To bathe, or not to bathe?

The Sunday school class I teach each week is a curious, entertaining, and often enlightening affair, for me as well as (hopefully) for the seven or eight mostly middle school students who attend it on a regular basis. Long ago, I abandoned “curriculum” or even planned lessons in favor of an open, rambling, tangential discussion of whatever happens to be of interest to us at the moment. 60% of the time I’m able to channel/relate the discussion to something with redeeming spiritual or social value, and the remaining 40% of the time, I chock up to building relationships and a safe forum for discussion.

A few weeks ago, the topic of bathing habits came up (I have no idea what led to that point). One of the boys in the class volunteered the fact that he only bathes once every three days, whereupon several of the other kids (especially the girls) chimed in with a chorus of “ewwww!” and “gross!”, etc. I instantly jumped into protector-of-young-boy’s-ego-and-self-esteem mode, which led me to a critique of our American hyper-obsessive antibacterialism and almost complete disregard for water and environmental conservation. Daily showers, for example, are mostly a one-country rarity not shared by the rest of the world.

What most of the kids in the class also didn’t know was that the boy who made the comment is a leukemia survivor and an only child — a combination that has (rightfully) made his parents very educated and conscious of his diet and anything health related (that and the fact that his mother immigrated here from Eastern Europe). They have doubtless discovered much of the medical research that links allergies and a variety of other immuno-deficiencies to our suburban germ-phobia. Farm children don’t get allergies. In fact, they rarely get sick at all.

The problem with all of this becomes one of practicing what I preach. Was I merely defending a child under attack, or do I really believe what I was saying? I would like to think of myself as an advocate for the diligent care of God’s creation. I certainly owe no allegiance to mass-produced, commercially-driven American culture. And yet, for the entirety of my adult life, I have taken a shower every day.

My opportunity came quickly — on our trip to NJ the next week, we stayed with friends who were in the process of remodeling their one bathroom (beautiful small house built in the 1930s). The shower was useable, but still not quite finished, so I decided to put myself to the test: instead of a shower, I used a washcloth, warm water from the sink, and soap to do the job.

Surprisingly, the world didn’t come crashing down. No one even seemed to notice or care. People didn’t shrink away from me in revulsion. Later on our trip, when we stayed with Grady Walker, I used the bathtub upstairs instead of the shower downstairs, and took a bath (which uses much less water than a shower).

So far, these are all just short, timid forays into a “new philosophy of bathing.” The only thing I’ve committed to on a regular basis is washing my hair with shampoo every third shower. It all reminds me of when I first started to embrace the open-source movement. I tried jumping in feet first, abandoning Microsoft and all proprietary software in one fell swoop, but ended up retreating, frustrated each time. Eventually, it was baby-steps that worked — replacing one program at a time. Perhaps this is the direction I’m headed with personal hygiene. I’ve bought into a philosophy; may the rest come along steadily and surely, in good time.

As an epilogue, one of the students in my Sunday school class took my words to heart, and began evangelizing his family. His mother was less than enthusiastic, but happy that her son was standing for something. When I next saw him, we had a talk about how this wasn’t just a way to get out of taking a bath, or abandoning personal hygiene altogether. I shared with him the idea that often, doing the “right” thing for the “right” reasons is even harder and more time-consuming than the convenience of the way “everyone else is doing it,” but more rewarding in deeper, meaningful ways. For his sake and mine, I hope I’m right.

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