What has caused allergies to soar over the past century?
A recent New York Times piece suggests that Amish farmers may represent the answer; they have one of the least allergic populations in the developed world. Studies indicate that is because they breathe barnyard bacteria, live with dirty fingernails, work in the “liquid gold” of fresh cow manure, and drink unpasteurized milk.
Furthermore, according to the “hygiene hypothesis,” the fact that we live in sanitized and airtight environments means that our immune system no longer fights germs as it once did. Being “underemployed,” it has apparently shifted its resources over to picking fights with innocent bystanders – like dust, pollen, or pet dander.
I wonder if that could also explain cultural or spiritual “allergies.” Something sure seems to make people fight fairly harmless stuff in the environment. Like the names of sports teams. Or the President’s golfing frequency.
In a parallel to the evolution of hygiene, most people throughout history lived in great danger, worked very hard, and fought harsh and tangible enemies – like droughts, volcanoes, plagues, Huns, etc. Naturally, you just wouldn’t attack your neighbor’s religion while helping him save his cattle in a blizzard.
Now we live in extraordinary safety and sanitation, “work” at computer screens, and “fight” concepts.
That could be why, for several years, I’ve felt like a pig at the opera; I see and hear the production, but I don’t understand anything. For example, I can’t comprehend the anger and militancy on any side of social, economic, political, or religious issues. They all seem like allergens. I know the arguments. What I don’t get is the polarization and animosity. It’s seems as illogical as going into seizures when a cat enters the room.
I often think of Maple and Cecile Chinn, my grandparents. Born at the end of the 19th century, they were farmers for most of the 20th. They rode out the Great Depression, helplessly watched their infant daughter die of pneumonia, suffered devastating losses of livestock and crops, and sent three sons halfway around the world to face very real enemies.
Sometimes when I struggle and groan at my computer, navigate airports, or fight with tech support on the phone, I suddenly feel like they are watching me. And they have zero idea what I’m doing or why I’m so troubled. Then I realize that they endured the Depression; I endure airport security. They lost a child; I lose cellphone signals.
That’s why I wonder if our spiritual immune system may be misreading harmless allergens as threats. It certainly seems like modern life keeps everyone tense, offended, and quick to fight. We are on full alert – too many news broadcasts begin with a BREAKING NEWS banner over ominous end-of-the-world music. I sometimes think we watch the screens of our lives for instructions on what to fear and who to hate.
Today we tend to live in sterilized, protected, and homogenous clusters of ideas, values, heroes, and enemies. We do not engage cultural or spiritual “bacteria,” and we seem unable to climb into another person’s or people’s story. We are – I am – curiously incurious.
Many years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote, “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
We could all spend the rest of our lives contemplating (hopefully with friends) the depth and breadth of those words.
Perhaps it is coincidental that Paul lived and wrote in a raw and raucous time. He walked roads of mud and manure, spent a lot of time in prison, was often and severely beaten, suffered shipwrecks, and faced many life-threatening opponents. He certainly did not live in philosophical or cultural sterility. His writing reveals an eager and curious mind.
Maybe he was so busy with real life that he had no time for spiritual allergies.
 Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “A Cure for the Allergy Epidemic?” New York Times (November 9, 2013)