Hand-Washing in the Search for Absolution

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

One of the many things that set humans apart from the rest animal kingdom is the novel ways our minds have evolved to utilizing those old primitive connections and layers in new ways and develop more and more complex societies and cultures. One such fascinating example is the connection between cleanliness and morality purity.

The word clean can be defined as both “free from dirt marks or stains” and “morally uncontaminated; pure; innocent” and multiple studies have found that humans associate both quite literally in the mind.

When we smell or taste food that may have gone bad or rancid, an intense physical reaction follows automatically. We back away quickly, we gag, we wrinkle up our faces; we rinse our mouths out, all of this is to protect us. The same happens when we touch or believe we have come into contact with a contaminate or contagion. We gag, wrinkle our faces, and wash our bodies, but have you ever noticed the same holds true for our encounters with ideas or people we deem immoral or shameful both from without and within.

It’s true. Study after study shows that morally disgusting ideas activate the same regions of the brain as an encounter with an object that is distasteful to any of our physical senses. The phenomenon is so well understood it has a name, “The Macbeth Effect” after the character Lady Macbeth in the Shakespear play Macbeth who obsessively tries to wash imaginary bloodstains from her hands after committing murder.

Cleaning can also calm the mind and rid of us a myriad of bad feelings. If you are feeling anxious or afraid, avoidant or even angry, you may feel the need to clean your house, organize the closets, or fold the laundry. When you lie you may want to brush your teeth and when you commit a crime or other immoral act, you feel the urge to wash the shame from your hands.

“When you’re too religious, you tend to point your finger to judge instead of extending your hand to help.”

― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

This act of washing can leave us with the feeling of achieving a clean moral slate without having to admit our guilt or make amends for our crime. It can also reduce our selflessness. One study conducted by Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist from Northwestern University found that after “recalling an unethical deed of the past reduced the motivation to volunteer, thus indicating that hand washing already restored a suitable moral self-image and, hence, reduced the desire to compensate the unethical deed by voluntary help”. If you already consider yourself morally pure yourself, then there is nothing to pay penance for, nothing left that you owe the world.

Cleansing rituals are common in many religions. Who has not heard the phrase “cleanliness is next to Godliness”? A person must be baptized to “wash away their sins”. A person of the Muslim faith must wash themselves before they can pray. Women are barred from entering temples while menstruating as they are considered “unclean”. Orthodox Judaism forbids even touching a woman who is menstruating, you cannot even touch items she has touched without sullying yourself.

These metaphors between what is considered clean and who is considered good can become so intertwined that people can soon come to look the same as contaminates and contagions and illicit the same visceral disgust and the urge to purify. It’s a red flag when we begin seeing the two interchangeably. When you hear leaders and politicians referring to the problems of the world ills, associating people to bugs, vermin, and disease that infect, the solutions, the way to bring us closer to morality, to purity, is always to begin “cleansing” the nation and the race.

We all carry our little prejudices and biases deep inside but be careful and especially aware whenever you feel fear, aversion, or disgust for another human or group. Examine your motivations whenever the urge to purge yourself of these “vermin” begins to seep into your political opinion.

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!… What, will these hands ne’er be clean?”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

So the mind has found a way to make us moral and good by making sure that both are the same as feeling as being clean, pure, or safe, but what do we do when the stains won’t wash out? What do we do when we always feel wrong and dirty?

Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can wreak havoc on a person’s personal hygiene habits at both ends of the spectrum. For most people, OCD or obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the first we associate with the connection. The pop-culture understanding of the disorder brings to mind organization and sanitation, but often the compulsive hand washing (just one of many manifestations) is about much more than cleanliness. The obsessive washing can be an attempt to relieve or prevent anxiety or fear.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly resulting from sexual assault, and other forms of anxiety can trigger excessive washing as well to reduce tension and re-establish feelings of cleanliness and safety.

There are just as many people who struggle with these and other types of mental illness and fall on the other end of the spectrum where they struggle to take care of their basic hygienic needs instead. Many report the reason to be fatigue or a simple lack of motivation, but with moral judgment and cleanliness so closely equated in our minds, might part of the reason be connected to the same equation? Might the same mental illnesses or distresses that make us want to wash be just as likely to make us crave the opposite?

Often, after a traumatic experience or stressful or painful situation, we can be left feeling soiled. We might even feel that is us who are the source of moral impurity and a lack of personal hygiene could be a way to validate the way we feel about ourselves inside.

If a person’s feelings of being inherently immoral, bad, disgusting, dirty, and even infectious, become too big, and it seems there is no amount of soap or water in Neptune’s ocean to make you clean again perhaps it might feel better to finally cease scrubbing at it and accept the stains as immutable reality. The dirt, the smell, the disgust, can also be a sign of what a person feels they deserve or a signal to others to keep away by provoking that visceral response of revulsion.

“There are surely limits to the absolution afforded by a bar of soap.”

— Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist

Humans, it appears, can associate too closely our personal judgments about what is clean and healthy physically and what is clean and good morally or socially on both sides of the coin. We can obsessively try to scrub away our own moral failings and shame, and we can cruelly try to purge others we deem different and therefore disgusting. We can interchange one for the other thinking a hand placed on someone “unclean” damns us and the simple act of hand-washing can absolve us of our sins. We can let that association go too far into and decide that what is unclean can never be made pure again and what is dirty is now contagious and must be eradicated, even if what is unclean is us.

There are limits to what soap and water, or the lack thereof, can do, and at some point, we have to move past metaphor to reality. People are not disgusting, they are not vermin, or bugs, or parasites, nothing a person is and nothing that a person has been through can be infectious and no one can be saved or made pure by the extermination of another. This applies not just to those others we would judge of lower moral caliber, but to ourselves as well.

You cannot simply or so easily wash your hands or your past or of who you are and no matter how soiled you feel or unpalatable you make yourself you cannot alter the most basic truth. The two are not equal and your hands can always be clean and you can always be pure, and good, and innocent, and righteous again and no amount of soap or water is required.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 6: Hand

Photo by Amaury Salas on Unsplash

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