, and particularly human beings here in North America, have an aversion to death and everything to do with it. This is usually explained as coming from a fear of death, and fear is certainly a major factor in it, but there is also a quality of disgust with death and dying. People near the end of life get secluded in hospitals and nursing homes; evidence of dying, a universal human experience, is plastered over and hidden away. But like any other feeling, that repulsion is not insurmountable.

I’ve been a witness to children accompanying their dying parents. Perhaps for some, the aversion was never there, and the tubes and beeping machines, all the smells and fluids of a body past the illusion of health – these made them feel no repulsion or disgust. But I suspect that more often, the feeling was there, but it was conquered. Love, compassion, and loyalty won out over it. This summer, the journalist Scott Simon used Twitter to broadcast intimate moments from his mother’s final days.[i] It was a rare glimpse into the process of dying, and his tweets included a few items that might have been considered icky, such as his mother’s tremendous pleasure in having her teeth flossed as she lay in bed. But the picture they painted showed the will not to look away from when something when the buried impulses of our lizard brain cry out to do so: to continue on because the higher virtues of the heart demand it.

Another common trigger for disgust comes when something looks human, but with some sort of imperfection or not-quite-rightness. This problem is sometimes called the Uncanny Valley. We humans generally find things that look like us to be engaging and sympathetic; animals with big eyes and expressive faces are considered cuter, for instance, and we’re less likely to eat them. People tend to be drawn in more by a picture or a cartoon if it has a human-ish face, and the folks who build robots that are meant to interact with people take this into account. But when the features or the movement is just a little bit ‘off’, the same faces create just the opposite reaction. Very realistic animated movies, that still aren’t quite realistic enough, have been wrestling with this problem for some time: try to get too close to perfectly human, and viewers just find it disturbing.

This also the form of disgust that makes living with a visible physical disability particularly hard. There are a set of expectations about how other people are supposed to look, that most of us carry around: two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth, two arms, hands, legs and feet and a standard of symmetry and common proportions. Not all bodies match those expectations, however. This can mean stares, shrieks, and alienation for people who have lost limbs or suffered other major injuries, or who have conditions that make their body or particularly their face appear other than ‘normal’. The reactions of disgust from strangers and other people can isolate them, rob them of so many of the possibilities of life, and challenge their own sense of self-worth. We learn how to be disgusted and what ought to disgust us from other people, and so it is possible to learn to be disgusted even with yourself.

But it is also possible to learn to replace that feeling with pride, towards oneself, or with acceptance and appropriate interest towards others. Early last year, R.J. Palacio published a young reader’s novel about a boy named Auggie Pullman who has Treacher-Collins syndrome. Treacher-Collins is a congenital disorder, one of the consequences of which is irregular formation of the face and head. In the novel, Auggie is a 5th grader with an inquisitive mind who enjoys video games and other perfectly normal things for a 10-year old boy. And because his face does not look the way others expect a face to look, he lives a world that sometimes ignores or flees from him, but rarely tries to understand him. The book is about the challenges he encounters, the friends he makes, the lessons he teaches and learns.

R.J. Palacio has no disabilities similar to Auggie’s, nor does anyone in her family. But she felt moved to write a story about such a character after she took her young son to get some ice cream. There was another child in the same shop who had a facial deformity. Her son cried at seeing the other child, and Palacio immediately took him away. She was trying to protect that other child, but she was also running away from her son’s discomfort and her own: acting on the repulsion rather than confronting it. Later, too late to make the same choice over again, she began writing – a way of rejecting disgust and avoidance in favor of positive action.

The feeling of disgust can be both necessary and destructive. Nowhere is that more the case than in our moral disgust. Certain things are wrong enough – certain crimes, certain actions – that people and societies find them to be repulsive. There is a natural aversion to murder built into us, for instance, built in the same way as we once learned not to eat everything we could possibly grasp and place in our mouths. But that same learned repulsion, the same trained disgust, built by the judgments of the people around us and the messages of the larger culture we share, can also be pointed elsewhere. Take, for example, all of those voices quoting Leviticus 18:22, teaching their children to hate gay people, teaching gay people to hate themselves. Such cultural training is not all-powerful, but it is powerful. You can’t wait around for it to just go away – it has to be confronted.

An obsession with purity, a training of disgust, is a common failing of religions both ancient and modern. Used carefully, it trains us to know innately that some wrong action is to be avoided, but when it overgrows, it begins to foster and cement injustice. Two thousand years ago, the religion of Jerusalem’s Second Temple had reached such a point; its standard of holiness served to alienate and exclude people. Rather than standing against iniquity, it was requiring it. Many different voices sought to reform their tradition. One of these voices belonged to the teacher Jesus. In his era, lepers – people afflicted with a wasting disease – were considered unclean and disgusting, relegated to the margins of society. In the accounts given in the Gospels, Jesus does not hesitate to visit such people, nor to keep the company of sex workers, another stigmatized group. In this way he was not confined by the prejudices of his society, either because he was immune to them, or because he was willing to confront their traces within himself.

Of these two, I prefer the latter, because it offers an example of overcoming a feeling at odds with the spirit of compassion and love.

Rather than simply arriving perfect and remaining eternally pure, we each develop throughout our lives, absorbing traits, ideas, and impulses from the people closest to us, and from the religions and societies that shape us. To expect that we will never be disgusted by anything is unreasonable, and even undesirable: the feeling helps us know when something is a threat to our physical and moral wellbeing. Henry David Thoreau wrote in the first pages of his famous Walden about the great overabundance of furniture in his home, and how acquiring and caring for these pieces distracted him from acquiring new ideas and caring for his own mind and spirit. The feeling this created in him led him to toss some of his too much stuff out the window one day. This disgust with material obsessions helped to drive him out into the woods, to live deliberately in his famous cabin.

In the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah, the author describes the expectations of justice – what is required of every human being. “To unlock the fetters of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free and to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to hide yourself.”[ii] Disgust and repulsion make us want to turn away – to do our best not to see or hear or smell the offending thing, and to try to get rid of it if it can’t be avoided. But when we refuse to hide ourselves, when we confront that primal impulse, we can test it. We can determine whether it is protecting us from something truly dangerous, or pushing us away from someone, or something that we need, or that needs us.

We live in an era when it is deemed acceptable for our leaders in business and government to declare their disgust for the poor. When members of congress feel no fear to declare their contempt for those at the mercy

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of our fraying social safety net, and to cloak that feeling in the trappings of religion. Our congregation has chosen to answer that failing in our culture by opening our congregational home to those in need of shelter and food. Through our weekly free supper program, and by offering our building as a temporary shelter to homeless families – a program that resumes tonight – we live out our determination to confront whatever traces of judgment or contempt we might find in ourselves and replace them with the human interest and respect that should exist between all people.


[ii] Isaiah 58:6-7


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